(since Plot's fuse burns brightest on this one, I should warn with a pesky SPOILERS banner)
Written before Last Days, this run-screaming adventure has the same driving intensity, just not quite the polish. It is, however, the camping trip from Hades, even though author Nevill seems a little shaky on the experience of cold country bivouacking. And anyway, what would motivate Londoners to spend 3-4 days in the upper regions of Sweden's primal, virgin forest, this "dark and choking nowhere"(p.18)? Especially after seeing a good-sized animal eviscerated and strung up in the trees as introduction to the "rotten and lightless" forest that "just kind of swallowed us and there was no going back the way we came in"(p.50-1). Besides, it's raining/sleeting the whole time. If you're lookin' for a good-time for a 15-year reunion with old college buddies, head back to the pub, mate.
But step over that cow pie in the trail. The ensuing Hike Thru Hell is at least worth an admission ticket.
The fascination here is the way author Nevill so skillfully pushes you into this all-encompassing world. You pass by all the clues to brood over for successful understanding, yet, like a jigsaw puzzle, it's almost impossible to see the final picture until most of the pieces are in place. This is especially true in Part I, which comprises two-thirds of the read's 417 pages. Part II is another story with the same protagonist but not the same adversarial situation.(1) It's more like trying to get out of Buffalo Bill's basement pit in 1988's The Silence of the Lambs while being held prisoner by members of the band Kiss on some kind of thanatos drug. It shows author Nevill is not afraid to step out of the considered bounds of genre, but at the cost of a broken ankle on the edge of the deus ex machina abyss.
One thing to say about Part II, however. You'll never see it coming, believe me.
Okay, so Hutch and Luke are friends in England who go hiking together. They talk a couple of their buddies from college of 15 years ago to get together for a reunion. They agree on a camping trip into Sweden's northern forest. Only problem is Phil and Dom have led a leisurely, suburban dream life and now they are "married men with children, and a forty-six-inch waist, dressed from head to toe in Officers Club casuals"(p.22). By the first day, Phil's feet are one big blister and Dom has blown out a knee. But they keep going. They see that thing in the tree. They keep going. Raining and getting dark, they stumble onto an abandon house that has bones, feathers, skins and skulls nailed all over the walls. There's an effigy of a goat sitting in a casket upstairs, with "a dead man's hands sown on"(p.40). Next morning, they know they're off trail, so they look for a shortcut through impassable woods. And they keep going. More abandoned buildings, then, a run-down church with a cemetery. Inside, an altar built on a much older altar. Plus bones, paper-looking skin, upside-down crosses. Still, they keep going. When the big unseen thing in the forest shows up, the boys start disappearing one by one—you know, last guy in the trail line kinda thing—and ending bled out up in trees. Luke, our third-person protagonist, survives. Instead of getting chewed, he wakes up tied up in a bed in a room governed by three black metal losers who comprise a band called Blood Frenzy. They have re-named themselves after the gods of Norseland, and consider each other "blasphemously majestic"(p.254), and on "the wild hunt" of "the final gathering"(p.259), a quest for Ragnarok down a path of "moronic sadism"(p.290). It's pretty obvious Luke's gonna get sacrificed to the god-o'-da-woods by these psychopathic neophytes for treats in return. Hence, the title of the book, I guess. There's also a wrinkly, old grandma who owns—more like oversees—the house, or, should I say reliquary. She's not even four feet tall, right out of the Grimm Bros. 19th century's moral visions of terror. This third act tumbles down like dominos, the only surprise is the vast extent in time and space of this pervasive evil.
One thing that gets annoying is that Luke—who is reasonably self-loathing(2) and no newcomer to violence as shown by pounding the shit out of Dom, ah, rather gleefully—gets beat up a lot. Or, more accurately, author Nevill is constantly hovering over hurts that'd put Superman down. A head conking is opened to his skull if not brain matter itself. He's covering rugged terrain with two loaded packs and God knows what else. Plus he's coated in itchy bug bites, hasn't eaten in days, has a closed eye due to trauma. He gets stabbed in the chest. He gets stabbed in the leg. His maladies are constantly being logged; his pain and suffering outlined in exquisitely-descriptive prose.
It begins to feel like filler.
My biggest withdraw from the novel, however, is the Part I/Part II consistency break. It is too fortuitous in a genre that relys on leaps of faith to succeed. An inconvenient break, I'm afraid. Yeah, I know, author Nevill tries to smooth out the wrinkles with a rolling pin he calls Fate, like "out here was predetermined"(p.392). Even tosses out that "they had woken it", and that god-o'-da-woods mind melded all the players to come to him. "The terrible will of this place demanded the renewal of old rites . . . It wanted to be remembered, and honoured. As all Gods do"(p.348).
I like that Luke ends up all "fear and big white eyes inside a suit of dirty skin"(p.410), and goes away in redemption and with inspiration. And Moder, that thing of "hideous intent"(p.411); whatever it is is still out there, recovering.
1) This is kinda the rough draft for the abrupt scene-and-personel change of Last Days' finale. While it opens on a new set and adds a fresh character, it does not throw in more enemies between the hero and his original antagonist like The Ritual does.