Trade Paper, 256 pages, $12.95
Review by Sheila Merritt
Last Days by Brian Evenson recently won the American Library Association award for Best Horror Novel. Is this story about the dismembered members of a cult of amputees indeed a cut above the rest? No matter how you slice it, this bleaker and blacker twist on noir winds and wounds its way into terrors that penetrate deeply. It chips and chops into the reader’s head; insidiously carving itself a hallowed place in edgy horror fiction.
Kline, the novel’s protagonist, is a detective who is recovering from a self inflicted amputation of his hand. He becomes the object of awe to a group of mutilating fanatics. It isn’t merely the removal of his hand that fascinates the wackos; Kline also cauterized the stump in another agonizing act. With pain, there’s gain in this horrific hierarchy of less is more. Initially contracted to ostensibly solve a crime for the bizarre butchers, the sleuth finds himself embroiled in a repulsive rivalry. The demented denomination has an off shoot which is just as insane and deadly; despite trying to deliver the impression of being more rational and temperate.
Torn and tormented about what will happen next, Kline feels his humanity slipping away from him. After gunning down several people, he shifts to a mode of execution more in keeping with his character and that of those around him. Gashing and lacerating his way to introspection, he ponders: “How do you know the moment when you cease to be human? Is it the moment when you decide to carry a head before you by its hair, extended before you like a lantern, as if you are Diogenes in search of one just man? Or is it the moment, where reality, previously a smooth surface one slides one’s way along, begins to come in waves, for a moment altogether too much and then utterly absent?”
This pensive meditation is one of the many positives in Last Days. There are also chilling hospital scenes, where attending nurses are nightmarish. The caustic, clever dialogue is sharp and pointed. Yet for all the excruciating extreme elements in the novel, the author also grazes the sensitivity under the skin. When Kline brings down his cleaver, he understands: “And this, indeed, was the most terrible thing of all: each blow he sunk into an arm or a leg or a chest or a head – each of these blows in any case he could remember – he had felt going into his own body as well.”
Last Days stabs away at severe sanctimonious stances, and pierces pious posturing. Brian Everson dissects and dices the conventional detective story devices. He takes Kline down meaner streets than any traditional gumshoe has ever walked; with a few toes missing. Peter Straub provides the book’s insightful introduction, which sets the scene for the agonizing acts to come. This novel is an exemplary exercise in the harrowing and horrific. It is memorable for its dismemberings and tough to sever from the psyche.