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Sunday, July 14, 2013

LAST DAYS by Adam Nevill - review by Gary Fry

LAST DAYS by Adam Nevill

A review by Gary Fry

I came to this book excited. Folk whose opinions I respect said it was the real deal. I’d not long since finished the author’s Ritual and loved that. So what could Adam do here, I wondered. I got stuck in to find out.

I won’t bore you with a recap of the plot; I’ll just get talking about things that struck me most about the book. First, the atmosphere: it’s pretty full-on right from the off. Dusky old buildings in the middle of nowhere, weird things appearing in the walls, rumours of heinous acts committed in the past… My favourite early set-piece (and I do mean set-piece and not simply scene) was the “hobo” in a London house. Adam controls all this with masterly sleight-of-hand, building to it by allusion rather than simply enacting it “live”; we witness it via after-the-event footage and thus experience its true impact. The same goes for a lot of back-story in the book – for instance, the stories about events during the Last Days, especially one Lovecraftian sequence involving the sky raining bones and other things ascending while a massacre takes place in a farm involving creatures who leave decidedly strange weapon markings… Again, a wonderful set-piece. I also liked the trip to Antwerp to see the revelatory paintings, all suitable eccentric and macabre.

Canny folk who’ve read Last Days may notice a pattern developing here. Yes, it’s true that what I enjoyed most about this book was its off-camera moments, its narrated events, its alluded-to episodes, its imagery left once beasts had visited (e.g. the weird stencils in the walls). I think this is just a personal thing, but I find such literary devices more effective than full-on description of “live” episodes, and there are plenty of those in this book. Nevertheless, Adam’s prose style is muscular enough to render these effective, and he rarely shows too much. I particularly liked – !!!MINOR SPOILER!!! – the entrance into the mansion towards the end, with its hideous ensemble of clothed creatures. Indeed, the end of the book was very satisfying, a real bloodbath to justify all the slow build-up proceeding it.

I think the book’s pace was leisurely and might have benefited from a little paring down in places. My only issue here was that the book resembled, in structure, content and purpose, a Lovecraftian novella, and while a Lovecraftian novella can be read in one sitting, a 500+-page novel needs several (or in my sorry case, about 50, but that’s my problem). This kind of material relies on accumulative impact, a steady escalation of grim detail. Nevertheless, I appreciated the time-leap scene-cuts, where each trip to a different country started in the country and not the airport.

Similarly, I liked all the characters, but wonder whether the same kind of guys are starting to appear in all Adam’s novels. Don’t get me wrong: these are real, flawed, likeable, compelling people, but I’d like to see a little more range in his folk in future, the kind of thing King does so well. Adam is extremely good at both dialogue and internal reasoning, just as King is, and I’d be interested to see whether he can get inside the heads of folk other than thirty-something guys in an economic or existential crisis (I make a swift concession to the female lead of Apartment 16, of course).

The writing is excellent throughout, with some fine usage of language and perfectly honed acerbic descriptions (e.g. the dismissal of the internet on page 443). Adam likes the choppy sentence. Which runs like this. Because it creates tension. I’ve never been as fond of that, but can certainly see how it works in certain scenes, where the rhythm matches the character’s fearful, fragmentary experience. It’s clear that Adam spends a lot of time over each line, selecting le mot juste, and his labours are certainly appreciated. Many a promising vision has been ruined by mediocre phrasing, but that never happens here. Adam’s a real writer.

In summation, I guess it’s fair to say that the minor issues I had here – the many full-on descriptions, the steady pacing, the familiar characters – were all personal things, but I mention them because I want to be honest about my reaction to the novel. But hey, if you take one thing away from this humble review, it should be this: Last Days is a forceful book, with an atmosphere that never lets up; it builds a wide range of spooky materials into a real symphony of unease. One particular scene – what happened one night in the US desert – burns as powerfully in my mind as anything from Lovecraft’s more deranged novellas, the search of the woods in The Dunwich Horror or the nuclear devastation of The Colour Out of Space. And there are enough minor moments, too – the kids who walk like dogs, for example – to add creepy grace notes to such crashing chords. In short, this is another fine offering from one of our best dark scribes, and I look forward to his next.

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