With endorsements by luminaries such as Peter Straub and Jonathan Lethem, Brian Evenson’s short fiction has earned him a stellar reputation as a horror author. Checking him out, I discovered LAST DAYS, one of his novels, and found it a fun ride into body horror.
Kline is a detective who infiltrated the Brotherhood of Mutilation, lost a hand, and shot the man who took it. Living on a pension, he finds it hard to cope with life after. Then two men from the cult come and visit him with an extraordinary proposition. They need him to come back and solve a murder.
Hard to resist a plot like that. I have a horror poetry collection coming out with Jonathan Moon soon (CHILDREN OF GOD), also about a cult, so I was in the right mood for it. The cult in LAST DAYS is interesting in its own right–a brotherhood that shows its love for God by sacrificing parts of themselves. Kline soon finds himself not only trying to solve a murder, but a pawn in a no-win game he can’t control. If he wants to solve the greater mystery, he has to willingly go down the rabbit hole. In the end, the only way out may be to destroy.
Evenson delivers his story with very sparse prose, which moves things along, though the events get a bit repetitive in this very plot-driven book. The narrative is filled with contradictions that keep things off-kilter. The cult members are both sympathetic and monstrous, their amputations seem more fetish than sacrifice, and their reasoning is guided by a consistent but insane logic. Kline is a hero but also possibly a monster forced to make his own sacrifices. As a result, coupled with the body horror, I found the read grotesque rather than scary.
The body horror element is at the fore here. People lose bits of themselves throughout the book, sometimes with joy (with attendant bragging rights and status), sometimes with horror. It’s hard to read without at least some queasiness. It’s at the center of the story and drives the theme–making one sacrifice after another to feel whole.
In the end, I struggled with exactly what I thought of the experience. The premise is stellar, the plot engaging, the body horror gruesome, but I longed for something deeper, a sense of pathos. There was a much deeper story in the premise, but it’s not explored. So in the end, I simply didn’t find it as mind-blowing as other readers, though I did enjoy it in the way Evenson intended. I definitely recommend it if you enjoy reading body horror.