[Alan Kelly checks in with a new installment of his horror fiction column Hell's Shelves.]
Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s true-crime collaboration Helter Skelter, the definitive book on Charles Manson and “the Family,” was the first piece of research that lit Adam Nevill’s fuse and impelled him to write his latest novel Last Days. The British horror master’s fourth novel sees him in top form with intelligent storytelling, an authentic, authoritative voice, and myth-building akin to Clive Barker at his most ambitious.
Last Days is the story of Kyle Freeman, a gifted but desperate filmmaker who is commissioned by the wealthy and eccentric Maximillian Solomon to make a documentary about an infamous cult called The Temple of the Last Days and its murderous figurehead, Sister Katherine. Little does Kyle realise that accepting the offer is tantamount to a Faustian bargain. With strict instructions to focus on the paranormal angle, Kyle unwittingly becomes not only a framing device for the cult’s brutal legacy, but an unwilling participant in the supernatural horror that unfolds.
Nevill has been dubbed “The Literary Bogeyman” by genre magazine SFX, and deservingly so. Last Days, which cunningly retools the “found footage” concept for a literary narrative, is a blood-curdling, no-holds-barred rollercoaster ride into the very depths of human and occult depravity. It’s a novel that can be read on many levels. It’s a meditation on collective fanaticism and how our culture mythologizes psychopaths, and a love letter to both classic and contemporary horror films. It’s even a cautionary tale for young artists: Always read the small print before signing a contract, no matter how fat the cheque is….
Rue Morgue: In the acknowledgements, you cite Helter Skelter as one of the books that first inspired Last Days. Have you any personal experience with cults, or characters like Sister Katherine?
Adam Nevill: No personal experience of cults, besides the odd attempt by what I consider to be cults trying to shake me down for money, or membership, in the street or on my doorstep. But I have had experiences with sociopaths in both personal and professional situations.
Am I an analyst? No. So how can I diagnose anyone as being a compulsive or a malignant narcissist? Officially, I can’t. But I have known too many individuals who were motivated purely by their own self-interest, no matter how unethical or unscrupulous their behaviour was. They were all individuals either with severely impaired consciences or no conscience at all, and they were incapable of remorse. Each could veer from loquacious and charming to unstable and violent at frightening speeds, but everything they did was calculated, and a tactic in pursuit of self-advancement.
So I’ve gathered a lot of material after being exposed to the psychopathic. What’s most worrying about them is they cannot be cured and there is no legitimate defence against them besides removing yourself completely from their reach, which isn’t always easy. So Sister Katherine is not based on any one individual, but a composite of men and women I have encountered and read about. In different circumstances I could honestly see these people becoming seedy Manson figures, or ambitious desk murderers in Stalinist Russia or Hitler’s Germany.
What is alarming is how modern society constantly mistakes sociopaths for “the talent.” I don’t think they are hard to spot. We can only be grateful that they are ultimately self-destructive. Once the perfect victims thin out, or their appetites exceed their self-restraint, they melt down. Which is something I tried to conjure through Sister Katherine’s reign of terror, with that pattern of behaviour mirrored through history. As Maximillian Solomon says, one of mankind’s tragedies is being in thrall to the sociopath throughout history. When we witness the obscene violence and injustice and vulpine greed in the world, there is often a direct connection from these events to one of these solipsistic creatures.
RM: In Last Days, Kyle, the documentary filmmaker, is both the protagonist and a framing device. It’s an interesting way of exploiting the found footage concept for a literary narrative. What films or documentaries inspired you to take this direction, and why?
AN: REC, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were primary influences in DIY filmmaking on a shoestring by enthusiastic filmmakers outside of the system, as well as many of the [BBC] Storyville documentaries I’ve watched. The whole concept of found footage is a perfect vehicle for, and accompaniment to, supernatural horror because it adds authenticity to the bending of natural law, and is a great medium for the suggestiveness vital to good horror. A glimpse of something on footage, or an unpleasant but inexplicable sound caught on a microphone, amplifies terror by appearing as physical evidence, a tangibility, of the unnatural. You would think that electronic surveillance and digital technology would scientifically disprove the presence of the uncanny, but they don’t. They seem to attest to it beyond human reportage, which cannot be trusted.
Originally I conceived Last Days as a fake, ’70s-style true crime book about a cult, and one that was to have an index and plate section, but my publisher wanted a straight novel, which was fair enough as that is what they commissioned. But I still based the story on a fictional true crime book, and the interviews followed the pattern of an investigative report. I believe everything Kyle and Dan record in the novel is actually feasible on the equipment they use, though I had to rewrite whole scenes whenever I discovered something was not physically possible with their equipment, i.e., you cannot light a scene with the light on a camera, nor record sound through a camera’s built-in microphone, at broadcast quality. So there were whole scenes that Kyle and Dan would never have attempted because the footage would have been unusable without proper sound and lighting. They were unconventional, but still pros.
I’d also say writing about a film is considered one of the taboos of fiction. Some say it should not be attempted, because film shoots are repetitive, long, exhausting and technical affairs that do not make for good dramatic fiction. I realised I was risking a great deal by choosing filmmakers as the protagonists of the story. Not to mention that interviews, by their very nature, are usually static affairs. So the stories within the interviews had to carry their own dramatic force anecdotally, and the actual shoots and shoot preparation all had to become part of the story development. The momentum could not stop, but the actual shoots also had to carry a sense of authenticity as if this was a real documentary being shot. But the “making of” approach ultimately aided the story in ways I hadn’t anticipated, because the incremental additions by various witnesses and things caught on audio tracks built tension smoothly toward the complete picture forming. It felt like I was writing a crime novel at times, and it was also the first time I’d attempted police procedural. But I always kept in mind what John Gardner wrote about the continuous dream of fiction, and that anything that breaks a reader from it must be avoided or revised. So far, no one has claimed it hasn’t worked (but give it time).
RM: Another characteristic of this style of filmmaking is reflected in Sister Katherine’s presence in the story. Readers are drip-fed information about her through reportage, anecdotes and collective rumour. Was that always the plan – to have Sister Katherine lurk at the periphery of the story?
AN: Yes, Sister Katherine is in nearly every scene as a presence without being in the novel. And I wanted a story with different levels: the forensic and criminologist’s version, the mystical version made up of rumours and hearsay, and the actual true story that only a handful of people would ever understand (the one the reader is rewarded with). In the second chapter, Max tells Kyle exactly what happened officially. The whodunnit and whydunnit are actually in place in the first few pages. But they are wrong. Plot led this book far more than the others I’ve written.
Although Katherine was dead before the action of the novel began, I wanted her to remain as an enigmatic and mysterious figure that had passed into popular apocryphal cult stories. Look at the famous photo of Manson’s face; I wanted that vibe for her. I wanted The Temple of the Last Days to feel as vivid, but as dated as Jim Jones and Manson’s Family, and as low tech. The cult and its leader had to be from the late ’60s and early ’70s, and another cause of the great youth revolution dying. I’m not so interested in modern cults – it had to be that era.
People who were in their prime in that decade rarely let us forget how great and interesting the ’60s and ’70s were, mainly because the commissioners and controllers of the media so often belong to that generation. I get a bit tired of the punk story over and over again too. It’s like nothing mattered after “their day,” so I guess there is some revenge mixed in at a subconscious level. It could be argued that what was also swept away by greater liberalism was in place for a reason – to stem the flow of human shittiness upwards, which really began to rise again through those decades like a river, but much closer to home, until it became normalised, and it still hasn’t lost momentum. I’m not against liberalism at all, but when you consider the drug culture that has blighted large parts of the west, and the empowering of organised crime that came through narcotics, the destruction of the nuclear family, the erosion of at least a sense of the useful Christian values, the ’60s seemed to get the ball rolling unintentionally, or naively. For all of the emancipation and culture, it also let loose the hounds.
AN: For many reasons. He was a charismatic criminal who’d learned his trade in prison and was tutored in Scientology, an up-to-date messiah. The misfits and bored conservative teenagers he met at a time when youth was reinventing itself, and the world, after decades of stifling conformity, were perfect victims. But how he managed to charm, then control, then manipulate young men and women, often from good backgrounds, into killing strangers was unprecedented in the modern age. The susceptibility of people to his influence was frightening. His association with Neil Young, the Beach Boys, Hollywood, that whole LA scene, his philosophy partly inspired and derived from a Beatles album, the fact that some of his victims were famous, the circus of his trial with his followers outside with shaven heads – it is all so very strange and preposterous in an America that was still largely conservative. And it’s too easy for him to be reinterpreted as an anti-establishment antihero for those unaware of the true horror of both his personality and the crimes he was responsible for.
Various bands, that I like, have toyed with his dangerous enigma to make it rock and roll, but if you read the words of his victim’s families, there is nothing cool about him. I don’t like the trendy notoriety of criminals, which is often fostered by sensational, true crime culture. There were also lots of mysterious loose ends and weird connections between The Family and other cults and deaths – even one in a hotel in Hammersmith, London, that I walked past every day on my way to work without knowing about the link – but they have been pretty much explained in Coming Down Fast, which is a perfect accompaniment to Helter Skelter.
[Manson] was also a chilling forewarning, like the Hells Angels (who Hunter S. Thompson claimed destroyed the peace and love movement by introducing hard drugs), of new antisocial subcultures, and of homicidal misfits, excluded by mainstream society but determined to have their day. He wanted to be the son of God, but was closer to an antichrist figure, and they will always have an allure because they will not be governed by the same laws as the rest of us, or are ungovernable.
RM: The mythology you’ve created in Last Days is wonderfully grotesque and akin to the world/myth-building of Clive Barker. “The Book of 100 Hundred Chapters,” “The Saints of Filth” triptych, “The Father of Lies” Konrad Lorche and the Blood Friends – did you draw from real-life sources for these creations?
AN: It’s all inspired by and partly based on actual cults from the medieval period onwards. The Anabaptists and Taborites took over whole cities in Europe. Non-conformist religious sects were constantly proclaiming themselves as chosen people, as prophets, led by messiahs, even starting crusades. History is much stranger than fiction in this area. Cunning, manipulative people from humble backgrounds have been cultivating large followings with con-artist routines for centuries, millennia even, for their own aggrandisement and sociopathic hunger for power and wealth. Manson is nothing new, nor was Jim Jones. What happened over hundreds of years in Europe to the 17th century makes modern cults look like clownish anomalies. Communism and fascism were big cults, as are the current religious fundamentalists. There actually was a Sister Catherine and a Book of One Hundred Chapters in the Anabaptist movement, and a sect called The Blood Friends too. But for a supernatural horror author it was too tempting to not pose the proposition: what if there actually was an aberrant spiritual presence behind it all?
RM: Apartment 16, Banquet for the Damned, The Ritual and Last Days are all standalone novels. Would you ever consider writing a crossover novel in the future, with characters and scenarios from previous novels overlapping? If so, what shape do you think a story like that could take?
AN: I am actually slowly developing a mythos through each of my novels. Eliot Coldwell from Banquet for the Damned crops up in Apartment 16, and he is mentioned in my new novel, as is Felix Hessen from Apartment 16. Kyle from Last Days made a film about missing British hikers near the Arctic Circle, in connection with the black metal band, Blood Frenzy, which is all from The Ritual. Would I make it more obvious? No plans to, but I’m not saying never, either. If I thought it was banal or trite, I’d stop doing it.
RM: Last Days is such a complex book. What was the most challenging thing about writing it, in comparison to your previous novels?
AN: [Having multiple international locations] was one. There are scenes in places I have never visited, like Seattle, Denver and Arizona. In previous novels I stuck to places and situations I knew intimately, or was at least very familiar with. But the biggest challenge was making that big plot reveal plausible. The whole story was hinged upon that part of the back-story being acceptable. I took a real risk with the book being thrown against the wall. I find when I write a novel, the safety catch comes off in the second half and doesn’t click back on.
RM: Have any of your novels been optioned? Who would be your ideal director(s)?
AN: Yes, two. The Ritual, and Apartment 16 last week. I reckon Rob Zombie could do a great version of The Ritual, but so could Werner Herzog. I’d like to see a Larry Fessenden version too. Lars Von Trier would make an interesting Apartment 16, as would Hideo Nakata and Guillermo del Toro. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza would also be fantastic. I can dream, but would genuinely be just as intrigued by what a new director could bring to an adaptation with either of the books as a first feature film. I have no fear of new names.
RM: Finally, can you name one real-life (or fictional) cult-member you’d never want to meet?
AN: Charles Manson, because he’s still alive and would probably take issue with Last Days.
Alan Kelly is the author of the pulp fiction novel Let Me Die a Woman and the European Liaison for the Viscera Film Festival. A horror and alt.cult fanatic, he has worked for many print and online magazines, including GCN (Gay Community News), This is Horror, Planet Fury, Film Ireland, Butcher Queers, and Bookslut. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland and is hard at work on his second book.