Last Days

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Former Mormon, brainy Francophile and avant-horror novelist Brian Evenson is one of Christian culture’s most twisted contemporary observers. Though capable of Stephen King gross-outs and Kelly Link’s slick confrontations with the macabre, his fiction has a distinctly creepy funk. The Open Curtain (2006) follows a teenager who uncovers a ritualistic Mormon murder that eventually comes crashing into his own shifty sense of reality. Now, in Last Days, he supercharges a line from the New Testament (“If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”) and then lets it run wild with disturbing literalness. Most of the book is set at an underground Christian cult that celebrates voluntary amputations (the more the better). Mayhem ensues.

Where The Open Curtain let its grim plot build slowly, Last Days wastes no time putting its protagonist under the knife. Kline, a one-handed ex-detective, is abducted by two of the cult’s comically noirish henchmen. They bring him to their secluded compound, where the leader asks him to investigate a murder. In Evenson’s hands, the crime becomes a wildly confusing event, muddled by lies, mind games and missing evidence.

Like the book’s characters, the compound feels cut off from any sort of larger body, from the outside world. Evenson is so good at creating this sense of isolation that his plot occasionally runs the risk of becoming airless. But within these masterful confines, the author creates a deeply literary space, a bureaucratic nightmare complete with subtle reflections on belief, community, prophets, power and reality itself. The deceptively simple prose keeps the book brisk and even gripping as its puzzles grow more craggy and complex. This is Evenson’s singular, Poe-like gift: He writes with intelligence and a steady hand, even when his characters decide to lop their own limbs off.—Michael Miller

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By Brian Evenson. Underland Press, $12.95 paperback.