Well, I was still in the mood for reading horror novels and, a day or two before I wrote this review, I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of “Last Rites” by Shaun Hutson.
Back in 2009, I’d been out shopping when I had noticed that there was a new Shaun Hutson novel in the bookshop. Needless to say, I bought a new hardback copy of it there and then (something I’ve only done with maybe four or five books before). And then, for some completely unknown reason, I never got round to reading it. For almost a decade. So, yes, this review is long overdue.
So, let’s take a look at “Last Rites”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a mysterious description of a man walking through a tunnel. Then, the story moves to North London where a teacher called Peter Mason is being brutally beaten in the street by a group of five young hooligans. They flee, leaving him for dead, but he is taken to hospital and, after being comatose for several days, he finds that he luckily has no serious lasting physical injuries from his ordeal.
Whilst all of this is going on, creepy things are happening in the Buckinghamshire town of Walston. The local church has been desecrated, several animals have been killed in bizarre ways and there is a spate of mysterious suicides amongst the town’s youth.
Suffering from panic attacks after he has been discharged from hospital, Peter Mason realises that he can’t stay in London any longer. So, he applies for several teaching jobs outside the city. To his delight, he is offered an interview at a prestigious private boarding school in the quiet, bucolic rural town of Walston…
One of the first things that I will say is that this is a Shaun Hutson novel. It has all of the grittiness, compelling storytelling and intense horror that you would expect, although it is a considerably bleaker and more depressing novel than I’d expected.
Yes, it could be because it’s been a while since I read a more contemporary Hutson novel (the only other Hutson novel I’ve read within the past few years was from the 1980s) and I’d forgotten just how bleak and cynical they can be, but it really caught me by surprise. It probably didn’t help that I binge-read most of the book in a single evening.
I should probably start by talking about the horror elements in this novel. After all, it is a horror novel and it is a very effective one at that! But, surprisingly, there is relatively little of the over-the-top splatterpunk horror that you would traditionally expect from a Shaun Hutson novel. Yes, the novel certainly has a few grisly moments but, by Shaun Hutson standards, they’re very tame. Seriously, I’ve seen horror movies that are gorier than this novel!
Yet, whilst this novel contains relatively little gory horror, it contains pretty much every other type of horror under the sun. Amongst other things, there is suspenseful horror, bleak horror, medical horror, sexual horror, crime horror, psychological horror, implied horror, realistic horror, atmospheric horror, bullying horror, claustrophobic horror, social horror, bereavement horror, tragic horror, occult horror etc… And all of these different types of horror are considerably creepier and more disturbing than the gallons of gore you’d traditionally expect to see in a Shaun Hutson novel.
So, yes, this is a grim, disturbing horror novel that does it’s job perhaps too well. Literally the only relief from the horror (and perhaps my only criticism of the novel’s horror elements) is the slightly ludicrous twist ending. Yes, some parts of it are brilliantly foreshadowed and the final chapter has a chilling sting in it’s tail. But, as a payoff for the nail-bitingly gripping and chillingly disturbing suspense throughout the novel, the ending comes up a little short. The mystery is far scarier than the answer to it.
However, the ending seems more like a formality than anything else. The rest of the novel is this incredibly gripping thing that just begs you to binge-read it. This novel is written and structured much more like a thriller novel than anything else (probably a side-effect of all of the brilliantly intense action thriller novels that Hutson wrote during the 1990s and early-mid 2000s) and this works really well.
Whilst the third-person narration includes some traditional Hutson flourishes (eg: the words “cleft” and “liquescent” appear, albeit separately), the story’s thriller-style elements include short chapters (that keep you wanting to read “just one more”), a very compelling mystery and a grittier and more matter-of-fact style narration that really helps to make the story more intense and fast-paced. Even though this novel is about 338 pages long, it’ll probably take you as long to read as a 200-250 page book would.
All in all, “Last Rites” is an incredibly chilling – and gripping – horror novel. Yes, it’s depressing as hell and it probably isn’t for the prudish. Yes, the ending is a little anticlimactic too. But, it is the kind of book that will pretty much make you binge-read the whole thing out of grim fascination. It is intense, it is disturbing, it is gripping. It is a Shaun Hutson novel.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.