When a wanderer first travels to a new place, they see cultural and religious events they never expected and often find bizarre. In Garudan Thookkam, India, followers are hung from hooks to praise the God Vishnu. Judeo-Christians practice a form of genital mutilation known as circumcission to preserve the covenant of Abraham. Jewish Kaparot involves touching a chicken to one’s head and then slaughtering it.
These are just the easy ones that a quick Google search will find.
Going back a few years, it gets even more stranger. Human sacrifice by the Incas stand out, as does mummification in Egypt and elsewhere.
It seems anywhere religion goes, bizarre rites are sure to follow.
Even the traditions more commonly practiced in the Western world, such as drinking wine representative of Christ’s blood (Passover) and symbolically drowning the physical body as the spirit of Christ descends (baptism), make it easy to acknowledge that what seems strange and barbaric to an outsider can be quickly normalized by those within the group.
And that brings us to Brian Evenson’s masterpiece, Last Days.
The novel follows Kline, a P.I. who is exceedingly depressed, unable to leave his house after a freak incident in which his hand was cut off. Being the calm, rational man that he is, he cauterized the wound on a hot plate, then shot his assailant before their shocked state could wear off.
When word of his heroics spread, amputees come to his door and repeatedly demand he investigate a murder. Leaving him no option, he is taken by force to a secluded religious compound where devotees self-amputate various parts of their bodies; toes, fingers, arms, legs, ears, etc. to gain status and rank. In this caste system where credit is established through the number of body parts removed, Kline is a one. The higher-ranked witnesses, tens, elevens and twelves, won’t deign to speak to him and when they do, it’s through vague recordings and second-hand interviews, making it obvious that they are hiding something; the perfect bait for a man like Kline who simply must know not only what transpired, but what the hell all of it is about.
To get to the truth, Kline has to lose some parts of himself.
As Peter Straub says in the introduction, it’s clear that Evenson is having fun in this novel. How could you not? It’s almost impossible to take a cult that worships by amputating limbs seriously. As a foreigner, it’s absurd. And that’s how Kline feels, despite being gifted a certain status by the elite as a self-cauterizer, a new and tantalizing twist on what seems an old faith.
To those who practice, no ritual is absurd, or bizarre. From within the paradigm everything makes sense and what is different is hard to comprehend. Americans feast on Thanksgiving. Muslims fast during Ramadan. Secular culture can erode the significance of tradition, like it has for Christmas, for example, but those who practice ritual, who observe tradition from the basis of faith, take it very, very seriously.
In the case of Last Days, they are willing to sacrifice offending limbs.
“Cut off thy right hand if it offends thee.”
Maybe Evenson was inspired by Evil Dead 2. You can laugh until it gets serious. Until it gets claustrophobic. Until it’s very clear that Kline can’t leave and the wrong move might end with him anaesthetized, amputated, unable to leave because he has no legs to walk. It’s positively terrifying.
What makes Evenson’s work worthy of deeper consideration isn’t the blood or gore or casual way his transgressive style shocks the reader–at a ceremonial after party, a stripper throws prosthetics at the audience, losing piece after piece of herself, to a fanatically aroused crowd–it’s that in the end Kline is seen as a literal messiah by a rival cult.
Maybe it’s the trauma. Maybe it’s the blood loss. For a moment, he actually believes them. He can’t be killed. He is supposed to reign fire. Or perhaps, it’s just an easy excuse and a means for vengeance.
When all of these layers of the novel are peeled back and stripped away, it becomes clear that Evenson might have been cutting deeper all along, attempting to hack away at a system of belief predicated on faith from its earliest inception promising vengeance upon the Romans. Some people when they are thrust into a role and see the greater good of it, step up. No matter what it will cost them.
After all, every deal with the devil is a trade. What would you give up?
Maybe a better question is, what would Jesus do?
If you haven’t already tuned out because of cognitive dissonance, I highly recommend this book. It’s darkly comic, terrifying, thought provoking, and one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I’ve read all year.