If the very mention of culinary cannibalism and masturbatory mutilation hasn't already turned your stomach, and your sick fetish for twist endings tends to leave you grinning maniacally at the fickleness of fate, then you're likely going to really enjoy The Last Mile by Tim Waggoner.
This is a novella that reminded me of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, and there's not much higher praise I can give it than that. It's dark, it's violent, it's sexual, it's imaginative, and it's just unrelentingly grim.
Basically, what we have here is a tale of survival in the World After. After what isn't entirely clear, and I loved that ambiguity. The world has fallen prey to something other . . . something superior and cruel. It could be aliens, long-forgotten gods, inter-dimensional beings, or some other paranormal/supernatural force. All we really know is that it began with insect-like eyes in the sky, an immediate perversion of nature, and a perpetual twilight, leaving us a world where the lucky among us ensure the survival of their families by committing the foulest atrocities for their monstrous Masters.
That brings us to Dan. When we first meet him, he's driving a beat-up Oldsmobile down a cracked and ruined highway, weaving through the carnivorous thorns, on his way to sacrifice a young woman to his Master. It's only through flashbacks that we learn he was once a decent guy, and begin to gain some sympathy for why he does what he does. His wife and daughter are currently enjoying the equivalent of a life of luxury in the World After, complete with running water and electricity. Whenever Dan balks at his life as a thrall, they are dragged back into the Hell the Masters have created - a torment that requires his wife to sadistically violate herself with the foulest sort of kitchen utensils (steak knives, forks, meat tenderizers, etc), day and night, without respite.
Dan's captive is Alice, a young woman he abducted while she was scavenging in a garbage dumpster for a rotten apple core with a sliver of fruit left on it. Young, hungry, and alone, she's the kind of victim who is almost instantly likable in her sarcastic, defensive sort of resistance. Just as Dan's flashbacks slowly build some sympathy, however, Alice's slowly erode it. A part-time waitress, she took refuge in the restaurant when the end came, helping her manager to ration supplies and keep the guests safe. She's almost admirable in her ability to survive, if a little naive about life . . . until we learn how quickly she overcame her initial shock at the act of murder and invitation to cannibalism.
As you can expect, it's in the structure of the story where Waggoner really shines, setting us up, establishing our expectations, and then slowly eroding our beliefs, until the twist ending feels completely natural. Even then we're not safe, as there's one final scene following the twist that severs our last shred of hope, and exposes what a cruel (but brilliant) trick he's played on us. Along the way, he balances some over-the-top scenes of gore and depravity with others that are as sad as they are subtle, pulling it all together in a story that defines guilty pleasure.
On the surface, The Last Mile is simply the long, lonely distance Dan and Alice have to travel but, deep down, it's the distance between humanity and monstrosity - a distance that, Waggoner warns us, is distressingly short.
Kindle Edition, 140 pages
Expected publication: October 21st 2014 by DarkFuse