Life has been rough lately… and by “lately,” I kinda mean the past two years, for various reasons, on and off. Because of that, I’ve struggled to focus on reading fiction, much to my own dismay. However, I opted to take a trip to Los Angeles this past weekend to catch up with some friends and meet a few twitter friends in person, and the long flight was a great opportunity and motivation to spark my reading again.
At a glance, Hanna Jameson’s The Last (2019) would seem like an odd first choice, given its subject matter and given the mood I’ve been in.
The book may be described roughly as a “post-apocalyptic horror mystery,” which is about as dark a plot and setting as one can imagine. As I started reading, I wondered if maybe this wasn’t the best book for a depressed person to take on.
But my fears were completely unfounded! Though I originally planned to only read a few chapters on the plane, I couldn’t put The Last down and ended up finishing it while waiting in line to pick up a rental car!
The Last is told from the perspective of Jon, an American historian who is attending an academic conference in a remote hotel in Switzerland. He left for the conference on rather harsh terms with his wife, Nadia, and is eating breakfast in the hotel lobby, contemplating sending her a message, when the world ends. Washington, D.C. has been hit with a nuclear weapon, and other cities fall soon after. Almost immediately, phone service is unavailable, and internet and television follows.
Most of the hotel guests and staff head towards the city and the airport, looking for safety, but Jon is one of twenty who opts to stay in the L’Hotel Sixieme and wait for help to come to them.
The remaining residents fall into a post-apocalyptic routine and malaise. Jon writes a memoir of the days following the catastrophe; the cook continues to prepare meals for the staff. Some people drink and take drugs to pass the days. A few suicides need to be cleaned up.
But then, when the water in the hotel storage tanks starts to go bad, Jon and a few others head to the roof to perform an inspection. They find the body of a young girl, submerged and decaying, in one of the tanks. There is no way she could have gotten in by herself; she was murdered, and the death occurred right around the time of the nuclear war. It seems unlikely, but could there be a killer still living among them? Jon tries to track down the identity of the nameless girl and the circumstances of her death. It begins as a way to pass the time, but becomes an increasing obsession. As the finite supplies of the hotel begin to dwindle, and winter approaches, tensions rise in the band of survivors. Can they maintain their small community without succumbing to violence and paranoia? And is there anything left in the world worth surviving for?
The Last is a fascinating, dark, and melancholy character study. We get to know all of the residents of L’Hotel Sixieme, their histories, thoughts and fears, through the narration of Jon’s memoir. But Jon himself may not be the most reliable of narrators, as he becomes more obsessed with the murdered girl and the stress of the situation weighs more heavily upon him. Jameson manages to make the daily mundane routines and conversations of the survivors fascinating and compelling, and as in any good mystery novel, some of the details have more significance than they first appear. The characters all feel realistic, and understandable, even those that are not being sympathetic in the end.
One of the greatest characters of the novel is L’Hotel Sixieme itself. It is an old rural hotel with a dark history of murder and deaths, and has an oppressive atmosphere once it is quiet and nearly empty. It plays the role of a haunted house, and this is the horror aspect of the novel: Jameson flirts with the supernatural throughout the book, leaving the reader wondering whether some events are purely coincidence, or have a greater significance. The combination of post-apocalyptic horror with haunted house horror is quite brilliant: imagine being stuck in the Overlook Hotel of The Shining after nuclear war!
Like all good novels, The Last feels like it has a message to share, though nothing is spelled out for the reader. To me, the book felt like a reflection on tragedy and regret, and how one copes with them. Jon, feeling guilt over not returning his wife’s text before the end, seeks to solve the mystery of the murdered girl, even though this is also, in the big picture, a futile act. He can’t bring the girl back any more than he can reach his wife, but at least it gives him some sense of purpose. But is it more productive to try and fix the unfixable, or to look forward and move on?
There are also, as one would expect in such a story, musings about the role and rights of the individual in a society under extreme duress. One quote from a character has stuck with me: “Cowboys do not build things.”
It is worth noting that questions are answered in a satisfactory way by the end of the novel, though some mysteries remain. And along the way, there are a number of twists and unexpected developments that change the nature of the story dramatically. This is one reason I couldn’t put the book down.
So, overall, I highly recommend The Last. It is a fascinating and unique mixture of mystery, horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction that kept me intrigued from the very first page on the plane to the very last page at the car rental office.
And thanks to Hanna Jameson for writing a book that got me reading again.