I am an absolute sucker for unsettling tales set in weird little pockets of England, as I am from a very odd bit of northern England. I particularly enjoy stories of weird rituals, or backwards societies, similar to The Wicker Man, or Midsommar. Stories that are slightly unnerving, because they are dangerously on the cusp of being believable.
When I saw a glowing review of The Last Good Man, in The Guardian, I had to grab a copy. The book is unfortunately not released in the US yet, but good old reliable Blackwell’s had my back. Note – for any US readers wanting to get hold of UK-only releases, Blackwells is fantastic.
The civilized world is on the brink of collapse, and so Duncan Peck leaves his nightmarish city life to track down his cousin, James, who has fled to a quieter part of the country. However, when Duncan first glimpses his cousin, he’s part of a mob, chasing a man down, and then throwing said man into a wheelbarrow. A slightly over-exuberant bachelor party? No, this is vigilante justice at its most baffling.
It turns out that James is judge, jury, and executioner of a town where people literally write their grievances on a wall. Barely any dissatisfaction is vocalized; they just grab their paint and daub their accusations, founded or unfounded, on a giant wall in the dead of night. However, there is very little in the way of scrutiny, and people are punished in bizarre ways regardless of evidence.
Unbelievably, this flawless system causes a few problems! And as the grotty pasts of our characters materialize, this “utopian” society proves to be anything but paradise.
I really enjoyed The Last Good Man. The story was compelling, the characters flawed and engaging. But even though there are some truly horrific things in this book, the things left unsaid are the things that will stay with me. The true motivations of some characters are hinted at, but never truly revealed.
And of course, I can’t ignore the wider message of the book, of how anonymous, caluous accusations can ruin lives. When I described the concept of the wall to my husband, he said: “So it’s like Facebook, then?” In the age of “canceling”, unfounded accusations born of resentment can have grave consequences. We only have to look at the death of UK TV personality Caroline Flack as one recent, memorable example. Throw in the narrator’s hints at societal collapse (the extent of which is never made crystal clear), and this book is chillingly prescient.
The Last Good Man is a literary horror novel, but with absolutely no supernatural elements. This is real human horror, arguably the most terrifying. I hope this gets a wider release, and I would absolutely welcome a TV adaptation.