The Last Outpost is the new novel by Rich Hawkins and is the sequel to The Last Plague. Both books are published by Crowded Quarantine Publications.. I read The Last Plague having been introduced to Rich’s writing via his novella Black Star Black Sun and thoroughly enjoyed this particular take on the apocalypse, an end of the world scenario which merged Lovecraft and zombie tropes in spectacular fashion, producing a novel which has rightly been nominated for a British Fantasy award.
The first novel described the apocalypse itself, the moment when (possibly) the stars were right and the titular plague ravaged humanity, turning its victims into ravening hordes of monsters – the “infected” – human beings metamorphosed into horrifying shapes and forms with an insatiable blood-lust. Although focussing in on a small group of characters, the novel was epic in scale, full of marvellously executed set-pieces and horrifying imagery.
The Last Outpost takes up the story not long after the events of the first book are over and as such, is more concerned with the aftermath of the plague. Whilst the first book was an action-packed rollercoaster ride (© reviewer’s clichés) this is a more sedate piece of writing, introspective even, almost a stream of consciousness from the character of Royce, a survivor of the plague, now wandering alone through the ravaged countryside.
There’s much existential angst going on here, with Royce having to come to terms with the new world he finds himself in as well as the death of his wife and daughter. This is bleak stuff but credit is due to Rich for taking this path and also for the quality of the writing on display here. In effect, it’s an extended soliloquy but one that’s full of real emotion, the writing spot-on, poetic in parts.
The bleakness conveyed in Royce’s inner monologue draws favourable comparison to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road conjuring up similar feelings of desolation and despair as that classic book and, like The Road, an encounter with other survivors provides a pivotal moment in the book. There’s a change in tone about halfway through The Last Outpost where a set-piece within a house provides one of the most intense passages of horror writing I’ve come across in a while.
The second half of the book provides more action and introduces more characters but the overarching feeling of despair is never lost, lurks constantly in the background. The title of the book comes from rumours of a settlement of survivors on the other side of the North Sea, the journey towards which provides the main narrative thrust of the story but it’s the characters who count here, Royce himself, George – an elderly man he meets on the way and Amy, pregnant and so fighting for the survival of her unborn child as well as her own.
It’s the journey that’s important though, not the destination and quite a journey it is too. Rich has created an entirely believable world here, one in which the horrors come from not only the infected, and the mighty Titans which swoop through the skies above but from the darkness that lies within all of us. The book does however end on a note of optimism, hope even – made even more profound by the events leading up to (and especially immediately before) it.
The second of a trilogy is always regarded as the darkest and that’s certainly the case here. Bleak and nihilistic but beautifully written The Last Outpost is a book I highly recommend and I look forward with great anticipation to whatever happens next…