The Last Harvest (2017) by Kim Liggett, is published under the “Tor Teen” imprint of Tor Books. The narrative, which includes detailed depictions of sacrificial violence and a bovine massacre, makes one want to shout “Holy Cow!” Are today’s kids psychologically able to embrace such an unflinchingly grim tale? Author Liggett, a mother of two teenagers, clearly believes that young people deserve the opportunity to make their own call on this. Props to her. The novel doesn’t discriminate. It’s not in the least bit age condescending. Au contraire. “Adult readers,” to use marketing labeling, will find the story frightening. Although the protagonist and many of the other characters are youths, this book is full-fledged rural horror.
A year has passed since high school football hero Clay Tate made a horrific discovery: his dying dad, holding a crucifix, lying among cattle that had been mutilated by the metal cross. The father’s last words being “I plead the blood.” Clay subsequently became the head of the household, caring for his justifiably addled mother, and two younger sisters. He’s particularly protective of the youngest sibling, a proverbial wise-beyond-her-years child affectionately known as Noodle. Suppressing his dreams of a college sports scholarship and his fantasies about Ali, the girl he’s been besotted with since childhood, he attempts to focus on the farm and family. This proves futile.
The anniversary of the cattle slaying exacerbates Clay’s angst. Sons and daughters of the Preservation Society urge him to reconnect with the community, which is willing to put in perspective lurid accusations that his dad made about the Society. Despite his contemporaries’ magnanimity, including seductive attempts by Ali to lure him back into the fold, Clay has doubts about their sincerity and motives: “It’d be so easy to slip back into this life, into ignorance, like cattle being led to slaughter. I guess that’s the Devil’s plan—it may look like a Wyeth painting, but it’s really the gateway to hell.”
Clay is plagued by nightmarish visions that make him question his own sanity. The school assigns him to Miss Granger, a comely counselor who is empathetic to his plight for personal reasons. When the Preservation Society progeny start dying in violent acts, Clay comes under suspicion of orchestrating the deaths. The town is conflicted about his possible guilt. There’s the sins of the father aspect to consider, but he’s returned as quarterback and is restoring the team’s lustre. A sport taking precedence over horrifying demises seems farfetched, yet the narrative provides a pointedly sardonic reminder that this is small town Oklahoma; football myopia is a lifestyle in some circles.
At the close of her acknowledgements, Kim Liggett lists four horror writers who warped her mind “in the best possible way.” Ira Levin is among them, and his influence is certainly noticeable in the narrative. When, for example, Clay imbibes rye he notes “a weird chalky aftertaste coating the roof of my mouth.” This is reminiscent of the palate sensation Rosemary, in Rosemary’s Baby (1967), experiences after eating a specially prepared chocolate mousse.
While The Last Harvest is unlikely to achieve the status of Rosemary’s Baby, there is much to admire about Liggett’s writing. The characters are well rendered, and the ample scares crescendo in a denouement that blindsides. There is no age limit on the appeal of this novel. It solidly delivers the goods.