The Fuss About Gus

The Last Haunt by Max Booth III (Cemetery Gates Media, 2023)

In this new novella, author Max Booth III offers a thinly-veiled version of notorious extreme-haunt operator Russ McKamey (here dubbed Gus McKinley). Subtitled “An Oral History of the McKinley House Massacre,” The Last Haunt is structured as a sequence of dramatic monologues–as a juxtaposition of the testimony (by a neighbor, a responding officer, Gus’s father, his ex-wife, his girlfriend, a haunt actor, former haunt participants, and a fellow haunt operator [wittily christened “Miguel Myers”]) provided to an anonymous writer working on a true-crime-style project. The resulting narrative operates via ominous hint and contradiction (of others’ claims); the reader knows early on that bad shit went down on a fateful October 31st night, but not exactly what happened or who is responsible for the killings. Through this approach, Booth also achieves authorial distance. There is no moralistic judgment infused into prose, which leaves the audience to decide about Gus (who never gets to speak for himself): simply a depraved sadist, or a savvy entertainer, almost admirable in his own aberrant way?

Although dealing with a fictionalized extreme haunt, the book itself does not constitute extreme horror. Disturbing details about Gus’s backyard boot camp of brutality– waterboarding, the forced ingestion of one’s own vomit–are related, but Booth isn’t scripting the novelistic equivalent of torture porn (The Last Haunt is less graphic than a literary novel with similar subject matter: James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which I previously reviewed here.). In its overt focus on a “Massacre,” the book forewarns that matters are bound to get messy, yet even with the shocking violence of its conclusion, The Last Haunt proves surprisingly restrained. Which isn’t to say that Booth’s book fails to deliver satisfying chills; its plot reminded me of the formula for the Paranormal Activity films–a slow, steady trickle that turns into a sudden climactic gush.

On one level, The Last Haunt succeeds as a variation on the traditional revenge narrative (showing reprehensible people receiving their just desserts). Arguably more rewarding here, though, is the metacommentary the novella furnishes. About the haunt industry and the value of horror entertainment (Gus allegedly gets his ideas from the movies). About the power of fear–for both those who generate it an those forced to experience it. About mob mentality and the impact of social media. The narrative also naturally leads readers to consider their own proclivities, to question how far they are willing to go, what they would or wouldn’t do for “the privilege of experiencing something wholly unique and bizarre.”

Fans of documentary-style horror will appreciate the design of The Last Haunt. Sneakily seasonal (and not just because of Gus’s “Halloween shenanigans”), Booth’s quick, engrossing book makes for a finely haunting late-October read.

Final note: those curious (morbidly or otherwise) about Gus’s real-life model are encouraged to check out Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House, the recent documentary about Russ McKamey currently streaming on Hulu.

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