By Tony Jones
“Daddy awaits for those who stray from the path in the forests of remote New Mexico.”
‘Little Heaven’ is the fourth horror novel Craig Davidson has written under his pseudonym ‘Nick Cutter’, with two further thrillers and short stories written under the Davidson banner. The critically acclaimed 2012 film ‘Rust and Bone’ is also based upon his shorter form work. Cutter came to prominence to the horror world when his terrific debut ‘The Troop’ won the inaugural 2014 ‘James Herbert Award’. This competition had one of the strongest horror shortlists of modern times memorably featuring MR Carey’s ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’, Andrew Michael Hurley’s ‘The Loney’, Josh Malerman’s ‘Bird Box’, Frances Hardinge’s YA smash hit ‘Cuckoo Song’ and a certain Kim Newman. All of these are real heavyweights in the world of modern horror.
Although I haven’t read the work of Craig Davidson, I did enjoy all three of Cutter’s previous books tremendously. Each novel has its own unique brand of horror, with ‘Little Heaven’ returning ever so slightly to the yucky type of body horror explored in ‘The Troop’.
In recent promo interviews, Cutter has spoken of his love for Stephen King and how ‘Little Heaven’ has a structure deliberately similar to the King masterpiece ‘It’ and after reading the new work it is easy to spot the comparisons. Both have story structures told years apart, 15 in ‘Little Heaven’, with the novel flitting from 1965 to 1980. However, it doesn’t flirt backwards and forwards from the time periods as frequently as in ‘It’ with the majority spent in the sixties. Like the King novel a huge supernatural event occurs in the earlier period which casts a huge shadow on the events in 1980 and the story’s horrific conclusion.
‘Little Heaven’ was a terrific tale which I enjoyed immensely zipping through this darkest of dark novels in three days as I was pulled, with the characters, deeper into Cutter’s vision of what a ‘Heart of Darkness’ truly is. As I read the Kindle version, it was hard to gauge the size of the book, but I have a feeling it had serious girth. As I said the majority of the story takes place in the 1965 era than in 1980 and the supernatural element, with monsters, are introduced in the opening few pages. I read in a recent online interview that Cutter felt there was a certain amount of ‘cross-pollination’ between both his supernatural and non-supernatural novels. I’m sure that’s true, but if you DON’T like supernatural horror then I would not bother with this book. Monsters populate a decent chunk of it, and as it heads into the gruelling final third, there are creatures absolutely everywhere. Even if it’s as beautifully written as this book, if you don’t like supernatural/monster novels you are unlikely to enjoy this. I also got the feeling Nick has a lot of fun writing this book.
In 1965 two mercenaries, who between them have killed many people, fight to near death with a bounty hunter seeking revenge for an as yet unknown crime. All badly wounded, but still alive, in an effort to avoid the law, the three form an uneasy truce. This results in a partnership which takes them to a remote part of New Mexico to find the nephew of Ellen, who believes her brother-in-law has absconded with the child to join a potentially dangerous religious cult. So Minny, Shug, Eb and with Ellen tagging along head off to the village of Grinder’s Switch and the religious survivalist compound which lurks even further from this remote beaten track. They discover a group of downtrodden fanatics who are led by ‘Prophet’ Reverend Amos Flesher. Everybody looks unhealthy; their kids seem to be very cruel, nobody is particularly Christian like and something unnatural moves in the forest at night. A world of pain is about to begin. And what pain….
The 1980 story thread is much shorter but picks up Minny, Shug and Eb once again heading to the Black Mountain Wilderness after Shug’s daughter is kidnapped by forces unknown. Of course, all three characters have been changed by their ordeal from fifteen years earlier; we don’t as yet know how. But we are all aware the piper needs to be paid.
This novel has so many great things going for it and clever touches I’m not sure where to start. It’s pulsating all the way through and the three mercenaries are terrifically well-drawn characters, who all carry their own ghosts, independent of what nastiness lurks in the forest. The back-stories were seamlessly interwoven into the plot as we’re taken back to the Korean War and a horrific episode where a little boy is eaten alive by a snake. Even though two of the three are vicious killers, you still root for them all the way. Every top drawer horror novels need great villains and this most definitely separates ‘Little Heaven’ from the horror pack, as it has both a supernatural villain and a very human one. Reverend Amos has more than a little bit of Jim Jones in him, but what a character, sleazing all over the pulpit. Following a voice, who he believes to be God, instructing him to build his compound and church in the shadow of a mountain that just doesn’t feel right. Even the smaller characters, both villains and Christian suckers, are believably drawn as their false prophet’s vision draws them deeper into the pulsating ancient evil which lurks in the forest.
Like ‘The Troop’ and ‘The Deep’ (underwater granted) this latest novel has a memorable outdoor setting, ominous from the moment the mercenaries arrive and with the forest brooding with menace. It’s a brilliant place to set a horror novel, as you realise pretty early on there is nowhere to run, and the evil knows this better than anyone as it bides its time. Even though the supernatural element is introduced to the novel at the very early stages it doesn’t kill the suspense as the duel time sequences only add to the unrelenting tension. A minor quibble perhaps, but I felt as it headed towards the conclusion, there could have been more time spent in the present period of 1980, and the longish final sequence in 1965 shortened a bit.
I don’t want to spoil the supernatural element by saying too much about what it is. Cutter plays around with the old Pied Piper story and even the horror classic ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is given an appreciative nod. There’s a lot of pain in this novel, and if I ever hear the phrase “Shall we begin?” I’ll always think of a couple of sequences from this terrifically horrible little novel. I would wholeheartedly recommend this pulsating page-turner to fans of supernatural horror and Nick Cutter is fast becoming one of those authors where the appearance of a new novel is a real treat. ‘Little Heaven’ is released in hardback in January of 2017.