I’ve been telling people that Nick Cutter’s new horror epic Little Heaven reads as though Cormac McCarthy was inspired to write a horror novel after reading Stephen King’s It, and while that seems like I’m being hyperbolic, I assure you, that’s not the case. Little Heaven finds Cutter mimicking McCarthy’s voice in many ways – including old-fashioned, uncontracted dialogue, baroque descriptions, and more – but also aping the master’s content. Because in no small way, Little Heaven feels like a neo-Western, the story of three hired guns who get brought in to rescue a boy in distress from a hostile compound, only to end up far out of their depth as horrors emerge. The fact that the book takes place in the 1960’s and 80’s is irrelevant; this feels like the story of hard men (and women) on the verge of normal civilization. More than that, as is the case so often with McCarthy, these characters live in a morally complex world, one governed by violence, their own internal codes, and their own bleak, vicious worldviews.
And yet, there’s no denying the influence of It on Little Heaven either. Taking place across two time periods, Cutter cuts back and forth between the two. He opens in the 1980’s, years after these gunfighters’ initial confrontation with some imaginable evil, only to find that evil awakening again and coming back for them. Even early on, though, Cutter shows that he’s doing something different with the story, hinting that our characters didn’t just gain nightmares and trauma from that 1960’s encounter; they’ve gained something awful, some Faustian deal that’s hurt them more than helped. And as Cutter begins to dive into the story of what happened in the 1960’s – the effort to rescue a young boy from a religious compound run by an increasingly paranoid preacher – we start to see that this isn’t only a story about supernatural evil, but about the evil within men, as well.
Ultimately, that’s the answer to the fact of what makes Little Heaven so good, and so rich. If all the book did was ape It or McCarthy, it might be fun, but it wouldn’t be as phenomenal as Little Heaven is. Instead, Cutter’s story plunges us deeper and deeper into madness, slowly increasing the level of horror around the characters and never letting up. More than that, though, he spends as much time in the head of his human villains as he does our heroes, turning the story into something more disturbing than it might be otherwise. Is this a tale of a religious cult corrupted by a primal evil, or about an evil man who crosses an unspeakable line? It’s hard to know which would be less disturbing, and to Cutter’s credit, he doesn’t give us an easy answer.
Because, yes, this religious compound in the woods is surrounded by something dark, malevolent, and unspeakable. But what’s going on the compound itself is no less horrific, as children begin disappearing, and people turn the other way, never wanting to acknowledge what’s happening. Whether that’s because they’re blinded by faith, or something supernatural, doesn’t matter; what matters is that it happens. It says more than a little bit that it’s hard to know what Cutter’s most horrific creation is: the shapeshifting, surreal horrors in the woods, or the disturbed villains we keep seeing…or even our heroes themselves, whose lives of violence and brutality are part of their lives.
Cutter is known as a brutal, go-for-broke horror writer, and Little Heaven is no exception to that rule; this is surreal, disturbing, and truly scary, and that’s before we get to how black-hearted and upsetting the core of the book is. More than that, Cutter follows his dark story to its logical conclusion, giving us darker deeds than even Pennywise managed, and making his heroes more complicit and less of a symbol of good. Combining that with the horrific end of the Little Heaven compound, and the result is a horror novel that gets not only under your skin, but may viscerally upset you in no small way. And for me to say that about a horror novel…well, that’s no small feat.
Here’s the final verdict: this is a searing, vicious, brutal horror novel, one that marries McCarthy’s stark prose and world with an ambitious, strange story of evil, sacrifice, and faith. And, yes, it owes much to its inspirations…but it also stands on its own, turning those inspirations into something new, something more than the sum of their parts, and creating something visceral and effective. It won’t be for all tastes – it’s wonderfully literate and careful, and too extreme for many – but for those on board with its efforts, they’ll be rewarded and then some.