Little Heaven by Nick Cutter
From electrifying horror author Nick Cutter comes a haunting new novel, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Stephen King’s It, in which a trio of mismatched mercenaries is hired by a young woman for a deceptively simple task: check in on her nephew, who may have been taken against his will to a remote New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. Shortly after they arrive, things begin to turn ominous. Stirrings in the woods and over the treetops—the brooding shape of a monolith known as the Black Rock casts its terrible pall. Paranoia and distrust grips the settlement. The escape routes are gradually cut off as events spiral towards madness. Hell—or the closest thing to it—invades Little Heaven. The remaining occupants are forced to take a stand and fight back, but whatever has cast its dark eye on Little Heaven is now marshalling its powers…and it wants them all.
It’s weird, I was struck with a couple of different impressions almost immediately I started reading Little Heaven. Firstly, eating a ham sandwich when you’re reading horror was a rookie mistake. Secondly, and more importantly, I felt in some respects I was reading a Western. So much so I had to go back and check the date that is mentioned at the beginning of the text. Nope. It says nineteen eighty rather than eighteen eighty. With a couple of notable exceptions, KC and the Sunshine Band being one, this feels like a western. I suspect my brain is making this connection down to the fact that the main character are all modern day gunslingers.
The trio of Micah Shughrue, Minerva and Eb are perfectly realised. There is a complex dynamic that develops between as the plot unfolds. Micah has that near mystical stoic cowboy outlook. He has been to war and seen the dark side of humanity. It has given him a unique outlook on life and insight into the nature of good and evil. Loyal to a fault, and driven by a need to see any task through to completion, he is beyond dependable. Next is Minerva, she is a troubled soul. Minny is full of rage and has unexpressed anger that is slowly ripping her apart from within. Finally, there is Eb. He is the capitalist of the group. For Eb, the job is never personal, it is all about the payday. Snarky, and always ready with a barbed retort, the acerbic Englishman was as a personal favourite.
After a short preamble, that establishes the trio, the action moves to Little Heaven. You quickly start to spot a growing sense of unease appearing in the tone of narrative. There is something horribly wrong in what should be an idyllic rural settlement. When Micah, Minerva and Eb arrive they pick on the wrongness of the place almost immediately. Each of them recognise the sinister malevolence that permeates this insular community.
The man who leads the congregation at Little Heaven is the ‘good’ Reverend Amos Flesher. Manipulative, cowardly, sleazy and power hungry doesn’t even come close to describing how loathsome this man is. His fire and brimstone sermons have an almost hypnotic effect on his followers. You can tell bringing together this vitriolic individual and a dark, violent presence isn’t going to end well. Cult leaders aren’t well renowned for a firm grip on sanity. You know straight away that Amos is going to snap at some point. It is just a matter of how spectacularly and when. This ticking time bomb of a character adds a nice sense of urgency to proceedings.
The narrative uses the neat trick of switching between two different time periods very effectively. A large chunk of the action takes place in the mid nineteen sixties but this bookended with chapters set in nineteen eighty. It is particularly interesting to view how characters have evolved in the intervening years. The three main protagonists are all fundamentally changed by their experiences during their first visit to Little Heaven. Fifteen years of living with their actions has left a mark.
A word of warning, if you are plagued by a delicate disposition then I would suggest you might want to give Little Heaven a miss. The horrific elements are delightfully visceral and unrelentingly unpleasant. There is an evil in the backwoods and it is infecting everything, especially the local wildlife. Some force is merging together all manner of critters creating nasty new beasts. This army of wretched by-blows are driven by destruction and death. The must eat, they must consume, they must destroy. It is obvious that Cutter relishes detailing their inherent vileness. This is why the ham sandwich was such a bad idea.
There is also some vividly descriptive body horror going on. Characters die in the bloodiest ways imaginable. If I’m honest it might be an idea to avoid eating anything while you read it. Now don’t get me wrong, within the context of the story, this high level ickiness is entirely appropriate, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable. Nick Cutter deserves an award, he has succeeded in grossing out this jaded old soul.
Buried beneath all the horror, there is much more to enjoy. Its impressive when a novel manages to elicit such an emotive response. It might not appear so at first glance but Little Heaven is also a story about loyalty, sacrifice and even redemption. There are a couple of moments that are going to choke up even the most hard-hearted of readers. The ultimate resolution for one of the characters is both heartbreakingly sad yet somehow hopeful in the same breath. Like the kids say – it gave me all the feels.
I’ll be honest, I always feel a certain amount of trepidation when it comes to trying out a new author. Especially when they write in my favourite genre. It took me forever to read any of Adam Nevill’s work and now I consider myself a die-hard fan. I fell into exactly the same trap here. I’ve made a mistake, I’ve missed out on the other novels by Nick Cutter. Based on how much I enjoyed Little Heaven, I need to remedy this situation as soon as possible.
Little Heaven is published by Simon and Schuster and is available now. Highly recommended.