There is an old saying that goes: Evil never dies; it merely sleeps. And when that evil awakes, it does so soundlessly — or almost so.
Nick Cutter has built upon the foundations laid by Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker to deliver a thoroughly thrilling novel that should be on the lists of top horror of 2017. There were points where I actually smiled while reading Cutter’s Little Heaven. Not because of a bright, happy or uplifting event — there were few enough of those throughout this book — but because I was reading something as expressive and colorful as a film, where the depictions of Cutter’s menagerie of unnatural beasties and their bloody and gruesome acts were as vivid as Clive Barker’s best imagery.
“Little Heaven” is a survivalist religious camp in the mountains of New Mexico. Amos Flesher moved his congregation to this proverbial compound near an outcropping of obsidian known as Devil’s Rock. Summoned by the voice of “god,” Flesher’s “Little Heaven” is more than a bit reminiscent of Jim Jones’ Jonestown from its start to its bloody finish. And Flesher bears more than a slight resemblance to Jones himself.
… Your daddy owes my daddy …
Cutter’s narrative alternates between 1965 and 1980. Something horrible happened at Little Heaven in ’65. Deals were made and it’s time that certain debts were paid. At the heart of Little Heaven is a mystery that Cutter resolves slowly, purposefully and deftly by blending, merging and ultimately converging the plots of past (’65) and present (’80).
Flesher is as horrid and loathsome as one might expect given his role, but Micah Shugrue is the pivot upon which the characters and story turn. In 1965 Shugrue is a former heavy for a drug dealer whose conscience gets the best of him and is now singularly focused on taking revenge against his former employers’ unconscionable acts. The drug dealer puts a hit on Shugrue, and Minerva Atwater and Ebenezer Elkins heed the call. All three survive their encounter and join forces to turn their skills for profit.
In 1965, Ellen Bellhaven finds Micah in New Mexico and contracts him and his new criminal cadre to find her nephew who’s been taken to Little Heaven by her brother-in-law. Shugrue, Atwater, Elkins, and Bellhaven seek out and find Flesher in Little Heaven and come across all manner of evil: human, terrestrial, and otherwise.
The 1980 version of Micah is married to Ellen, now coma-ridden and confined to their bed. Their daughter, Petty, is awoken one morning by a humanoid creature of in-cohesive proportions who lures her out of bed and away from her home in what becomes the treadmill that ferries the story arc. Shugrue is drawn into a final judgment of events that started in 1965. Past and present reflect and mesh as Shugrue, Atwater, and Elkins follow Petty’s trail to a destiny-infused conclusion.
There’s certainly an element of King’s It to the winding and wending of the different eras, but Cutter doesn’t deliver the emotional impact of King’s kids/adults of Derry, ME. Little Heaven is unique and rewarding in its own right.
Fear finds a home in you. That was a lesson Micah had learned at some price. It finds the softest spots imaginable and sets up residence … sometimes a man must face the absolute reality of his fear. And he’ll discover that terror can chew him up and turn him into something else. A monster of wrath, or of cowardice. That man finds himself inhabiting the skin of a total stranger.
Micah is the most sympathetic and relatable of the primary characters. He’s faulty, broken, driven quietly by a destiny that originated in 1965 and persistently followed him to his life in 1980. Cutter provides glimpses of his stint in the Korean War and the elemental life experiences that led him to our place in his life narrative. Eb and Minerva have enough back-story and interstitial character development that they’re fully three-dimensional as well; both broken, un-cleansed, with opportunity for redemption … or further hopelessness.
The characters are solid and believable within the context of the story. Cutter does a masterful job swerving in and out of timeframes and points of view while constructing and delivering a fulfilling story. The writing, language and dark horror themes draw you in, while the grip of the mystery holds you through its finish.
Cutter left numerous clues to the greater mysteries of Little Heaven throughout his writing. I only discovered this as I reviewed my notes in the preparation of this review. Without the context of the conclusion, I certainly wasn’t able to pull together his threads and hints, but he steadily and persistently develops his themes of loneliness, regret, acceptance and destiny, while laying the building blocks of his mystery.
The characters are full and foundational but the plot, with the lurking and persistent darkness of themes highlights the novel. Cutter has built a mythology of evil that’s fresh while borrowing from the worlds of King, Lovecraft and John W. Campbell‘s novella that inspired the The Thing movies.
Fear can warp a man. Turn him into a repellent specimen whom he never thought he could be, not in a million years.
Several types of beings exist in Cutter’s world of Little Heaven. One type absorbs the life of that which it intrudes. Any numbers of different forms make up the whole of these unnamed beasts echoing Campbell’s Thing. They fly, crawl, and leap from tree limb to tree limb. Another is The Long Walker, an elongated-limbed entity whose mouth stretches across its entire head; he plays a bone flute like a hell-spawned pied piper of children, the tool he uses to call Petty Shugrue from her bed.
The Long Walker’s “Father” is the marquee antagonist, the voice that guides Flesher’s actions. Cutter reveals “Father” only in the final chapters, a unique and creative entity while recognizable in an almost guttural way. This creature is too deliciously horrific to go into further detail for fear of spoiling Cutter’s creative treat.
The provenance of the creatures is unclear. Are these beings alien? Demons? Gods? Or are they maybe just things of our own Earth that have lived and existed for a very long time, in the hideaways and caves just out of physical and emotional sight? It’s never made clear in Cutter’s respectful Lovecraftian nod.
The end of this novel is too good to spoil in this review. Its conclusion is consistent and true to the build-up: gritty, dark, credible and even satisfying. It could work in Hollywood but it’s not a traditional Hollywood ending.
Little Heaven is not for the queasy reader. Both bloody and, at times, righteously savage, fans of literate horror and intense mysteries will love this book.