Nick Cutter doesn’t waste any time in Little Heaven. Some horror novels – especially the thicker ones – tease their tension over hundreds of pages before giving the reader a look at the antagonistic gruesomeness lurking in the book. Cutter, however, tips his hand from the word go.
An ant going about its business in the New Mexico desert encounters “something curled up from the blackest recesses of earth.” Newly possessed, that ant, like a tumbling snowball, begins to possess and accumulate other desert inhabitants until it’s a marauding, absorptive amalgam. “It breathed through many mouths and gazed though a cluster of eyes lodged in a knot of fatted, blood-streaked fur. It locomoted on many legs, each of them foreshortened, so that the creature, whatever it was, scuttled in the manner of a crab.”
Cutter made a similar introduction in his debut/breakthrough The Troop – the one Stephen King called “old-school horror at its best” – which trapped a troop of boys on an island with an insatiable threat. It’s a simple structural move, but effective: let the reader glimpse the villain before they meet the heroes. Cutter still gets his “getting to know you” time, but the who’s who and the where’s where are established under the pall of menacing inevitability.
The primary who’s who of Little Heaven is a trio of assassins-turned-mercenaries, Micah Shughrue, Minerva Atwater, and Ebenezer Elkins. The action oscillates between 1965, when the three are brought together in Tarantino-esque overlap of violent errands, and 1980, when they reunite to infiltrate Little Heaven, a fringe religious settlement in remote New Mexico. Amos Flesher, the leader of that group, bears a striking (sometimes distracting) resemblance to the infamous Jim Jones.
Cutter’s previous books, The Troop and The Deep (The Acolyte reads like a bit of an outlier, a genre experiment more dystopian and ideological than horror) were propelled by potato chip action. The chapters were slight and compulsively delicious as chips, leading readers to allow themselves “just one more” until, before you know it, it’s 3 in the morning and the bag’s empty, your fingers shiny with oil.By contrast, the action of Little Heaven is thorough and sustained, giving room for the sort of moral and psychological investigations that his early books didn’t quite have space or time for.
While Little Heaven is primarily character-driven, Cutter’s calling card remains body horror. His viscera glistens, drips, and reeks like no one else’s. It’s a double-barreled book: both the psychological and physical gore will make holes clear through you. And that dual strength is fundamental to the success of Little Heaven.
To be fought, the core evil of the story, first glimpsed in that introduction, has to be encountered both mentally and physically. It can be enough for some writers to simply describe an indescribable thing as a “living nightmare”, but Cutter’s burgeoning strength as a master of horror is to follow through on that initial peek. In Little Heaven, that living nightmare is brought out of the shadows and turns out to be as terrifying in its clarity as it is in its concealment.