Every now and then, books appear in my mailbox, unbidden. Sometimes they’re good. Sometimes they’re very bad. Sometimes, I read them and review them.
It seems as though, in recent years, horror novels have divided into a few camps: those that want to be the next The Shining, those that want to be artsy, and those that want to emulate the torture-porn genre. I deeply detest the latter; excessive gore and violence are not scary, they’re gross. Vomit is also gross, and also not scary. Can we just be done with this subgenre, please? Ugh, I digress.
I mention that because throughout the past year, I have read a lot of really bad horror novels. They either try way too hard to recapture the lighting in the bottle of great horror works past – oftentimes “paying homage” way too close to the source material – or they’re just trying too hard. I feel as though I’ve read at least five or six books where the true horror is the main character’s inability to face his or her past/present/future or some other vague concept (can you see me rolling my eyes?). When Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven appeared at my doorway, I was highly skeptical. Oh, look, another normal-people-versus-ancient-evil. Yay.
Little Heaven follows the misadventures of three thrown-together mercenaries, in a stretch of time between the late ’60s, and the ’80s. The ragtag group is hired by a woman with a simple task: to hunt down her nephew at a religious compound in New Mexico, and ensure his well-being. Along the way, they discover an ancient evil lurking in the dark, which lurks with them far longer than they could have anticipated.
The story itself rises and falls with familiar beats, traveling down the well-worn path of classic horror novels. Certain elements, such as the cult, are easily recognizable in their nature. There was never any hope for the religious cult to not be tied up in this evil, because of course. On the other hand, the nature of the Black Rock, and its mysterious piper remain more difficult to decipher, until the end.
Fans of the genre will recognize several tropes and archetypes throughout. Minerva, the main female mercenary of the group, plays both the eager rookie, early on, and the wounded, dark female later, but she never veers too far into stereotype land; she never feels like a cheap copy.
Most importantly, all of the mercenaries manage to miss the pitfall of the anti-hero. They manage to resist the urge to be reluctant heroes; they are first driven by their want of money, then morbid curiosity, then a sense of personal duty. They’re never content to do this “just because.” It’s an important distinction, especially when authors seem so eager to shove anti-heroes down our throats.
The funny thing about Little Heaven is that it definitely falls in the camp of emulation. I’ve heard Cutter described as an “old-school horror writer,” and that is very apt. While he’s not afraid of gore, he never goes over the top with it. He knows the value of a good monster-closet scare, without ever being overly dramatic. Most importantly, he is clearly a fan of the genre, and manages to avoid most of the moments that both defy logic and infuriate fans. Never once did I roll my eyes and think, “Why would the character do this?”
Little Heaven, much like Nick Cutter’s earlier work, The Troop, clearly draws inspiration from the horror giants of the ’80s, and there are worse things to say about a person other than “He’s on par with late-’80s Stephen King.” The religious cult leader, for example, feels like an amalgam of so many King characters over the years, but never obnoxiously so. This feels like one of the few examples of homage done right.
Little Heaven even attempts to delve into deeper, darker concepts, very much reminiscent of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, but Nick Cutter seems to know his limits. Just when he starts to teeter toward heavy-handedness, he pulls back. He even borrows that sense of loneliness that only appears in McCarthy westerns, but again, he knows his limits and shows restraint before it topples over.
The best part about Little Heaven, though, is that it ends exactly when it needs it. Once the heroes discern the situation, they take action and face the problem head on. Cutter never wastes our time with waffling and “should we or shouldn’t we” malarkey that seems to weasel its way into other books for the sake of page count. The characters are always people of action, no matter how reckless that action maybe, and Little Heaven is true to those characters to the end.
Without spoiling the ending, Cutter also manages to pull a fake out, and I’m not sure I’d say it ends wrapped up with a bow. In fact, whether or not it ends is entirely up the reader, which is perhaps the best way to end this story. It’s not the most original, or daring thing I’ve read all year, but it’s remarkably competent in a genre that is struggling so hard to find its footing. I liked it enough to continue to delve into Cutter’s catalog, and that might be the best thing you can say about a book.