Nick Cutter, author of the highly praised horror novels The Troop, The Deep (both with Simon & Schuster), and The Acolyte (ChiZine), returns with his most accomplished horror story so far: Little Heaven features unnerving scenes that will test your stress levels (and sometimes your gross level limits), roots of fear will creep and stretch around your brain, squeezing it in sync with your heartbeat. Cutter's writing is sharp (no pun intended), his dialogue is efficient, filled with funny repartee and tongue-in-cheek banter; also, one of the plot threads is a particular love story that kindles the fire of hope in this dark, dark world.
More about Little Heaven tomorrow. For now, here's a Q&A that I did recently with Nick Cutter:
1. In The Troop, the story is set on an isolated island; in The Deep, the story takes place in a workstation at the bottom of the ocean; and now, in Little Heaven, danger is in a small settlement in the middle of nowhere. What makes evil scarier in smaller, more isolated or contained spaces?
Nick: Well, I think that’s just one of those classic horror techniques. If you look at The Walking Dead or The Mist or … honestly, any number of horror works … The Thing, Prince of Darkness … anyway, it goes on … look at these and you’ll see one major element is isolation. The Shining! And one thing you’ll see—Lord of the Flies!—is that the isolation is in a lot of ways the driver of the plot and the action, and it allows a writer to show who these characters are. Because the person you are in a civilized setting, with rules and laws, may not be the person you are in an anarchic situation cut off from the rule of law. So there’s the external threat, which is whatever the writer or creator wants it to be, but it’s understood that ultimately, the biggest threat is from within: the people themselves, the way they manipulate and scheme and try to ruin one another, angling for some superior position within a crumbling structure. Or you’ve got characters who feel they couldn’t have gotten luckier, in that chaos and anarchy are their natural element, and until the events that got them isolated transpired, they never had the chance to indulge that savagery.
2. The Troop and The Deep are a mix of EC Comics-style horror with a good dose of gross and bloody stuff, Alien meets The Abyss meets The Thing kind-of stories; pure horror, some would say. Little Heaven has some of those vibes but it’s also a Good vs Evil battle that you develop at a slower pace, with richly-drawn characters and a plot with more meat on the bone. How different were your approach and creative process for Little Heaven compared to what they were for The Troop and The Deep?
Nick: That EC Comics analogy is apt for those books. There was a good dose of on the nose horror, pull no punches horror—which, honestly, is my speed. Horror kinda goes through epochs. There’s a wave of quiet horror, then more loud or splattery horror, then maybe quiet again … I mean, throughout this there are writers plying their trade on both sides of the divide, and maybe this is just a way for me to paint myself into a box and say that I’m some kind of rebel against the prevailing times (I’m not), but I feel that right now we may be in a more “quiet horror” time. And the books coming out of this are great; I won’t name any titles, because maybe those authors wouldn’t see it as a compliment or wouldn’t see themselves as writers of quiet horror. Anyway. I’m LOUD. You are what you are, right? You play to whatever perceived strengths you have. So yeah, those first books are loud, EC Comics, splatter-punky type books. Which is great, because that’s what I grew up reading in part. But I’ve always been interested in character, in drawing rich characters, in putting those characters through their paces and confronting them and changing them and seeing how those changes affect them. And I suppose as one goes along one wants to stretch a little, see if they can pull off a longer narrative—not War and Peace, not The Dark Tower series, but something with a little more heft. And that’s what I tried to do. Although I think in essence it’s still a simple story: three people go on a quest.
3. Little Heaven is also a story of friendship between unlikely friends and, ultimately, about redemption and hope. Without revealing (or spoiling) anything, I think that within its darkness it has a positive outlook that was absent from The Troop and The Deep. How important was it to create a different vibe, and did you think of an alternate, bleaker perspective and outcome?
Nick: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, as a person, I’m generally a hopeful individual … I should amend. I think humans are capable of great love and nobility and grace and honor on a small, person-to-person scale. As a species, I’m kinda certain we’re on an extinction vector. But on that small scale—as family, friends, those small close unions—I see a lot of love and care and attention and yeah, hope. So I’d like to hope that’s reflected in Little Heaven moreso than the earlier books. The good thing about horror is that you can go for the bleak ending. I mean, some people read horror especially for those kinds of ending and maybe they’ll think ole Cutter’s gone soft with this new book. But it is reflective of my personal sense that people are capable of immense strength and growth and personal change—even the worst of us can be redeemed.
4. You also write non-genre novels, and non-fiction; was writing horror always the career plan, something you wanted to explore, or did you just have an idea one day and started from there?
Nick: I can’t honestly claim I’ve ever had a plan! I’m still kinda just winging this. But the standard answer is that I grew up reading horror. I was a horror reader and horror lover first. Always. And while there was a time when I got into other kinds of books and had these other avenues opened to me and as such drifted away from horror for a bit—I mean, Christ, it’s a big ole world out there as a reader! But I came back to the fold, as I always kinda-sorta figured I would. And it’s been a happy homecoming from me. And a lot of my ideas … I mean, they hover on the edge. They occupy a grey borderlands. They could tip into horror at any time if you just mess with a few elements.
5. How has adulthood and fatherhood changed your perception of the things that hide in the dark? How do you prepare your child for them?
Nick: Oh, well, massively. Both The Deep and Little Heaven (and the new Cutter book) all dwell in some way on matters of being a parent. There has never been a more profound and transformational event in my life. I’m obsessed with it, because it’s my element. I’m sitting here writing this and my kid’s running around, trying to feed the cats, distracting me, asking “What’s for dinner?” over and over. So he’s in my head—now he’s asking if he can go play Minecraft—all day and all night. And he’s the greatest source of both fear and joy in my life. As yet, he’s not totally afraid of things that go bump in the night … though the other day he pointed to the corner of his room at bedtime and said, unnervingly, that “The boat’s up there.” The boat? What the hell’s that? It’s an idea, is what that is! Anyway, I’m not sure there’s a way to prepare my son for what’s eventually going to scare him. Hold onto it, kiddo! I might say. You might end up making a living from it one day.
January 12th, 2017