Little Heaven is the fourth and latest novel by horror author Nick Cutter. In the backwoods of New Mexico in the mid-1960s a religious commune has built themselves a community to get away from the sinful world, guided by their charismatic leader Reverend Amos Flesher. Only one rough road and some trails lead back to civilization. They are surrounded by woods and ever in the shadow of a monolithic black rock that looms over the landscape. They have dubbed their community Little Heaven, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many months after Little Heaven is settled a young woman named Ellen hires a trio of mercenaries to take her there. Her goal is to find her nephew, ensure he is safe, and if he isn’t, get him out of there. Finding the place is easy enough, but getting out becomes another matter entirely.
Despite the seemingly straightforward premise for this novel, it plays a little more with chronology than I’d expected. The bulk of the story takes place in the 1960s, but the novel begins in 1980, introducing our dubious band of heroes long after their ordeal in Little Heaven. At first I had mixed feelings about this setup. It doesn’t exactly help the tension for the bulk of the story to know how key players turn out beforehand, but I must say that as things went along this didn’t actually bother me much. Information is teased out, but we don’t learn the fine details of their experiences, nor the true nature of what they faced. Their time in Little Heaven is a fight for survival, but by the end of the novel is becomes about much more than that too, and had things been divided chronologically it would not have been as meaningful.
The trio of bounty hunters were each really well realized as characters; I’m not sure there’s one among them I could pick as my favourite. They have storied histories in their more youthful days of 1965 that contrast well with how they’re established in 1980. Micah Shughrue is a more simple, cold, and calculated man more than willing to get his hands dirty but not without a conscience. Ebenezer Elkins, “The Englishman,” is delightfully cordial, clever as a whip, and unyieldingly deadly. Minerva Elkins is the greenest of the group, full of fire and spirit, yet not as made for such deathly work as she wishes. Reading of their coming together as an unlikely trio was fun and established a strong dynamic that prevailed throughout. Their respective relationships with each other were distinct too, keeping me just as invested in how these developed as the story itself.
The horror of the story, such as it is, was a balancing act that turned out a lot better than I’d expected. This isn’t to say I had low expectations, but unknowable, ancient evil is well-tread ground in horror that can ironically come across as more pedestrian if it follows the familiar tropes. While this novel does not break new ground, I really liked the eldritch forces woven into it. The creatures stalking the woods around Little Heaven made for some great body horror, but a particular stand-out for me was the figure some called the Long Walker. Its features were both distinctly described yet made so nebulous that I had trouble pinning down an image of it in my mind’s eye, which was nicely unsettling. It was at times horrible malevolent and oddly cartoonish, making for an unsettlingly effective tone.
Amos Flesher turned out about as horribly manipulative and sadistic as I expected, but he worked well because he was part of a larger story, rather than driving villainous presence. I do like that the focus was put on him within the community, rather than every zealous person. The follies of their misplaced faith are explored, yet they’re not made to be as bad as their leader.
The ultimate, malevolent source of all that is wrong around Little Heaven, poisoning minds, killing the land, and controlling monsters, turned out really well. It rode the line between understandable and unknowable; the reader is able to cobble together ideas, but ultimately neither I nor the characters truly know what it was and why it was there. Through it and its underlings the nature of evil is touched upon as well in really interesting ways, though the plot is never overburdened by philosophical waxing. In this vain, I especially liked how the Long Walker both reveled in causing mischief and violence, yet was at times bored and possibly unhappy with its lot.
Little Heaven is a great horror novel that was perfect for the Halloween season. I’m passively trying to read more horror that isn’t written by the typical authors I go to for it, and Nick Cutter continues to be a great new source. Placed throughout the book are illustrations by Adam Gorham as well, who helps bring the characters to life and gives face to things you’d rather not see.
The story and characters were compelling, but I especially liked the seemingly idiosyncratic details Cutter sometimes adds to make things a little stranger. Most conspicuous, which I wasn’t sure where else to bring up, is the fact that one character’s tragic backstory involves their kid brother getting eaten by an anaconda that escaped from a circus. It was ludicrous and unnecessary, but I think I loved it.
My Rating: 4 out of 5