Little Heaven is pure hellfire and horror, the sort of novel that makes a person check the closet at bedtime and leave a light burning in the hallway. I received my copy in advance from Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. The title is available for purchase now.
This story is set in the present, alternating with events from the past that help us understand what’s happening now. In this sense the story is a bit like All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda, in that part of it takes place in the past and moves its way toward the present. The method is a powerful way to build suspense, but it’s not the only tool in Cutter’s tool chest by a long shot.
Our premise is that Petty, child of Micah and Ellen, has been kidnapped by the Long Walker. Micah has foreseen this event and dreaded it, but he’s been unable to prevent it:
“And he’d felt it coming, hadn’t he? Something gathering toward his family—a feeling not unlike the thunder of hooves as a stampede of horses approaches. He might as well have tried to outrun his own skin. You cannot outfox the devil. You may be able to stay his approach if you’re lucky and a little crazy, but in the end, his black eye will ferret you out.”
He calls upon two other gun slingers, Ebenezer and Minerva, both of whom shared the same horrific past event as Micah. Each owes him a favor, and he’s calling it in. He wants his daughter back.
There are a lot of twists and turns in the plotting of this story, and you’ll need to bring your full attention to keep track of it. Ultimately the three find themselves at a cult in the mountains of New Mexico named Little Heaven.
I have never been so conflicted about a book so far into the narrative. On the plus side we have some outstanding word smithery, interesting characters, and some of the best monsters I’ve read in any horror novel. The narrative is fresh, confident and at times jaunty, dropping moments of drollery into unexpected places to help lighten an otherwise dark, dark, dark story. For these factors, I wanted this to be a five star read.
Unfortunately, there’s no denying that there are problems here. There are plot details that are too obvious, to me at least, to just read past, and when these occur, it’s like Toto pulling the curtain away from the wizard’s booth; the Great and Powerful Oz is just human, and at such moments, this is just another book. Examples that occur fairly early on include a character with a full load of morphine successfully racing out of town on the back of a horse; soon after this, another character who’s bleeding profusely decides to tell her life’s story.
Then there’s what is fast becoming a disturbing issue not limited to this author, but which I find unacceptable wherever I find it, and that’s when a character’s bad nature is demonstrated by the writer using ugly racist, sexist, anti-gay, and xenophobic language. When it happens once or twice in a novel, I grimace and move on, but this author finds such a variety of anti-Black slurs to fling at the Afro-British character named Eb and distributes them through so much of the text that an overall sour taste is left behind, and it’s not the sort that comes of reading good fiction. Cutter is skilled enough to use other methods to demonstrate the presence of evil, and he should do so.
Likewise, we don’t need sexist terms or a rape to show us that a character is sexist or that a woman has a traumatic past. Here I point, as I’ve done before, to director Jodie Foster, who said in an interview that she is dumbfounded by the way that so many male directors, when searching for a female character’s motivation, come over and over to the same conclusion: well, she was raped, and that’s why she behaves this way. It was rape, it was rape; she must have been raped! To Cutter and to others I say, stop it. It’s trite, it’s ugly, and it’s obnoxious. For the same reason that most horror and suspense writers don’t deliver us into a warehouse full of kiddy snuff films and describe them in fine detail, authors should find other ways than hate speech and sexual assault to develop a character or display his or her malevolence. Let’s not wear this one out any worse than has been done.
In other regards the story shines. The plot overall is complex and woven in a way that neatly brings us back to the problem at hand at the end. Teenagers that enjoy horror as a genre may especially like this book, given its plethora of gore and the host of skittering critters. In fact, I found myself wondering whether there could be a Little Heaven video game. I’ve never wondered this about a book before, but the monsters are splendid, and so I could see it.
This book was released January 10 and is for sale now. Recommended with the caveats mentioned above.