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Read an Excerpt of ‘Little Heaven’ by Nick Cutler

From Nick Cutter, the author whose horror novels Stephen King has praised as “old school horror at its best” and “scary as hell, and well written, to boot” comes his latest, Little Heaven.

Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Stephen King’s It, Little Heaven is a haunting novel in which a trio of mismatched mercenaries is hired by a young woman for a deceptively simple task: check in on her nephew, who may have been takin against his will to a remote New Mexico backwoods settlement—what some may call a cult—named Little Heaven.

Shortly after they arrive, things begin to turn ominous. There are stirrings in the woods and over the treetops—and above all else, the brooding shape of a monolith known as the Black Rock casts its terrible pall.

Paranoia and distrust soon grip the settlement. Escape routes are gradually cut off as events spiral towards madness. Hell—or the closest thing to it – invades Little Heaven. All present here are now forced to take a stand and fight back, but whatever has set its dark eye on Little Heaven is marshaling its powers – and it wants them all.

A literary horror novel Little Heaven delivers a dark, frightening story that horror fans crave—but Cutter also digs deeper, examining the very core of the human condition, what defines good or evil, and the lengths humans will go for a chance at redemption.

And we’re proud to be able to share an excerpt from the book, below.

 

An excerpt from

LITTLE HEAVEN

by Nick Cutter

 

THERE IS A SAYING that goes: Evil never dies; it merely sleeps. And when that evil awakes, it can do so soundlessly—or almost so.

Even insects can scream.

The little aphid did, though at a register too high for any human ear to perceive. It toiled in the root system of a cactus plant growing on the edge of the New Mexico desert. An insect so small that it was practically invisible to the naked eye.

This was how it would begin again. The wheel coming around.

While the aphid fed on sugars deposited in the cactus roots, something curled up from the blackest recesses of the earth. It slipped inside the aphid’s body. If there was any pain—and yes, there would be—the insect was unable to articulate its agony beyond that thin scream.

The aphid trundled up the root stem, through the loose-packed sand, up onto one of the cactus’s fleshy leaves. There it encountered a honey ant, which fed on the honeydew that aphids produce.

Their antennae touched briefly. Whatever had stolen inside the aphid slipped soundlessly into the ant—something as inessential as the smoke billowing from the chimney of a charnel house.

The aphid erupted with a tiny pressurized hiss.

The ant returned to its hill, skittering through a fall of lemony afternoon sunlight. It disappeared down the hole. Shortly afterward, the hill emptied, ants pouring forth in furious multitudes.

The ants organized themselves in a skirmish line like soldiers on the march, and proceeded determinedly until they came to the burrow of a meadow mouse. They filed down the burrow, thousand upon thousand. There came an agonized squeal.

Presently the mouse emerged. It hopped and shook, its skin squirming. The mouse spun a few agitated circles before righting itself and dashing into the dry grass. It paused here and there to gnaw at its flesh, drawing blood. In time, it crossed paths with a desert shrew. Moments later there arose a high, mindless shriek.

The shrew encountered an opossum, which in turn encountered a black-tailed jackrabbit, which hurled itself screechingly into the jaws of a kit fox, which thrashed and gibbered and scurried into a den that housed a family of jaguarundis. More shrieks cresting across the arid expanse of sand.

Night fell over the desert. In the darkness, something shambled from the den. The moon touched upon its strange extrusions, its flesh shining wetly in the pale moonlight. It breathed through many mouths and gazed through a cluster of eyes lodged in a knot of fatted, bloodstreaked fur. It locomoted on many legs, each of them foreshortened, compressed like the bellows of an accordion; the creature, whatever it was, scuttled in the manner of a crab. This abomination carried itself across the sands, moving stealthily, its quartet of snouts dilated to the breeze.

A solitary gray wolf sat on a rocky outcropping, scanning the mesa.

An old wolf, much scarred, an ear torn off in some long-ago territorial battle. The wolf spotted movement. A shape shambled into view. This thing moved as though wounded, and yet the wolf ’s predatory instincts said, No, no, no—this thing was not hurt. It was . . . something else.

The wolf loped off to investigate. It was wary but unafraid. If this other creature could bleed, the wolf would bleed it. It had no fear. The wolf was apex. It had never encountered a creature that was its equal, not once in its long life.

 

 

HOURS LATER, the thing, now substantially larger, shuffled to a patch of sand. A patch dramatically darker than the surrounding earth. The trees sprouting from its black and oily surface were gnarled and stooped, yet grimly alive in a way that indicated suffering.

Diligently, the thing began to dig. The hole widened and grew deeper. The sand became darker until it was obsidian, as if it had been soaked in tar.

The creature encountered something buried in that unnatural blackness. Its many snouts snaffled, its mouths groaning and squealing.

Then: that something moved. A great shuddering exhale. The creature backpedaled madly, scrambling out of the pit.

From someplace in the vaulted sky came the screech of a bird of prey.

 

Petty Shughrue awoke in the still hours of night with her skin rashed in gooseflesh.

Pet. My sweet Pet.

She sat up. The wind hissed through chinks in the farmhouse walls, between the joists her father had imprecisely hammered home.

Come, my Pet. Come see, come see, come see . . .

The voice was inviting, honeyed. Yet something lurked behind its sweetness. Corrupted and lewd, like a dead man’s face staring up from the bottom of a shallow pool.

She swung her legs off the bed; the pine boards were cool on her bare feet. She wore the nightdress her mother had sewn for her before she was even big enough to wear it. Her mother had always been two steps ahead—it was in her nature to make Petty a new nightdress before she had outgrown the old one. Her mother wasn’t like that anymore, but Petty preferred to remember her that way.

Her throat itched with thirst. She walked into the kitchen, passing the support post where her father recorded her height every birthday, notching it with a Magic Marker. Petty’s feet whispered on the floor—odd, as usually the creaking timbers woke her father, who was such a light sleeper that the sound of a sparrow settling on a windowsill was enough to stir him.

From somewhere far away—like a musical voice from the edge of a dream—she heard the trilling notes of a flute.

She stepped outside. The night was cool, the grass silky under her bare feet. The moon was slit by a thin night cloud. She walked to the water pump and set the bucket under its spout. The pump squealed as she worked its handle. Water sloshed out, silvered by the moonlight as it splashed into the bucket . . . except it didn’t look like water. Too thick, with a coppery undernote.

My Pet, oh, my Pet, sweet as sun-warmed honey . . .

She dipped a ladle into the bucket and raised it to her lips, although something buried deep inside her fought the instinct. Heavy, salty, metallic, the way she imagined molten iron might taste. She drank more. It was good, though it did not slake her. If anything, her thirst intensified.

Scuttling movement to her left. She swung toward it, alarmed.

Something was standing there. Standing? No, it slumped. Huge and shapeless, like a heap of quarry stones covered in burlap. Its parts appeared to move independently of one another, the whole mass hissing and emitting thin squeals and murmurs. The head of a wolf hung off its flanks—it looked as if it had been killed and decapitated and slung on its side . . . but Petty sensed the wolf ’s head was somehow a part of this thing, of a piece with the rest of its lunatic assembly.

This living nightmare shambled closer. Petty’s skin went cold all over.

Something else was standing behind that awful mass. A long weedy shape, more human than not, a twist of living smoke. It looked a little like a man’s body that had been melted and elongated like taffy.

This figure did not speak, but Petty could feel it. The thing gave off a brooding wickedness—yet it also struck her as somehow bored, as if it had grown weary of all the horrible things it had seen and done. Petty was filled with the sense that this thing was utterly, fundamentally malevolent—shot through to the core with it—and so, weary or not, it could only continue to be and to do what it had always been and done.

“My Pet,” it said. “Ooooh, my sweet morsel . . .”

It lifted something to its lips. A serrate-bone flute.

When it began to play, Petty had no choice but to follow it.

 

 

MICAH HENRY SHUGHRUE awoke into a darkness so thick it was like all nights folded together.

He sat up in bed with an unspeakable fear crazing through his vitals—a stark wash of terror, bubonic rats scuttling through his veins. He reached for his wife. Ellen’s breaths came unrushed, the bones of her wrist frail and birdlike under the thin stretching of skin.

He plucked his eye from the bowl on the nightstand. He never slept with it in. But he didn’t like Petty to see him without it in—the flesh inside the socket cured like pig leather. He thumbed it into place and said, “I will look in on Pet.”

Ellen would not answer. She never did. Her eyes were open—they almost always were nowadays—but invisible under the two moisturized pads wedged beneath her eyelids.

Micah stood in his sleeping flannels. Their daughter, Petty, slept in a room off the kitchen. The house was silent as he made his way through it. He eased his daughter’s door open. Instantly he felt it. An absence. That clotted, stinging darkness holding nothing at all.

Micah’s breath rasped as his remaining eye adjusted. The blankets had been folded back at one corner, as if his daughter had slid out for a drink of water—she did this sometimes in the summer when the heat lay leaden inside the walls. One evening he’d found her at the pump, the hem of her nightdress wet with water. He had chastised her, not wanting her to make a habit of being out of doors at night. But the water was cooler from the pump, she’d said, so much better than the tepid stuff that ran from the kitchen tap.

“Pet?” he said, sure that he would get no reply. His mind was quickly turning to the solidity of her disappearance.

He had been dreading this moment since the day she was born.

He moved swiftly through the house. She was nowhere inside. The back door was ajar. He stepped outside. The fields rolled away under the moon, flat and endless. The Black Mountain range tilted against the horizon.

“Pet?” he called.

The wind curled around his ankles. He went back inside. He stepped into his boots and donned his duster, then went back out.

He gazed across the moon-silvered field. Beyond it, miles off, rose knuckled hillsides that, come summer, would be clad in flaming pokeweed. The barn door was open—had he forgotten to shut it? He crossed the field and stepped into the barn. He felt his way through the shuddering horseflesh and climbed a ladder to the hayloft.

The trunk was where he’d left it, covered in a horsehair blanket. He had not gazed upon it in years. It held his old life. That was a time best left shut.

The trunk’s innards smelled of gun oil and old blood. He retrieved one pistol, then the next. They felt good in his hands. Like brothers, like sisters, like homecoming.

Both guns were highly modified. Russian Tokarevs bored out to chamber .45 rounds. Their barrels had been filed to four inches. Micah had also ground off the sights—sights were useless at close range, and anyway, they might snag when clearing concealment. One gun had a mother-of pearl grip; the other, sandalwood. He loaded them and slid them into the pockets of his duster.

Outside, the fields lay spectral in the witching hours. Ground fog ribboned along the earth. Micah marched toward a forest of piñon and ponderosa pines at the edge of his property—past the tree line, the land was still wild.

I should not have closed my eye, he thought. Should not have let my guard down.

Fifteen years. A long time to keep one’s guard up. Hellishly long for even the hardest of men. That man can try to sleep with one eye open, keeping watch over those he loves and fosters . . . but every man has to sleep sometime.

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 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.

A tatter of cloth hung from a piñon branch. A pattern of cabbage flowers, faded from washing. Petty’s nightdress.

Micah stepped into the trees, treading on a carpet of brown needles. His body ached. His knees were about cooked and his arms felt heavy. Age makes fools of us all. There was nothing to track—no blood, thank Christ, and his daughter’s bare feet would leave no impression. His heart thumped ponderously in his chest, but he walked with care, his working eye half lidded as though he might fall back asleep. The fear he had felt upon waking, the fear that had spiked when he discovered his daughter’s bed empty, was now gone. He cursed his own inner coolness—the very trait that had distinguished him in his past life.

Do I not care enough for my daughter to feel true panic? What other father would react this way, under these same circumstances?

He came upon a clearing. A shape stood in the fall of moonlight. It was black, as if its body had been carved from the surrounding night. It was unmoving, but Micah could tell that its eyes, so many of them, were focused on him with a commingling of baleful mockery and something that smacked of pity: the flat stare of a cottonmouth as it gazed upon a field mouse.

“Give her back,” Micah said.

The thing shuffled forward. Its body rippled as if in delight. It gave off an odor that reminded Micah of the night, years ago, when he had awoken to hear scratching inside the walls at a hotel in Carson City. There was a hole the size of a thumbnail where two walls met; carpenter ants—the most enormous he’d ever seen—spilled through the hole, numberless in their multitudes, sheeting down the plaster like bristling dark molasses. They carried with them the same dry, festering stink he smelled now—metallic, vinegary, somehow vulgar.

The thing issued a gargling hack. Was it trying to speak? It capered and sloshed; its body teemed with quarrelsome movements. The sense of déjà vu was overwhelming; he was nauseated by it. This had happened before, all of it. Yet it had the feel of a dream, something that had once occurred in a fantasyland—someplace far away and long, long ago.

“Give her back,” he said again.

The thing made a clotted rattle that might have been its attempt at laughter. Its head, or one of its heads, cocked to one side—too far, as if its neck had been snapped and had surrendered to the bulbous weight of its skull . . .

But Micah knew it wasn’t a head he was looking at—heads were appendages gracing men and beasts, and this thing was neither of those. Micah had not dealt with such creatures in so, so long. Staring at its shuddering shape filled him with exhaustion so dreadful that it was as if the hollows of his bones had been flooded with lead.

The thing shook with what could be mistaken for mirth, the ribbed and fatty texture of its body jiggling. Why was he speaking to it? He knew where Petty was—or would soon be, anyway. He spat on the browned pine needles and reached for his smoke wagons.

“What in hell do I need you for?”

His hands lit up with thunder. Bullets tore into the thing. Parts of its body ripped free and spun into the dark. The creature slumped to the ground and attempted to crawl or flop toward Micah, heaving itself forward in torturous paroxysms. Micah paused, the gunpowder stinging his nose, and took careful aim. He plugged the final four rounds into what he felt to be its skull, or skulls. The thing jerked and bucked. Then it stopped, all told.

Micah slammed fresh clips into his pistols. He holstered one and approached the thing with the other one drawn.

The creature lay prone, its body issuing a queer hum. Putrid fumes carried off it. Meat from many species of animal all crushed together, the bones jutting slantwise and the exposed fatty tissues shining butter-yellow in the moonlight. He spied the crumpled head of a jaguarundi that had been stitched through some horrific process to the shell of an armadillo. There were elements of birds, of fish, of serpents—and a swath of tawny flesh that might have once draped the skull of a luckless hiker. The corrugated canvas of flesh and fur was maggot-ridden and pocked with ichor-filled boils.

The head of a wolf hung off one side; its eyes had been sucked out and added to the muscat bunch that stared woodenly from the middle of the thing’s chest.

Micah had no inkling how these atrocities came to be. He knew them only as the handmaidens of his old nemesis. He couldn’t guess at the wicked animus filling their bodies. The hum intensified. The heap of corrupted meat convulsed. Micah stepped back. One of the thing’s skulls—eyeless, featureless, nothing but a bloated bladder of mismatched organ

meats and pelts—swelled and threatened to burst . . .

And then it did. It ripped raggedly apart. Insects poured out. Weevils and bark beetles and deer ticks, millipedes and sightless moths, ladybugs with blackly diseased wings. The thing deflated as the bugs deserted it in a scuttle of legs and carapaces and wriggling antennae—

From somewhere in the night, distant and dimming:

The trill of a flute.

 

Little Heaven is available from Gallery Books

 

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