Review: ‘The Acolyte’ by Nick Cutter

The Acolyte by Nick Cutter
ChiZine Publications (May 2015)

TheAcolyte-NickCutterAs “Nick Cutter,” author Craig Davidson has already built a reputation as a go-for-broke kind of horror writer; the kind that shies away from nothing, be it disturbing imagery or disturbing ideas. His latest novel, The Acolyte, is the first of Cutter’s books to tip the scales appreciably in favor of idea over imagery. Don’t get me wrong – there’s more than a dollop of blood and guts in The Acolyte, but there are also moments of almost unbelievable restraint; times in which Cutter realizes that what he’s writing about is shocking enough without rolling it in viscera to boot. It’s these moments that help make this his most powerful book yet.

The world of The Acolyte is one ruled by religion, a perversion of the Christian faith that is more about bureaucracy and judgement than love and forgiveness. Cities are ruled by government-appointed Prophets; “heathens” such as Jews are consigned to fenced-off ghettos; scientific advancement has been halted, and measurements come straight out of the Bible (furlongs instead of miles, for example); and the rules are enforced by squads of highly-trained officers known as Acolytes. Cutter has done a tremendous piece of world-building in this book, organically laying out its structure and rules, creating a society that’s both uncomfortably recognizable and completely alien at the same time.

Jonah Murtag is an Acolyte, a devout follower who is good at his job, yet has somehow retained enough of an open mind that he’s not immune to doubt. The tiny cracks in his faith begin to widen as a series of suicide bombings rock his city. When he witnesses one of these bombings in person, he realizes that the usual culprits may not be behind this particular surge of violence. His investigation into the bombings, coupled with his relationship with a fellow Acolyte, soon proves to be the biggest test of faith Murtag will ever encounter.

The Acolyte is a spiritual cousin to another dystopian novel, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like Bradbury’s fireman Guy Montag, Murtag (the name itself a nice nod to Bradbury’s work) is an appointed official tasked with keeping the peace through means that he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with. Both men have been raised and trained to think a certain way, but neither of them is able to fully suppress the idea that this certain way may not be the “right” way. And, like Montag, once Murtag begins to break away from the pack and act on his newfound ideals, he finds that his position within the system offers little in the way of protection.

I don’t know a thing about Cutter’s personal faith or his views on organized religion, but he does not paint a pretty picture of either of those concepts here. In the world of The Acolyte, religion is one big tent revival, a flashy show that keeps the rubes in line, keeps the church coffers lined with cash, and dispenses little in the way of actual salvation. Mix that with Cutter’s gut-punch style of writing, and you’re left with a book that is going to be a difficult read for some. It’s also an excellent read for those that can handle it. As with his previous books, Cutter heartily embraces horror fiction while pushing it beyond its limitations. The Acolyte is highly recommended.

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Review: THE DEEP by Nick Cutter

DeepCoverThe Deep by Nick Cutter
Gallery Books (January 13, 2015)

I stopped taking notes about halfway through The Deep, because taking notes was interrupting the flow of the story, and I really didn’t want to put the book down.

That’s the first cliché I’ll use in this review: “I could not put this book down.” No promises that it will be the last.

I expected to like The Deep. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book by “Nick Cutter” (actually Canadian novelist Craig Davidson)The Troop, when I read it earlier this year (I’d link to the review I wrote for FEARnet, but FEARnet, alas, is no more) so I figured I’d enjoy this one too. What I didn’t expect was to be bowled over, knocked out, roughed up and just plain blown away by The Deep. (How many clichés was that?)

But here – let me catch my breath, give you some details on the book, and return with a less hyperbolic appreciation of it, shall I? The Deep follows veterinarian Luke Nelson to the deepest point of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, where he’s been summoned by his brother Clayton. Clayton is a brilliant scientist who has been eight miles down for some time, working with a strange undersea substance called “ambrosia” that may offer a cure for “The ‘Gets,” a mysterious plague that is slowly eroding the minds of people all over the planet. One of the scientists working with Clayton has already returned to the surface in some distress, and there’s real concern that things have gone terribly wrong  down below.

Luke boards a sub piloted by Alice “Al” Sykes, a Navy commander with several trips to the undersea research lab, the Trieste, already under her belt. It’s a potentially boring trip, but Cutter – who has slowly been turning the tension up by degrees – takes the opportunity to set readers and characters alike on edge. By the time the duo reach the Trieste, there’s a palpable sense that things have already gone wrong and yet are about to get much, much worse. (Spoiler alert: they do.)

Real dread and fear are difficult things to conjure in written form, but that’s exactly what Cutter accomplishes in The Deep. The sense of isolation is oppressive, and the longer Luke is under water the more it becomes apparent that nothing in his life – not this expedition, and nothing in his tragic past – has been mere fate. “Everything happens for a reason” is yet another cliché, but it’s a concept that Cutter wields in new and surprising ways here.

While the atmosphere Cutter builds in these pages is admirable, this is not a “quiet” horror novel. Those who enjoyed the buckets of blood he slopped around the pages of The Troop will find plenty more where that came from, utilized here with even more precision and impact. The unflinching gore is one place where the shadows of Stephen King and Clive Barker – Cutter/Davidson has credited both as major influences in the past – fall heavily over this book. King is especially present here; the Trieste, in all its silent, purposeful malevolence, could just as easily have been called The Overlook.

There’s an abundance of spider imagery in the book, another nod to King, perhaps, one of a couple that can be traced back to King’s massive novel It – there’s also a stand pipe in Luke and Clayton’s past that will remind many of a similar location in King’s town of Derry. You could argue that maybe there’s a touch too much spider imagery, as every description of fear seems to involve tiny legs tracing up someone’s spine, or something light scuttling across a character’s scalp, or some such – even the Trieste is described in one particularly vivid section as spider-like. It was enough that it eventually began to pull me out of the story when it occurred, but I have to admit it was damn effective every time, so I really can’t count it as an issue.

The Deep was the last book I finished in 2014, and it promptly shoved its way into my top ten reads of the year. It’s an exciting start for the horror genre in 2015, and a great next step for Cutter. This is going to be a tough one to top in the new year.

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter