Two years ago, my friend Jason was raving about The Troop, a horror novel by an author named Nick Cutter. “It’s fucking sick,” he swore to me. “You’re going to love it.”
Jason and I share an affinity for horror in all its forms — we recently drank rosé and watched Hush (not great) and Unfriended (totally great) back-to-back. Modern horror films aside, Jason’s book recommendations are always on-point. So I downloaded The Troop and started reading it immediately. The premise was simple — a troop of Boy Scouts’ annual camping trip is infiltrated by a man carrying a strain of monstrously lethal parasitic worms. And as Jason promised, it definitely qualified as “sick as fuck”:
A shape materialized from the tangled foliage. Tim inhaled sharply. By the light of an uncommonly bright moon, he beheld a creature fully formed from his blackest childhood nightmares: a rotted monster who’d dragged itself from the sea.
It wasn’t much more than a skeleton lashed by ropes of waterlogged muscle, its flesh falling off its bones in gray, lace-edged rags. It lumbered forward, mumbling dully to itself. Tim’s terror pinned him in place.
The thing shambled through a shaft of moonlight that danced along the tall grass; the light transformed the nightmare into what it truly was: a man so horrifyingly thin it was a miracle he was still alive.
Not to quibble with Cutter’s meaning, but I interpreted it more as a thing than a man. Either way, it wipes out the scout leader and then the scouts one by one. Overall, the experience of reading The Troop reminded me of discovering Stephen King’s books in boarding school. I’d stay up all night reading them, curled up on the dryer in my dorm bathroom with multiple blankets wrapped around me because it felt like the safest place to be. At the same time, The Troop was also deep and meaningful.
Thus began my obsession with Nick Cutter — the pen name for a decidedly more highbrow writer named Craig Davidson. To wit, two of the short stories from his book Rust and Bone were adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Davidson’s other books as himself, The Fighter and Cataract City, have been released to great critical acclaim as well.
While all that praise is deserved, I still can’t shake his work as Nick Cutter. (His latest Cutter book, Little Heaven, is due out in January.) And being that Halloween is almost upon us, it seemed like the perfect time to talk to him about how he makes gore sound so good. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation we had last week by phone — Davidson lives in and writes from his native Canada. Be forewarned, though: spoilers and fairly graphic descriptions of violence abound.
Why the need for a pen name, and how did you go about coming up with the name Nick Cutter?
I grew up reading horror. Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz and Anne Rice were my touchstones as a teenager. But certain things transpired, and I ended up writing a couple of books under my own name. When I got the idea for The Troop, my agent said that readers might have an issue with me writing pulpy, gory horror. They might not get it, or it might burn the Craig Davidson name. So we decided to create a pen name. My son’s name is Nicholas, and he was born around the same time Nick Cutter was born. My wife and I thought it would be funny if I used the pen name Nick — as well as serve as an honor of sorts. My agent was like, “‘King’ and ‘Barker’ are powerful last names so let’s do something like that for yours.”
That’s really how the name “Nick Cutter” was born. I like it; it suits the work. I definitely have more fun writing as him than myself. It feels great to take the shackles off. You’d think it’s this guy who wears a trench coat, has long black hair and a raven perched on his shoulder. But I’m nothing like that; I’m a tall, goofy redhead. That’s okay, though. Whatever image becomes entrenched in people’s head when they think of “Nick Cutter” is fine by me.
The question, “What does it mean to be a man?” comes up in most of your books. Is this reflective of your own personal experiences, a cultural observation or both?
My books as Craig Davidson — Rust and Bone, The Fighter and Cataract City — are all investigations of masculinity. The first two I wrote at a time in my life when I was an angry late 20something/early 30something male trying to figure out my role in society. Some of that must have bled over to the horror side of things. As a writer, your obsessions are there. It’s unavoidable; they come out in ways you’re not consciously aware of. It’s difficult facing a blank page and cobbling together a novel, so you cull from your own experience.
The Troop is a great example of this. I made some good friends in Boy Scouts. That time in life — whether you’re a girl or a boy — is interesting. You want to be treated like an adult, but if things get too serious, you want to put your hands up and say, “I’m a kid. I shouldn’t have to make these decisions.” I wanted to put the kids in The Troop in the position where they had to assume adult roles quickly because the adult is eliminated early in the narrative.
What does “being a man” mean to you?
Being as good of a husband, father, son, friend and brother as I can be. Not going out of my way to hurt anybody but also being able to stick up for myself. Most of all, though, I’ve realized it’s in the small things. I used to think being a man was about the BIG gestures and the BIG tests of strength and fortitude. But now, as a 40-year-old, I know better: It’s in the small moments, the small gestures and a daily kind of persistence. Which isn’t really a male thing at all; it’s a human thing.
How has fatherhood affected that thinking?
It’s certainly meant dealing with a lot more fear than I knew this world held. A lot more heartache, too. Our son is generally healthy, but he’s had some health issues. You say things like, “Let me take that pain away,” but the world is resistant to bargains of that nature. From the moment he was born, this person became the most important thing in our lives, and we have to watch helplessly as the world leave its mark on him. For example, he came up to my wife yesterday and said something like, “Buddy was crying at school today.” Buddy is this little sheep he has, which we know is a stand-in for him. My wife was like, “What happened?” He told her, “No one was happy to see Buddy today.” It’s awful — most of all because you can’t do anything about it. There’s no way to protect him, but that reality doesn’t keep your heart from breaking when you hear things like that.
How do these fatherly feelings play into your writing of violent scenes? Do you use them, or do you leave your actual personality behind and go to a super dark place?
Animals play a fairly major role in my books because I’m terrified by the way we as humans treat them. Sooner or later the world is going to lay its wounds on you, and you can’t do anything to remedy it. I tried to get at this when two of the characters kill a sea turtle in The Troop. It was a hard scene to write because you can almost see it from the boys’ perspective. They’re terrified. They’re starving. They don’t know what’s going on, and they lose control of themselves. In that moment, it just gets more furious and intense, and they give themselves over to it. Then the tension dissipates, and they’re left with the result of their actions.
I definitely go to a dark place when I write a scene like that. It’s a place of powerlessness; I try to put myself in the position of the turtles as much as I can. As I get older, I’m not writing as many of these types of scenes, but they serve a purpose — they’re not just gratuitous. I get a lot of emails to that effect: I’m doing it because I get off on hurting animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you ask horror writers where they get an idea from, it’s generally from their own phobias.
What scares you the most?
I think having a kid makes you scared of new things. I re-read Pet Sematary as a parent, and it’s a different kind of scary than when I read it before. It’s so bleak — especially at the end. But you understand why the father does those things. You lose everything and you have this one, eye-of-the-needle chance to maybe fix everything. Even though every atom in your being thinks it’s going to go terribly wrong, you do it anyway because your love for your family is so strong. As far as certain phobias, I’m Canadian and David Cronenberg is a demigod up here, so our bodies doing things without our agency — changingand mutating — scares me and was the operating force of The Troop.
What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?
On a trip to Thailand, a friend and I decided to go scuba diving. I was down like 20–25 feet; the water was so filthy you couldn’t see more than five feet ahead of you. Lo and behold — probably about 10 feet above me — there was a shark. It was big enough that I about shit my pants. It undulated above the water. It wasn’t even a man-eater, but I thought, Holy shit!
That’ll be a Nick Cutter book at some point. Jaws is the definitive “shark book,” but I’m still going to take a stab at it because in terms of my own phobias, sharks are number one with a bullet. I used to be the kid in the swimming pool who could convince myself that a shark was in there somehow. It made no sense at all, but it didn’t matter. I became absolutely consumed by the fact that there was a shark in the pool, and I had to get out immediately.
What’s the ultimate payoff as a horror writer and as a horror reader/consumer?
When you’re moving toward the end of a horror novel you generally have two ways to go — either good prevails or evil prevails. In most cases, the reader wants good to prevail because that reaffirms their sense of how things are in the world. But a lot of my endings and some of the ones I like reading, such as The Mist, are so bleak. I think there’s a certain level of artistic integrity in a bleak ending. Like: “We’re not going to give the reader what they want; they’re just going to have to deal with it.”
You shouldn’t be afraid of denying readers a happy, rosy ending. After all, in real life, the bad guy does win sometimes. There are good people who die sad, and there are terrible people who die happy. So it’s not like you’re being untrue to lived experience. You’re just not giving people something many of them feel they’ve earned as readers.
The Daily Mail always has a good K-hole of horrific articles on their homepage that I lose myself in for hours and hours. Do you have anything like that? Terrible internet treats you like?
Totally! There are certain Facebook friends who serve up these links all the time — for instance, a YouTube video of a millipede eating a scorpion. Am I going to click on that? Absolutely! There was one video that was just sounds recorded from the bottom of the sea. It was creepy as hell. I have a running email folder of stories that might not be enough to substantiate a whole novel, but could provide a specific visual or dream sequence. I’m a magpie like that. I’m collecting all these diseased, noxious baubles that, for me at least, are nuggets of gold I like to put in my chest of ideas.
Let’s talk about your next book, Little Heaven, which is about three mercenaries who accept a job to check on a little boy who was taken to a backwoods cult in New Mexico. Had you wanted to write about cults for a while, or was it something you just came up with?
Guess what else I’m scared of? The power dynamics of someone like L. Ron Hubbard, who discovered the key to unlocking a certain servility in human nature. It’s amazing how far people will go down a path if someone tells them to because they don’t want to think for themselves.
There’s a character in Little Heaven who’s described as “bloody-minded.” There also are characters like that in The Troop. Have you ever actually known a sociopath or psychopath?
Not that I know of. I love, though, to get inside the mind of someone who’s completely lacking in empathy. They’re almost an alien, but they know how human beings think and function. This complete lack of emotion and empathy actually makes them stronger; they also, however, have to learn how to blend in as much as they can. They’re fun characters to write, but if I’ve ever met one, they’ve yet to reveal themselves.
Until the scene in The Troop where one of the characters strangles a kitten, I’d never encountered a book where I had to skip over pages because I couldn’t bring myself to read them. Have you ever been unable to bring yourself to read or watch something because it fucked with you so much?
The bark on this gnarly old fucking tree is pretty thick at this point, but when I was at school, I got drunk and came back home at like 2 a.m. There were these PETA videos on TV where they’d go into a research lab or inside a slaughterhouse. There was this one in Mongolia where a guy picked up a raccoon creature by the back legs and beat it until it was dazed. Then he cut its skin off while it was still alive. Next, he threw it in a big bucket with all of its brethren who were similarly skinned alive. I was crying — and not just because I was drunk. The horror of it was more than I could bear. I thought to myself, Why can’t you just kill them? I mean, it was just the most cruel and ridiculous thing. That’s by far the most terrifying thing I’ve ever witnessed — all the more so because it was real. The things I write as Nick Cutter might be revolting and distressing, but at least they’re fiction.