The Hidden Horrors of Craig Davidson

Craig Davidson, aka Nick Cutter, on monsters & icons

Craig Davidson is the author of a number of books featuring hard-living characters in bleak landscapes. His collection Rust and Bone was adapted for a critically acclaimed film in 2012, and his most recent novel Cataract City traces the shifting fortunes of two childhood friends over several decades. The cast of characters there involves small-time criminals, greyhound racers, and a drug-addled wrestler. One early set-piece finds its protagonists lost in the woods as children. It’s a constantly terrifying section of prose.

So it’s not that surprising to find that Davidson also writes horror under the name Nick Cutter. His novel The Troop puts a group of scouts on a camping trip in contact with a terrifying entity, and his forthcoming Little Heaven (January 2017) follows a trio of guns-for-hire as they track a child abducted by a religious cult, finding something terrifying lurking out in the desert in the process. I met up with Davidson at New York Comic Con to talk about his double literary identity, how the two sides of his work feed one another, and what scares him as a reader and a writer.

Tobias Carroll: What first drew you to horror as a reader?

Craig Davidson: What drew me to it for sure, as with much of my generation–and generations after, and generations before–was Stephen King. He casts a big shadow. You know, Poe and Lovecraft and lots of great writers. I became omnivorous as a teenager, twentysomething, thirtysomething, reading as much horror as I could, way down the rabbit hole — other writers who weren’t as popular as King, and maybe in some ways didn’t really deserve to be, because their outlook on things was, maybe, too dark. I like them, but you also recognize that maybe not everyone would necessarily like them, because their worldview is really dark and unremitting. King definitely would have been the pole star as far as my reading. He gives me so much joy, so the idea would be, I’d like to try and enter the fray.

Carroll: King also holds a pretty formative place for me; I’m also pretty sure that Danse Macabre was the first book I ever read about writing.

Davidson: I think it was for me, too.

Carroll: As someone with a foot in multiple genres, was there one that came first for you, or have you always written horror and more realist works?

Davidson: What happened was, I started writing horror under a pseudonym years ago. I had a couple of books come out in my mid-twenties. I did my Master’s degree in Creative Writing, and as a function of that, you had to do a thesis. I knew they were not going to let me to do a zombie book, or a slime creature book, or some more refined idea of horror. Even a book like House of Leaves, as much as I love it, they might not have been able to get behind that. It was very strict, in terms of what you had to write on, at the time. Hopefully that’s changed.

I wrote a short story collection, thinking that was about as literary as I could get, and as academic, as I could get. That was Rust and Bone, my first book, basically. That took me off on a quasi-literary path. But I’d always had this desire to write horror. I had this idea, and I wrote a book in about six weeks. Fast enough that I didn’t even want to think about it, because I didn’t know what would happen with it. Sending it to my agent, I didn’t even know what he’d say. But I did it and sent it off, and he said, “We might be able to do something with this.” That was The Troop, and that went in that direction.

Carroll: One of the things that struck me most about Cataract City was how the first hundred pages, where the boys are lost in the woods, seemed like it could turn into a horror story at any minute. Do you know, when you’re starting to write something, if it’ll fall into one category or another, or are the two moving closer together?

Davidson: Now that I think about it, they are starting to merge a little bit. I think my next literary novel, whenever I sit down to write it, will definitely have some very genre elements in it that would not have been in my earlier work. I like to think of my horror work as “literary,” in as far as I dwell on the language and characterization. And, obviously, good genre writing is the same–it’s not like good genre writers don’t dwell on those things. The same level of intensity goes into writing both.

Carroll: Both Cataract City and Little Heaven have structures that jump around in time, where both timeframes have mysteries that need to be unraveled. Is that how you like to approach the plotting of a book, or is that more what worked for those particular stories?

Davidson: With Cataract City, it was submitted to the editor as a linear story. She said, “Because it starts out as these kids, readers aren’t necessarily going to know that they’re going to grow up to be adults, and it’s going to be a totally different thing.” So she suggested that we let readers know where those characters are now, know that this is an “adult story,” and we broke it apart and shifted the narrative all around. Some of it was difficult, but some of it was kind of easy. It took on the structure that it ended up being.

Little Heaven is like It. That was my template for it. Let’s introduce these characters where some awful thing happened some years ago. These present-day characters are still suffering the effects of it. Once you’ve established that there’s something terrible happening, let’s go back in time and show readers what the hell happened.

Carroll: Earlier today, you were on a panel about villains, so I was curious: In Little Heaven, you have both a supernatural villain and a very human one. Is there a challenge in coming up with a compelling antagonist to whom human psychology doesn’t apply?

Davidson: I was really pleased to be on that panel, and I thought it was a lot of fun. To me, the best villains are the ones who start out doing something that you could sort of agree with. You could say, “Okay, I see your motivation”–and maybe your motivation is to benefit the human race, or some subset. And then your obsession takes it over the line. I think I’ve always had a bugaboo about religion. I’ve always been very resistant and scared of its potential. It’s a potential that you can see enacting itself in real life–not just in Jonestown, which is invoked in the book, but also just in giving your life over and feeling guilty and being made to feel guilty about things that may be aspects of human nature and are not in themselves terrible.

Carroll: The Troop involves an outdoor setting; there’s a very ominous, primal aspect to the outdoors in the first hundred pages of Cataract City; and there’s this sprawling outdoor space in Little Heaven. What draws you to these naturalistic spaces where horrible things take place?

Davidson: I don’t know if it’s the Canadian in me, but there are a lot of wide open spaces out there. It’s not like we’re getting carried off by enterprising bears very often, but we were always warned about the woods, and yet we were always taken into the woods on scouting trips or camping trips. There’s this push-pull between “These are very dangerous” and “These are very beautiful and you can learn a lot and grow as a person, and you don’t want to be in front of a TV all day.” So I think a lot of that must go back to my childhood, in the sense that wide-open outdoor spaces hold as much beauty as threat. And that’s very much part of the Canadian character and part of Canadian literary history. It’s a lot about man versus the elements. I’m sure early American frontier literature is the same, and that a lot of people are still fascinated by frontier narratives and forging civilization out of nothingness. That’s probably where it came from.

It’s not like we’re getting carried off by enterprising bears very often, but we were always warned about the woods…

Carroll: Is there a Canadian literary horror tradition as a subset of that?

Davidson: There are some really good presses. ChiZine Press is a Toronto-area press that’s doing a lot of “dark fiction.” It’s not really straight-up horror. There’s a huge love for horror practitioners, but that love is largely heaped upon foreign people, like Barker, King, Koontz, on down the list. We have some really good horror writers, but not any that are super-well known. Thus, maybe the tradition in Canada is emergent. Let’s hope it’s emergent.

Carroll: As you were saying that, David Cronenberg’s name popped into my head. And he’s written a novel as well…

Davidson: Consumed, yeah. I think maybe visually, he’s a huge influence on me. On the book side, maybe I’m missing somebody.

Carroll: Is there an Alice Munro of horror?

Davidson: Well, Andrew Pyper, who’s a buddy of mine and a really good writer, did a book called The Demonologist, and many others. He would be our closest. There are a lot of up-and-comers, well, you hope, anyway. That’s how you establish a tradition: to have a bunch of people come up at the same time and push each other. You’re seeing it here with Joe Hill and Paul Tremblay and many others. The American horror is strong and continues to be strong; the Canadian horror, just like in many things, we’re catching up.

Carroll: I wanted to ask about location–it’s very significant to Cataract City, and a cursed place is at the heart of Little Heaven. How much worldbuilding do you have to do as you create a setting for a book?

Davidson: Writing a book is a daunting thing. There are more daunting things, don’t get me wrong, but it’s daunting enough that you want some sureties. One of the main sureties that I have is that I know where I’m from. I know the rhythms of that place. I know how the people behave, generally, because I’m one of them. That’s usually why most of my books are set there, because I know that place. It takes away one of the many things you have to worry about, to a degree.

In terms of horror, location is important because of the action it’ll kindle. One of the most classic horror things is, you take a group of people and you isolate them. You cut off the outside world somehow, by hook or by crook. And it’s the external monster, whatever that happens to be, and–as The Walking Dead or The Mist does so well–it’s the actual dissent among the people and that descent towards anarchy and bloodthirstiness. So when I isolate characters in horror, it’s to do a very specific job.

Carroll: Earlier, you said that you started reading horror with Stephen King, so I’m curious about where your taste in horror is now. Who are you reading these days?

Davidson: A couple of years ago, I found myself realizing just how little, in some ways, I had known and read in horror. You read the big guys and women, but they put out so many books that you can just be taken up by reading them and trying to keep up with them. So I made a very distinct effort to read a lot of 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s horror. Thomas Tyron’s The Other, [Ray Russell’s] The Case Against Satan–which, if you read The Exorcist, you go, “That’s it.” [Robert Marasco’s] Burnt Offerings. Thomas Ligotti–he’s more modern, but I’d never read him.

Stephen King gives a lot of credit to Burnt Offerings for The Shining. And you sit down and you read Burnt Offerings after reading The Shining, and it feels good as a writer. I’d thought The Shining was this sui generis thing–that it was him, that he’d made it up, whole cloth, and you’re awed at the talent and the imagination. And then you realize, no, it’s good to see the antecedents. It’s not like he ripped off any of it. The Overlook Hotel is much different than the mansion in Burnt Offerings. But I can see the roots; I can see that there were things there that he liked and used in his own way. In some ways, reckoning with a talent such as King, it’s important to see that he’s a human being, too, and inspired by the same things we are.

In some ways, reckoning with a talent such as King, it’s important to see that he’s a human being, too, and inspired by the same things we are.

Carroll: Is there a type of horror that you find gets under your skin the most?

Davidson: I’m not sure if it’s a category, so much as certain books that work well. The Exorcist–of course, I read that after seeing the movie, so I think those things go in tandem. I felt those same sweeping chills running over me. House of Leaves is truly disturbing [and] scary–just the immensity of space. The idea that there is this infinity of space that you can just get lost in, or that your obsessions will carry you into. And of course, all of the tricks with the narrative. I was amazed by that, but the simple story itself was terrifying. And Pet Sematary, as a father especially, reading it again, you’re doubly terrified. The works of Ligotti. Songs of a Dead Dreamer–that shit gets under your skin in a very profound way!

Carroll: I remember the first time I read House of Leaves, I was scared to open the door of the room I was in because I no longer felt sure about what might be on the other side.

Davidson: But when you break that book down even further, it was a story of a man and his family, or a woman and her family. And it often is that way. There is, in some way, a very human resonance that we feel there as well on top of the uncanny terror that some of that stuff inspires. I think he did a great job.

Carroll: Earlier, you talked about writing a horror novel in six weeks. Does your process vary depending on the type of book you’re working on, or is it less so now?

Davidson: As Stephen King said, the page opens up and you fall in, and you come up and go, “I’ve written three thousand words here.” It’s easier for me to do that with horror–at least it feels like that lately. That’s why it’s enabled me to write some of those books really quickly. Maybe there’s some hoary old feeling in my head that you need to throw yourself around the room a little bit more for a literary book; you need to go down and plumb the deepest parts of yourself and reckon… Some of that may be unnecessary writerly junk that gets in your head. It does take me longer to write those, but I have a lot more fun, generally, writing the Nick Cutter stuff. Mentally, it works out well.

Carroll: Is it ever disorienting to think that some readers may only be aware of one side of your work?

Davidson: I think we’re all fortunate to have any readers at all. But I’ve seen a lot where someone will read Cataract City and then discover a Nick Cutter novel and read The Troop and go, “Aw, why’d he even do this?” Or vice versa–they loved The Troop or The Deep and then they read a Craig Davidson novel and go, “Ugh, this is weak sauce.” With the cross-pollination, if it happens, it happens; you can’t do anything about it. I feel like there are some key similarities. It may be a bit of a double-edged sword, but it’s something I’m more than willing to deal with.

Carroll: Both Cataract City and Little Heaven feature kids in the woods in jeopardy; there’s also a a brief reference in Little Heaven to low-level wrestling circuits, which hearkened back to Cataract City

Davidson: As you know as a writer, we have our obsessions. I don’t see why you wouldn’t indulge them. Why else would you be a writer? I mean, plenty of other reasons, but one of them is, indulging your obsessions and really having fun with them.

Why else would you be a writer? I mean, plenty of other reasons, but one of them is, indulging your obsessions…

Carroll: Is there a type of monster or a type of horror that you’d like to tackle that you haven’t already?

Davidson: I think I’d like to do something more cerebral, for lack of a better term. I like narratives, like Rosemary’s Baby, where you’re not sure if she’s going crazy or if they’re out to get her. Ira Levin was so good at carving the atom so that you didn’t know until the end. Something like that. You’ve always got to try new stuff, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’m a working writer, for lack of a better term, so as much as I’d like to go, the push-pull is between doing stuff you know you’re good at or trying to do something where you know you’re going to have to go through a lot. It might be more satisfying to do this, but it’s safer to do this. The push-pull is between satisfaction and safety. And with–I can’t believe I’m saying this–a mortgage and a wife and a child, sometimes safety wins out. Which is nothing that I’d ever tell you at 18, nor would I advocate it to other writers. But in some ways that’s kind of the truth. But hopefully I’ll say, “Fuck it” and do stuff that I know I might fail at. You can fail going safe, too. Failure lurks on the other side of the fence.

Carroll: When you mentioned Rosemary’s Baby, I was thinking of Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, which I’m reading right now, and which seems to deal with a similar ambiguity.

Davidson: I love that book. I wouldn’t say he’s come out of the blue, because I’ve known Tremblay for years; we’re kind of contemporaries. But with these last two books–I wouldn’t say he’s upped his game, because his game has always been good. But he’s really found his seam, and it’s lovely to see. And it’s well-deserved, because that guy has been working hard, he’s a real student of the genre, and he’s a really good writer.

Carroll: Have you ever read something that scared you to the point where you had to put it aside for a little while?

Davidson: I wish. If I ever do that and it actually scares other people… I’ve been working lately with dream stuff, really carrying stuff out of my dreams and not using bits of it, but using it whole. Dreams are, if you can remember them, Lynchian. That could be scary, because you don’t know where that shit comes from.

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