Boys Don’t Cry: Craig Davidson’s testosterone-jacked horror novels examine what it means to be a man
Craig Davidson’s fiction is a kind of literary man cave: in every book, he cracks open a space to examine the guyest of guy stuff. His prose is hefty, kinetically charged and, on occasion, absolutely disgusting. And while he writes with the chest-beating vigour of Hemingway and Bukowski, the literary landscape has transformed since the days of those particular he-men.
We live in an era when rape culture and mansplaining are at the centre of the social commentary; male-dominated fields like manufacturing and construction have shrivelled into oblivion; and, for the first time in history, expectant parents around the globe might be more likely to yearn for a daughter than a son. In response, so-called Manly Men are at pains to assert their continued relevance. They form men’s rights organizations and fight for the freedom to manspread on the subway. They advertise their outsized masculinity, donning lumbersexual costumes and holding axe-throwing competitions.
Davidson is an acclaimed literary novelist whose triumphs include a spot on the Giller shortlist and a Golden Globe–nominated adaptation of his first book, Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard. He’s obsessed with what it means to be a man in an era when masculinity is considered toxic, spinning comically macho tropes (steroid use, bare-knuckle brawling, dogfighting, professional wrestling) into writing that connects with all the impact of a closed fist. Davidson set his debut novel, The Fighter, in the underworld of illicit backroom boxing. For research, he famously injected himself with a course of illegal steroids he ordered online—a kind of “method” writing that caused him to gain 35 pounds of muscle and lose some of his hair. To promote the book, he fought matches at Florida Jacks boxing gym near Yonge and Wellesley.
Last year, Davidson began publishing under the pseudonym Nick Cutter—unlike his literary fiction, the Cutter books are gleefully putrid horror novels full of violence and decay. His first title under that pseudonym, The Troop, follows boy scouts turning against one another on an island off the coast of P.E.I., while his second, The Deep, depicts a ravaged, post-apocalyptic world where the only chance at salvation may be found among the unknowable monsters in the darkest depths of the ocean. This month, he releases his third Nick Cutter book, The Acolyte, a dystopian crime caper set in a near-future super-state, where Christian fundamentalism has trumped secular reason as an organizing principle of government. It reads a bit like a macho rewrite of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as if Davidson had flipped the gendered script to reveal how men find their place in a conservative, zealously enforced patriarchy.
The Acolyte takes contemporary manly tropes and blows them out to cartoonish heights: nearly every character exaggerates his masculinity with the bravado of a WWE fighter. The hero, Jonah Murtag, lives in New Bethlehem, a city ruled, more or less, by a man called the Prophet—a charismatic preacher who literally came up on the freak-show circuit. The Prophet’s theatrical mega-church becomes a de facto city hall. Invested with the powers of both God and a shadowy state-ordained divine council, he interprets the world for his constituents, all of whom are expected to follow him or face prosecution. The world, according to his supposedly godly interpretation, is a twisted, white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic nightmare. Davidson politicizes the fantasies of a meathead misogynist and takes them to the extreme.
Jonah works on New Bethlehem’s church-state police force, the Acolytes, who must carry out the mandates of the Prophet and fight crimes against the faith. With one exception, the force is entirely made up of men, all of whom are quick to defend their manliness. In one of the first glimpses we get of Jonah on the job, he and his armed colleagues raid a meeting of gay men. “We’d known about their cell for a while: a harmless passel of nancies trying to rehabilitate themselves,” he says. To Jonah and co., homosexuality threatens everything the Acolytes understand about masculinity and, by extension, the rigid order they’re meant to enforce. His colleagues overplay their homophobia: when they discover the secret meeting, they shout and reel, slamming the men to the ground and cuffing them with gusto. Gay men aren’t the only targets of the state’s dude-bro anxiety—people of colour and of non-Christian faiths are municipally zoned into ghettos. New Bethlehem is beset with terrorists, and at one point, Jonah is disturbed to discover that a suicide bomber who blows up a nighclub is “the wrong colour,” which is to say: white.
As the novel progresses, Jonah’s faith in the rigid social structure starts to waver. He no longer feels called to perform his duties as an Acolyte, and so his sense of his place in the world shifts, to the point where, in the end, the only faith he holds is in himself. What’s so fascinating about Davidson’s fiction is its ambivalence: he’s simultaneously satirizing and celebrating outsized manliness. He creates a safe space to interrogate masculinity on masculine terms—his books are boys’ clubs, where protagonists play at being men in order to understand just what it might mean to be one. Set aside the jacked-up gore and fantastical scenarios, and Davidson’s art becomes an imitation of life. In a world where gender and sexuality are in flux, Jonah, like the rest of us, has to determine the value of his life for himself.
By Nick Cutter