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book review

Nick Cutter, left; Craig Davidson, right

Nick Cutter is leery of Craig Davidson. In a 2014 interview with the 49th Shelf, Canada's new king of horror fiction called Davidson a grovelling parasite and accused him of mooching beer. "If we are friends," said Cutter, "it is in the way a remora is a shark's friend." A remora, for the record, attaches to a shark with a sucking disc on its head, feeding on dead skin, fecal matter and other effluvia from the host's body.

It's a pretty rough way for Cutter to talk about a fellow author, especially considering that he and Davidson are the same person.

As soon as Cutter's debut novel, The Troop, hit the radar, people were calling his identity the worst-kept secret in Canadian publishing. Not that Davidson tried very hard to hide his pseudonym. In his own interviews, he happily admits that Cutter was created at his agent's suggestion, as a way to help readers delineate between Davidson's acclaimed "serious" books like Rust and Bone and Cataract City, and the gore-spattered nightmares of his deranged counterpart.

On the eve of the release of Cutter's second novel, The Deep, it can be said that the plan worked swimmingly. Davidson has enjoyed his fair share of success: Rust and Bone was adapted into a 2012 film starring Marion Cotillard, and Cataract City was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013. But since its release, The Troop has been everywhere: at horror conventions, in drug stores, on the shelves of airport bookshops, proudly showing off a pithy cover blurb from Stephen King calling it "old-school horror at its best." Thanks to its Giller buzz, Cataract City crept onto The Globe and Mail's bestseller list for a week in November, 2013; The Troop, by comparison, enjoyed 11 weeks on the list, spanning the spring and summer of last year.

Late last year, The Globe published a couple of pieces by Canadian authors bemoaning how hard it is to survive as a novelist in this country. "The more experienced and proficient you become over the years, the less you are compensated," wrote Camilla Gibb, the author of four novels.

The unholy coupling of Craig Davidson and Nick Cutter points to a potential solution. If you can't survive as a novelist in Canada, what about as two? Or three, for that matter? Chances are good that Nick Cutter's success will renew interest in a certain Patrick Lestewka – Davidson's first horror pseudonym. His novels, The Preserve and The Coliseum, tread similar territory as Cutter's, and while Davidson has said that conjuring Cutter was partly a way to bury his older pen name, Lestewka's books are still available on Amazon.

The 20th-century Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is known for having taken the concept of pseudonyms further than most. He invented several different "heteronyms," distinct, fully formed literary identities with their own histories, backgrounds and writing styles. The poet Alberto Caeiro, for instance, was a kind of rustic Zen genius, considered a master by fellow figment Ricardo Reis, a doctor who preferred classical forms. Pessoa's heteronyms referred to and commented on each other's work, creating a self-contained miniature universe of cross-personal literature.

Others have taken a similar approach. Kierkegaard had more than a dozen heteronyms. Robin Skelton, who co-founded The Malahat Review, was occasionally a French surrealist named Georges Zuk. No less a brand name than Stephen King created Richard Bachman as a way to rectify his enormous output with a cautious publishing strategy. Although it grinds against entrenched notions of literature as a cradle of authenticity – a home for the lyrical, the personal, the truth – the notion that one human can contain different writers has long been a way to facilitate creativity or tackle the challenges of publication. Just ask Mary Ann Evans, Charles Dodgson or Guan Moye. (Better known, respectively, as George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Mo Yan.)

There are practical advantages to creating a parallel literary persona. For one, you can write more. Typically, authors are expected to wait several years between books, but the rules are less strident in genre fiction: Another Cutter novel, The Acolyte, is already on tap for this May. A fourth, Little Heaven, will be published in early 2016. Having a pseudonym also provides an admirer or critic to help increase your media profile. Craig Davidson has called Cutter a human monster, but also admits that he's a "marvelous bastard" who deserves the praise he's received.

There are those who might see maintaining an active alter ego as a sign of questionable sanity. From a creative perspective, this, too, could be seen as a benefit. The ability to inhabit other worlds and other consciousnesses, to embrace the darkness: These are useful tools for a fiction writer.

Which brings us to The Deep. A gleefully paranoid tweak-out that mixes elements of The Thing, The Abyss, The Shining and It with a smattering of H.P. Lovecraft, it's a great illustration of what Craig Davidson – himself one of our most visceral literary writers – could probably never get away with.

The story concerns a journey to a research station, the Trieste, located in the deepest part of the ocean – Challenger Deep, at the bottom of the Pacific's Mariana Trench – to search for the cure to a mysterious disease ravaging life on the surface. Our hero, the veterinarian Luke Nelson, has an estranged savant brother, a vanished son and a monstrous family history, all grist for the ancient evil infesting the Trieste's claustrophobic hatchways. The set-up is Horror 101 – strand people in a remote, confined space and loose devilry upon them – and Cutter runs with the concept, slinging tested genre tricks like dollops of the malicious goo that coats every cackling page.

Cutter is a master of the snap cliffhanger – "What the hell was that?" – and at using the obvious to build tension: "A hole. Halfway up the wall. Except it wasn't really a hole, was it?" He has the nerve and licence to begin his book with the sentence, "The old man's head was covered in mantises," which is ludicrous, and, in this case, an invitation to dive into the madness with abandon. The language is lurid, oozing dread like black pus, writhing with onomatopoeic SCCCHRIIKs and thwwwilliiiippps.

The writing works, in part because there is bleed between Cutter and Davidson. For all the gross-out fun, Davidson's literary heart haunts Cutter's novels like a sad ghost. Hence, we get statements of deep sincerity, like "you owe your child love and understanding, owe it unconditionally, and if you love them strongly enough, eventually that love may be returned." There are forays into poetry: "His final surface sight was of a new moon hovering in its eastern orbit: a waxen ball whose light plated the slack darkness of the sea."

We even get, hidden within the entrails, what could be taken as a plaintive plea for acceptance of the author's fractured identity: "If you love someone, you love them in all their states, don't you?"

That said, it's the grisly bits that are rendered with the most gusto, presumably because this is where both Cutter and Davidson, who says he always thought he'd be a horror writer, are having the most fun. The descriptions channel Lovecraft at his most unhinged, revelling in psychological breakdown, desecrated flesh and all manner of nefarious fluid.

There's so much squelchy glee in the writing that it's forgivable if the book goes off the rails a bit at the end, slapping down unspeakable horrors like a butcher unloading offal at bargain prices. Even if The Deep lacks the thematic rigour and precision nastiness of The Troop, it takes a special kind of writer to launch gobbets of prose like "ichor that spurted from puckered orifices on their abdomens," and make them stick.

Thanks to the Internet and social media, it's easier than ever to bring a fictional persona into real conversations. Anyone can self-publish, and tools like Wattpad are making it easier to try and generate income without the approval of so-called gatekeepers. At the very least, they're ideal forums for testing out a new identity that could end up as a cash cow. Craig Davidson describes himself as, "like many Canadian literary writers, poor by definition." Nick Cutter helps him pay off his mortgage. Maybe wins him more time to work on the follow-up to Cataract City, too.

Not all writers could pull off what Davidson has. But maybe more should try.

Because the best answer to the question of why to write as someone else might be the simplest one, the lesson that all fiction teaches us: Sometimes, it's fun to be other people.

J.R. McConvey is a Toronto-based writer. You can find his fiction at