A book review of The Troop: A Novel of Terror by Nick Cutter
I’m inadvertently developing a tradition: I tend to straddle the old and new years with a horror story. Last year around this time, I dove into Nick Cutter’s atmospheric horror novel The Deep–a chilling tale of mysterious forces that operate at extreme pressures in the world’s uncharted depths. This year I camped out with The Troop. While The Deep is a penetrating, almost Lovecraftian tale of the unknown (specifically the machinations of the unknown) that asks, “what’s out there?,” The Troop has a different flavor of horror: it utilises conventions established by the likes of Stephen King and William Golding cut with Cronenberg-esque body horror–all while asking, “what do we do to each other?”
One of the conventions well-established by King (and a slew of 1980s horror films) is the group of pre-adolescent boys in various stages of social and emotional maturity–the “coming of age” story gone horribly, horribly off-trail. Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads his troop of 14-year-old boys to isolated Falstaff Island for their annual weekend overnight camping trip. When an obviously ill stranger stumbles into camp, Tim, the small town’s only doctor, sends the boys on a walkabout while he assesses the new unknown element. The boys wander aimlessly, playing “would you rather” and taking digs at one another, while the adult nearby faces off against an unstoppable force. (When King calls this, “old school horror at it’s best,” we can guess whose stories he’s referencing.) Before long, the boys have no choice but to lock their Scoutmaster in a closet, leaving the boys to their own scouting survival skills, but also to their own imaginations and fears.
Cutter gives the reader much more information than the boys get. We know the nature of the infection (mutated hydatid worms) and the source (an escaped human test subject) and the outcome (a sole survivor leaves the island). This information is delivered to the reader in after-the-fact documents: newspaper articles, courtroom examination transcripts, lab notes, and academic conference papers–all things that children (especially these children) don’t read. The outbreak story itself happens in real-time. Cutter’s omniscient narrator gives equal attention to each troop member–to the point where it is possible that any one of them (with a couple of exceptions) can become that sole survivor. Another convention that Cutter plays with is the horror-story-as-morality-tale. An author will direct a reader’s moral compass by the order and manner in which characters die (or survive). But when one character says, “bad things happen to good people, and bad people die happy in their beds,” the reader believes that the worst of them may survive. When another uses his survival skills to help his fellow scouts even though they don’t treat him kindly, the reader believes that the best of them may survive. Ultimately, the identity of the sole survivor is credible, but it takes a skilled writer to make us postulate that if situations skewed a different way only slightly, the entire outcome could have been different.
In the midst of all that death, there are moments of life that solidify the boys’ innocence and humanity. I found the most touching of which to involve a sea turtle. Two of the boys, hungry and frightened (a formula for desperation), catch and attempt to eat a sea turtle. They see just how fervently life clings to life. While devastating to the characters themselves, the reader is offered hope that children can be bearers of a wise innocence–especially when this scene follows that of a third boy as he remembers torturing a kitten for pleasure.
Yes, the humanity is poignant, but it is so because the horror is so unrelentingly brutal. It is probably not a good idea to read The Troop while eating (definitely not while eating a pasta dinner). The descriptions are so vivid the reader sees–and sometimes smells (thanks, Nick Cutter, for that addition for your readers who have acute olfactory sensitivity or disorders of olfaction) what is in front of the characters. Considering that the infected are described as having a “sickly sweet” smell, you would do as well to keep these covers closed until after dessert.
Recommended if you like Stephen King’s The Stand, or the serious parts of David Wong’s John Dies At The End.
Self derision taken to extremes…in a children’s song. Kids are weird.