Friday 21 February 2014

Book Review | The Troop by Nick Cutter

It begins like a campfire story: five boys and a grownup went into the woods...

It will end in madness and murder. And worse...

Once a year, scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a three-day camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story and a roaring bonfire. But when an unexpected intruder stumbles upon their campsite—shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—Tim and the boys are exposed to something far more frightening than any tale of terror. The human carrier of a bioengineered nightmare. An inexplicable horror that spreads faster than fear. A harrowing struggle for survival that will pit the troop against the elements, the infected... and one another.

Part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later—and all-consuming—this tightly written, edge-of-your-seat thriller will take readers deep into the heart of darkness and close to the edge of sanity.


Imagine how different the world would look if a real diet pill existed; if losing weight was a simple sugar solution away. Think for a minute about how dramatically that would change the day to day. It'd be revolutionary, in truth. And it would make certain people very rich indeed.

Dr. Clive Edgerton, for one, isn't in it for the money. It's the science that interests him: the science, in this instance, of adapting a hydatid for use in human hosts. Awful as the thought is, a tapeworm which could be introduced to our systems with one pill and passed after another—once it had done its dirty work—would be a great breakthrough... one the determined doctor is on the very precipice of making.

He's ready, if you can credit it, to start testing Thestomax in earnest: a fascinating narrative strand that The Troop simply isn't interested in. Instead, Nick Cutter—"a pseudonym for an acclaimed [Canadian] author of novels and short stories," per the press release I received—dubs Edgerton "Dr. Death" and treats his quest as the premise for an absorbing, albeit appalling body horror novel that reads like The Lord of the Flies meets Mira Grant's Parasite.

Tim Riggs is a "come-from-away" (p.11) who's had a hard time fitting in with "the hardscrabble have-nots"  (ibid.) that populate Prince Edward Island, though the community's kids could give a hoot about his Toronto taint. As the town Scoutmaster, he's surrounded himself with said, however he's well aware that the come one, come all organisation of yesteryear is in decline these days. To wit, the trip with which Cutter's book begins—merely a weekend away in an isolated area—represents a last hurrah for Tim and the boys of Troop 52:
Tim understood why. Scouts was... well, dorky. Kids of this generation didn't want to dress in beige uniforms, knot their kerchiefs, and earn Pioneering badges. [...] But these five boys under Tim had remained engaged in Scouting simply because they wanted to be. Kent was one of the most popular boys in school. Ephraim and Max were well liked, too. Shelley was an odd duck, sure, but nobody gave him grief. 
And Newton... well, Newt was a nerd. A good kid, an incredibly smart kid, but let's face it, a full-blown nerd. (pp.11-12)
Unfortunately for all involved, the boys' respective strengths will be put to the test when on their first night on Falstaff Island, the whole holiday goes horribly—honestly, horribly—wrong. As if out of the ether, one of Edgerton's test subjects comes to their campfire, begging to be fed. Before they realise what's happening, he's eaten everything in sight; so much that his stomach lining ruptures.

As a GP in real life, Tim has no choice but to operate. Tragically, he inherits his own hydatid in the process, and like patient zero, he dies within a day. Nor does he slip away soundlessly. On the contrary, the worm within him makes the poor man a sort of monster:
It happened so swiftly. The pressure that'd been building since last night, collecting in drips and drabs: in the crunch of the radio shattering in a squeal of feedback; in the black helicopter hovering high above them; in the snake ball squirming in the wet rocks; in the sounds emanating from the cabin as Tim and Max operated on the man; and most of all in the horrifying decline of their Scoutmaster, a man they'd known nearly all their lives reduced to a human anatomy chart, a herky-jerky skeleton. It brewed within them, a throbbing tension in their chests that required release—somehow, anyhow—and now, like a dark cloud splitting with rain, it vented. The boys couldn't fight it; they weren't properly themselves. They were a mob, and the mob ruled. (p.107)
The bulk of The Troop is concerned, then, with the boys striving to survive the hydatid, but also—and here's where it gets interesting—the island that the military quickly quarantines them on. Completely cut off from anyone who could help, with nothing to eat and no hope of rescue, tensions between the forlorn five come to a head when one of their own number admits to his own inhuman hunger...

There's actually quite a bit going on in this book, though the core story is fairly focussed on the trials Troop 52 face. Interspersed between these are newspaper clippings, interview excerpts, trial transcripts and other ephemera—very much along the lines of Stephen King's Carrie, as the author allows in the acknowledgements. Said sections aren't especially impressive in themselves, but taken together they provide imperative punctuation and a welcome sense of texture—if not necessarily depth—all the while impressing upon readers the greater stakes in play, which in turn make us more accepting of some of the narrative's contrivances.

Unfortunately there's no getting around the fact that the boys are, at best, broadly characterised. Their backstories are bland: there's the freak, the geek, the jock and so on. A few of the five are developed to a certain extent, but not far, nor fast. I found myself markedly more interested in Tim—there's simply more to him—so the Scoutmaster's sacrifice early on took the wind out of my sails somewhat.

It's a credit to Cutter that though his priorities are problematic, The Troop still bears its share of potent moments. Far and away the most effective sequence of the whole story is when several of the starving boys take it upon themselves to kill and eat a sea turtle. This happens in parallel with the systematic self-mutilation of another character who's convinced there's something slippery under his skin.

The former farce is genuinely affecting, but the comparison leaves the latter lacking. Evidently the author values visceral thrills over emotional chills. The horror is SAW when it could have been, should have been, something like Sinister:
There is an emotion that operates on a register above sheer terror. It lives on a mindless dog-whistle frequency. Its existence is in itself a horrifying discovery: like scanning a shortwave radio in the dead of night and tuning in to an alien wavelength—a heavy whisper barely climbing above the static, voices muttering in a brutal language that human tongues could never speak. (p.89)
This whisper is what The Troop tries and fails to trade in. Instead, Cutter must make do with revulsion, but it's no substitute, ultimately. A twisted coming of age tale, more Koryta than King, which I quite liked despite its disappointing dependence on disgust.


The Troop
by Nick Cutter

UK Publication: February 2014, Headline
US Publication: February 2014, Gallery

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