Review: The Troop, by Nick Cutter

troop>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: May 2014

It wasn’t much more than a skeleton lashed by ropes of waterlogged muscle, its flesh falling off its bones in gray, lace-edged rags. It lumbered forward, mumbling dully to itself. Tim’s terror pinned him in place.

The thing shambled through a shaft of moonlight that danced along the tall grass; the light transformed the nightmare into what it truly was: a man so horrifyingly thin it was a miracle he was still alive.

Tim stepped from cover without thinking, driven by the instinctive urge to offer aid. “Hello? You all right?”

The man turned his brightly burning gaze on him. It was a gaze of mindless terror and desperate longing, but what really spooked Tim was its laserlike focus: this man clearly wanted something. Needed it.

The stranger shuffled closer, pawing down the buttons of his shirt, running a quaking hand through his greasy pelt of hair. Tim suddenly understood: the man was making token efforts to render himself presentable.

“Do you have anything… to eat?”

***

This Nick Cutter fellow, whoever he is*, has a lot of issues—chief among them, a distressingly detailed visual imagination. To say I simply cringed while reading The Troop would be an understatement; to say I audibly asked, while lying in bed alone in my apartment, what the fuck could possibly be wrong with this author… that’s a little more accurate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Troop is a horror novel in the finest sense: it offers a simple premise—five teenage boys and their scoutmaster out for a weekend together on an isolated island on Canada’s east coast, beset upon by a man who also happens to be an escaped biological weapon—and sticks a knife in it, twisting it every which way until as many emotional fibres as possible are severed, brutally, disgustingly so.

Led to Falstaff Island, PEI, by their scoutmaster Tim, the five boys—Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley, and Newt (who feels strikingly familiar to Piggy from Golding’s Lord of the Flies… which is about as much a compliment as I can give to that detestable novel)—are alone and without technology. No phones, no video games, nothing but the great outdoors. This would all be well and good if not for the unexpected arrival to the island of “the hungry man.”

Dubbed Patient Zero and Typhoid Tom in between chapter interludes that shed light on the outside world and the ramifications of the events of Falstaff Island, the hungry man—once upon a time known as Thomas Henry Padgett—is being eaten away, pound by pound, from the inside out. Simultaneously bursting at the seams and starving, wasting away to nothing, the hungry man comes upon the scouts and their campsite during their first night in the wilderness. It’s clear he’s on the run, but from what and why I won’t spoil, as I found the details of his predicament and the associated narrative surrounding Dr. Clive Edgerton—Joseph Mengele 2.0—almost as entertaining as the boys’ tale of survival itself.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Typhoid Tom doesn’t last too long, though the details of his appearance are some of the author’s finest and most fucked-up work:

The stranger didn’t wholly resemble a man anymore. More like something a dull-witted child might have drawn with a crayon. His body was lines. His arms were scribbles. His fingers were calligraphic spiders. The skin draped his rib cage with terrible intimacy, pinching around each rib to show the striation of muscle. His sternum was a knot, his pelvis a gruesome hinged wishbone. The skin of his face had the patina of old copper and was sucked so tight to his skull that Max could see the glaring rings of bone around his eye sockets. His ears protruded like jug handles, so thin that they curled inward, like charring paper.

The above? Likely my favourite descriptive passage in the book, but by no means the end of Cutter’s rather inventive comparisons.

As events progress and the situation on the island becomes increasingly grim, so too do the interludes, rising in intensity as the novel tantalizingly dangles the final outcome of events just out of reach; these interludes offer ideas as to who survives without ever coming right out and saying it, leaving such revelations to happen linearly as the boys’ narrative on the island continues. And as the shit hits the fan—as the hungry man’s condition is revealed as being contagious—the boys are all forced to grow up very fast, accepting dramatically changed do-or-die circumstances with absolutely no help from the outside world. In fact, the outside world has taken steps to quarantine Falstaff Island; though they don’t know it at the time, the boys are, from the moment of Typhoid Tom’s arrival, placed in the centre of a last-man-standing elimination challenge.

What comes from all this is the true meat of the book: the evolution and subsequent splintering of the five boys. When they themselves witness the spreading of the hungry man’s “disease,” the novel takes on a slight air of the film The Thing—trust and fear are made the dominant guiding forces for all their actions. And through trust, maturity and the ability to think through a crisis are developed; through fear, desperation and the inevitable dissolution of trust.

There’s so much more I’d like to discuss (like how stupid I feel for not pre-emptively reading the sociopathy in one individual’s clearly bullshit attempts at camaraderie), but this is one of those situations where the suspense is so well crafted that to remove any of that tension would be to strip a fair amount of life from the book.

This isn’t a cheap-scare slasher narrative, nor is it an especially ephemeral or thought-provoking tale of supernatural horror; The Troop is instead a tension-filled character piece with slight—very slight—science fiction undertones. It’s the best sort of marriage between light and bloody popcorn-style entertainment with genuinely well-written and interesting characters. The kids themselves are all strongly developed and believable in their actions—even when they are, point of fact, losing their shit.

Despite all this talk about tension and disease and death, however, it was a small moment between two of the boys and a turtle that gave me reason to pause. It was a disarming, strangely beautiful moment, evocative, I can only imagine, of what any non-sociopathic child of any age would feel when faced with having to weigh their desperation against their conscience. Highly recommended.

 

*Fairly certain his true identity is well known, but for the sake of this review I’ll respect the pseudonym.

 

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One thought on “Review: The Troop, by Nick Cutter

  1. I couldn’t believe that I “fell for” that ploy either (re: said bullshit attempts). But, then, I think that’s partly why I loved and hated this book so much. I felt as though he recognized exactly where to press the knowing bits in my reading brain, to play the whole see-what-I’m-doing-here card and allow me to think that we were literally on the same page, but then smack me up the side of the head with something unexpected (sometimes just the extent/tone of a scene, like the beach scene, which I though was remarkably well done *winces*). There were many times when I felt compelled to physically set aside the book, but as much as I wanted to stop experiencing that story, I just stared at it for a spell and then resumed reading.

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