Note: Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this title.
Any discerning horror aficionado knows that there are two main sub-types of horror. The first is the classic supernatural ghost story, told in many forms but always having you look over your shoulder and sending chills up your spine. See the recent review of Snowblind for a wonderful modern example. The second is the literary equivalent of a video nasty, tha author’s aim being to have you empty the contents of your stomach over the pages of your book. While reading The Troop on a lunch break I almost had that very experience. Well played Mr Cutter, well played…
The Troop tells the sorry tale of Scout Troop 52. While on a wilderness camp on remote Falstaff Island off Canada’s east coast an unexpected visitor lands in their midst. Bedraggled, starved almost beyond recognition and raving deliriously about insatiable hunger he’s an obvious danger to the small group of teens but Scoutmaster Tim, local GP, can’t just turn an obviously sick man away. He’ll soon wish he had though, as it transpires that he didn’t come alone. Nestling in his belly (and indeed the rest of his walking corpse) are a horde of visitors, all eager to find new hosts no matter what age or species.
What ensues is a gruelling, visceral tale of survival and body horror. The boys – Ephraim, Newton, Max, Kent and Shelley – soon realise that they are stranded on the island. The sole adult is soon incapacitated by the parasites lurking in the gatecrasher’s internal cavities and they must do everything they can to avoid his fate. The insanity of the situation, combined with the natural group dynamic present in pubescent boys everywhere, means they are soon pitched against each other as much as the mysterious, repellent organisms sharing the island. And meanwhile, why is nobody coming to check on them and what are those black helicopters and boats circling the island at a distance?
Early reviews of The Troop have compared it rather obviously to Lord Of The Flies and to be fair the comparison is entirely justified. But it’s so much more than that. Beside the whole kids-on-an-island trope there are elements from other equally powerful sources. The first which sprang to mind was John Carpenter’s The Thing. You’ve got a small group of people in an isolated environment threatened by a near-invisible, highly contagious and utterly deadly entity which threatens the whole of mankind. That and the buckets of gore, incredibly inventive and wonderfully sickening gore. The second was Battle Royale, mostly for its relentless brutality in its treatment of its adolescent cast. Nick Cutter is utterly merciless in creating an inescapable hell for his characters, playing a cruel god of fate and dashing their hopes on the rocks at every turn.
So we’ve established that it’s a vicious gorefest mixed with a school holiday. But what of the writing itself? I’m pleased to say it’s certainly of a strong enough calibre to hold the story up. While The Troop initially had me wondering whether or not to continue – it felt a little juvenile purely because of the subject matter – it soon picked up the pace, got its grown-up clothes and started delivering gutpunch after gutpunch. Nick Cutter has two prominent strengths as a writer. The first is characterisation, peopling his novel with a broad mix of characters ranging from sympathetic to repellent to outright evil. Despite their young ages these kids are all individuals, on the cusp of adulthood and starting their journey of self-discovery, each choosing distinctly different paths which sets them up for conflict later. Then, having introduced his cast, he introduces the second key tool in his kit as he begins gleefully dismembering them. This man has a talent for depravity, knowing exactly which buttons to push in order to tie your guts in knots. At times it was difficult to discern which was more disgusting, the parasites invading the bodies of the Scouts or the grotesque effect they had upon those very bodies and minds.
Cutter acknowledges a debt to Stephen King in the acknowledgments but it’s clear that The Troop is no mere knock-off. Yes it wears its inspirations on its sleeve but Cutter manages to take these distinct elements and create something entirely new and, to a seasoned horror veteran, remarkably stomach-churning. I almost hope he never sells the movie rights to this book, I don’t know if I could handle it and that is perhaps the highest praise I could offer anyone in this genre.