Who’s hungry for s’mores? A review of Nick Cutter’s “The Troop”

The Troop (Simon and Schuster, 2014) by Nick Cutter

The offi­cial descrip­tion:

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—shock­ing­ly thin, dis­turbing­ly pale, and vora­cious­ly hun­gry—stum­bles upon their camp­site, 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.

——————–

Christ he was hun­gry. He’d eat­en so much at that road­side din­er that he’d rup­tured his stom­ach lining—the con­tents of his guts were right now leak­ing through the spilt tis­sue, into the crevices between his organs…Fifty miles back, he’d stopped at the side of the road, hav­ing spot­ted a rac­coon car­cass in the ditch. Torn open, spine gleam­ing though its fur. It had tak­en great effort not to jam the trans­mis­sion col­lar into park, go crawl­ing into the ditch, and…

He hadn’t done that. He was still human, after all.

Quick poll: Which of the fol­low­ing is scari­er?

Sce­nario A — There’s a ser­i­al killer on the loose! Run!

or

Sce­nario B — There’s some­thing qui­et­ly fes­ter­ing in your bow­els! Run?

All due respect to every mon­ster that has ter­ror­ized the mass­es, but body hor­ror (Sce­nario B) will always win with me. Being an out-and-out cow­ard and con­sci­en­tious objec­tor, I could still (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) out­run a guy in a mask, out­think a mani­ac, or out­fight a vam­pire (it could so hap­pen!).

Yet no mat­ter what the cir­cum­stances, I’d be hard-pressed to out­run my colon.

I enjoy a good exter­nal fright from mani­a­cal slay­ers of co-eds, out­er space beast­ies, mutat­ed fish­peo­ple et al as much as any­one can, but as any­one who has squirmed through David Cronenberg’s ear­li­er works (Rabid, The Brood, The Fly, Video­drome) can attest, true hor­ror comes from with­in. And then invari­ably explodes out­wards in a vari­ety of grue­some ways. Nick Cut­ter knows this as well. And he’s not afraid to make you afraid. In fact, I’d haz­ard that he rather enjoys giv­ing read­ers the willies, hee­bie-jee­bies, and soiled under­pants. If you weren’t at all wor­ried that your body might one day rebel against your wish­es (as our bod­ies are wont to do), The Troop should cause some anx­i­ety. We may think we’re in con­trol, but pret­ty much every­thing else is out to prove oth­er­wise.

The Boy Scouts: sup­ply­ing hor­ror with a steady sup­ply of vic­tims since 1908.

Begin­ning with a news sto­ry about a “hun­gry man” who con­sumes ungod­ly amounts of break­fast treats before steal­ing a vehi­cle, Cut­ter leaps to five teenaged boys and one scout­mas­ter mak­ing a pil­grim­age into the wilder­ness for a week­end of camp­ing and sur­vival skills. Inten­tion­al­ly play­ing with the tropes of the genre—like every clas­sic “trapped in the mid­dle of nowhere” sce­nario, there’s a jock, a nerd, a tough from the wrong side of the tracks, a smart kid, and one decid­ed­ly odd duck—Cutter expert­ly maneu­vers the plot from a stan­dard “Who will sur­vive?” sto­ry­line to the far more intrigu­ing “Should any­one sur­vive?”

It doesn’t take a genius to com­pre­hend that, faster than you can say “It’s The Lord of the Flies meets 28 Days Lat­er!” (as the back cov­er pro­claims) or “It’s The Goonies plus Cab­in Fever!” (mine, feel free to use it), these two dis­sim­i­lar events will some­how be linked—was it not, after all, Anton Chekov who assert­ed that if you see a hun­gry man in act one, he’d bet­ter have eat­en some­thing by act three?

[NOTE: It prob­a­bly wasn’t Anton Chekov. Being the prod­uct of north­ern Man­i­to­ba teach­ing tech­niques, I may have to review my notes; it could have been Wal­ter Koenig.]

Han­ni­bal Lecter, always the dis­cern­ing can­ni­bal. Sal­ad forks are for the sweet­breads, din­ner forks for the thigh.

Yet while can­ni­bal­ism appears a pos­si­bil­i­ty on the hor­ror menu, some­thing a lit­tle less obvi­ous and more sin­is­ter is afoot. The exter­nal hor­ror of the crazed lunatic—not that there’s any­thing wrong with that (in this con­text only, of course)—quickly shifts to the inter­nal hor­ror of infec­tion, as there is plain­ly some­thing med­ical­ly wrong with a man not “much more than a skele­ton lashed by ropes of water­logged muscle…flesh falling off [his] bones in gray, lace-edged rags.”

The Troop sets itself up as a gore-soaked night­mare. And it deliv­ers. Quick­ly real­iz­ing there is way more to the gen­tle­man than being mere­ly a human scare­crow with appetite issues, the adven­ture week­end devolves into blood, vis­cera, and one kid who is way, way too into their predica­ment. Sub­vert­ing expec­ta­tions, what could have been a riff on, say, The Hills Have Eyes sub­tly evolves into a mod­ern-day Franken­stein sce­nario of sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ments run ram­pant.

All this would be a divert­ing gore­tain­ment at best were it not for Cutter’s rich, relat­able char­ac­ters who with­stand the frights as we all would; a mix of ter­ror, befud­dle­ment, and pan­ic. Like the best writ­ers of the genre, Cut­ter under­stands that hor­ror is noth­ing if you don’t care about whom it’s hap­pen­ing to. The kids of Troop are relat­able, their reac­tions under­stand­able, their ter­ror pal­pa­ble. And Cutter’s ulti­mate mon­ster, with­out giv­ing too much away, draws from head­lines and sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty to become both plau­si­ble and gen­uine­ly hor­rif­ic.

[ANOTHER NOTE: I had a sim­i­lar idea a few years ago when I came across a news sto­ry Cut­ter has no doubt also read. Luck­i­ly for every­one, he ran with the idea first. My sto­ry would have been far less accom­plished, but also (in my defence) much snarki­er.]

Curi­ous­ly, the most hor­rif­ic scene involves no mon­sters what­so­ev­er, only des­per­a­tion and guilt as the boys strug­gle to find food. I won’t give the scene away (I don’t want to deprive oth­ers of the same dis­tress I under­went), except to say that a veg­e­tar­i­an lifestyle might become an option for you after read­ing it.

Some have labeled The Troop as “old-school hor­ror,” an appel­la­tion that sounds intel­li­gent yet real­ly means noth­ing. If hor­ror works, it works. And The Troop works big time.

The squea­mish need not apply. If you’re all for the squeam, then squeam away.