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

The TroopThe 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!).

The BroodYet 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 fiction with a steady supply of victims since 1908.

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.

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.