Monday, 24 March 2014

The Troop, by Nick Cutter

Imagine if Stephen King rewrote Lord of the Flies for the Internet generation, and then John Carpenter made the film of it...that's pretty much The Troop.

Scoutmaster Tim, the only doctor in town, takes five boy scouts of troop 52 to the uninhabited Falstaff Island (just off the Canadian coast) for a long scouting weekend of campfires, survival lessons and wilderness trails. There's supposed to be a big storm brewing so Tim's had to bring the radio, the only way of communicating with the mainland, just in case.

Just as he's settling in on the first night, an emancipated stranger staggers up to their cabin, thinner than a corpse, reeking of sweet decay and desperate for food. Any food. Things take an unexpectedly horrific turn when Tim realises that this stranger is sick, sick in a way that Tim hasn't ever even heard of before.

Firstly, I'm not a horror reader as a rule, but this book had me glued to the pages. Though it's gross in places, cringy disgusting in others and fairly stomach turning throughout, I couldn't help but make my bets early on about who would live and who would die, and I needed to know if I was right.

The book does an excellent job of exploring pack dynamics of adolescent boys, and how those dynamics change with the absence or acquisition of authority. It's interesting to see which characters become dominant, which respond to action and which to violence and how the hierarchy is established and where it gets them. Their early camaraderie is well written and believable, and their conversations (girls, the 'Would you rather?' game and their home lives) are familiar and realistic. The character types are recognisable from any school in the world; there's the intelligent but overweight lad, the boy that's angry doesn't know his own strength, the psychopath, the popular sporty boy and the nondescript passenger. The reader is guessing up until the final chapters which ones will have the mental strength to make it through and which will succumb to the deadly contagion. The reader's perceptions (and the perceptions of the boys themselves) change and evolve as the story progresses as each of the five show their true colours in the face of pressure, immense danger and responsibility. I found the character of Shelley to be the most disturbing. He starts off conspicuously vague, his sociopathic tendencies hidden behind his slack expression, but an absence of adult supervision means that he can let his disturbed fantasies run free. He makes the character from the Wasp Factory look intriguingly pleasant.

One of my favourite aspects of the book was the 14 year olds’ absolute conviction that adults have the answer to everything. That adults exist to advise, protect and shelter the younger generation. Teens and children are free to shrug off responsibility and consequences, because they are not yet at an age where they are duty bound to accept them. The dawning realisation that began to surface in several of the characters was really well done, and formed a pretty pivotal part of the plot. In some ways that was scarier than the contagion- the idea that nobody is coming for you. Adults cannot sort this. You are on your own.

The action on the Island is interspersed every so often with documents from other sources. Newspaper clippings, adverts, transcripts from tribunals, transcripts of counselling sessions that some of the characters attend to address their issues. All of this helps to build up a fuller picture of the events on the island from some unspecified time in the future. It provides some context and some explanations, as well as delivering a bit of welcome respite from the gore of the narrative. These sections were really effective, and it demonstrated what a dangerous, morally bankrupt enterprise the contagion was. It also made it seem horrifically real.

The Troop is confidently written with a wry, relatable narrative voice. It certainly doesn't hold anything back from the reader. It's not an easy read, but it is quite a lot of fun. Cutter's inventive use of language is impressive and it lends a really relatable and (occasionally) horribly recognisable edge to the events that happen in the story. There are some really effective but apparently everyday similes that take on horrendous new meanings in this book. It's darkly funny in places, and stomach churning throughout. The fear, the panic and the desperation of all seven characters swamps the reader, as well as the horrific smells, sights and sounds that the author ensures the his audience do not miss out on.

Cutter builds the tension well, though the reader is pretty aware of what the final solution is eventually going to be. Definitely not a book for the faint hearted or for anybody even remotely squeamish. It's a fast paced, old fashioned body horror, with all the splattering gore and grisly demises that tend to come with it.

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