Imagine finding yourself plunged into an episode of The X-Files. Forget the convoluted alien/government conspiracy that nobody really understood; I’m talking about one of the early episodes, where something that shouldn’t exist and yet is frighteningly plausible seems to slip into the real world. Yet in this scenario, you are just fourteen years of age and Mulder and Scully aren’t coming to save the day. That is almost exactly the atmosphere generated by Nick Cutter’s new novel, The Troop.
The Troop in question is a small group of Scouts from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Led by Scoutmaster Tim (otherwise known as Doctor Riggs, their small town’s only GP), five fourteen year old boys set out for a long weekend of camping on Falstaff Island, a tiny uninhabited dot of land a short boat trip away from their homes. It is autumn and Tim is aware of a storm warning in the vicinity, but is reluctant to cancel the trip, knowing that it is likely to be the last time these boys will go away with the Scouts and that for most of them it will be their only chance of a holiday at all. So, with supplies packed, he is dropped off on Falstaff with the five boys – Newton, Kent, Ephraim, Max and Shelley – and a promise of being collected in three days’ time. They set up camp in a wooden cabin, the only permanent structure on the island, and start happily planning the boys’ assault on their remaining merit badges.
A few hours later, with the boys asleep and Tim thinking of turning in himself, he hears the sound of a small boat approaching the island. No one else is expected, and if there was a problem back home then he would have been radioed. Who could it be this late at night? Tim makes his cautious way back down to the beach, to find a man stumbling towards him from his newly beached boat – emaciated, pale and voraciously hungry. The doctor in Tim kicks in and he takes the stranger back to the camp, where the man becomes violent, first smashing the radio and then tearing apart and eating the padding from the cabin’s sofa in an attempt to make the hunger stop. With the outside world three days’ wait away, Tim has no choice but to operate. While the operation does successfully reveal the cause of the man’s mysterious illness, it unfortunately also releases it: a mutated hydatid, a strangely well-adapted parasite that consumes its host in just a day or two and then seeks out a new victim. With the Scoutmaster suddenly sick and the island now noticeably barricaded by military vessels, the troop face a test of survival against their fears, the elements and each other.
The novel we are left with is part Lord of the Flies, part Stephen King. Told in short chapters interspersed with newspaper clippings, interviews and court transcripts from some indeterminate point in the future when the “Falstaff Island incident” is over, we witness events unfold from a variety of perspectives and times. We see things from each boy’s point of view, and while the troop is arguably composed of representatives of various stereotypical North American teenage sub-cultures (Newton the geek, Kent the bullying jock, etc) the mix of personalities makes us see what is happening in a mix of different ways. Is this a terrifying occurrence that makes teenagers cry for their mothers or is it an opportunity for them to be free of adult rules for a while? A time for them to find unknown courage and maturity or the time to get revenge on the kid they never liked?
This is not keep-the-lights-on scary like many horror films, but The Troop possesses an unsettling air, and the reason behind the mutated worms will really give you pause for thought once you reach it. There are several very effective and well-written scenes in the book, but I felt that Cutter diluted these by an excessive dependence on gore and disgust; when describing something horrifying, it is usually the case that less is more and the reader can often fill in the blanks by themselves. I skipped many of the nastier passages, but what was left did add up to a pretty powerful thriller nonetheless.
Recommended, although readers should be aware that this effectively is an 18-certificate story and it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Published by Headline, February 2014
With thanks to the publishers for providing me with a review copy of this book.
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