The Troop is the first novel by Nick Cutter, telling the tale of the Scoutmaster and five Eagle Scouts of Troop 52 and their harrowing experiences on Falstaff Island, just off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Scoutmaster Tim Riggs has brought these five boys—Kent, Max, Ephraim, Shelley, and Newton—on a weekend camping trip to this island for years. This year’s trip takes a dark turn when an emaciated stranger intrudes upon their wilderness isolation, begging for food and desperate to hide from the world at large. Along with him he brings something far more sinister, unseen, and eager to wriggle its way among everyone.
What drew me to this book above all else was my history with the author. This is ostensibly Nick Cutter’s first novel, but that name is a pseudonym for author Craig Davidson. Normally writing within the realm of general fiction under his real name, Nick Cutter is one of his handles when writing horror literature. Having read and enjoyed a number of Davidson’s books in the past, I fell in love with the idea of this alternative author identity.
I cannot remember what first drew me to The Troop specifically. At first glance I assumed it to be a zombie story of some kind. Once I began reading, my suspicions shifted to a modern twist on a wendigo tale as I began zeroing in on the stranger’s emaciation and insatiable hunger. It’s ultimately not a mystery about what the threat is, but I was wrong on both of my initial interpretations. The truth turned out to be far more grotesque and invasive.
What this stranger brings to Falstaff Island is a stomach worm of a particularly virulent nature. Engineered in a lab, the worm it rapidly eats away at its host, spawning innumerable smaller worms to help it do the job, all the while driving the host mad with insatiable cravings for anything they can fit down their throat. In many ways this novel follows a classic story structure of horror and/or disaster stories. The group is situated at an isolated location and a foreign threat inflicts itself upon them, slowly eating away at the hierarchies and social bonds that once defined the group. While the threat is horrific in and of itself, it is this degradation between the people affected that can be more terrifying. While I could see some people seeing this type of story as a little too played out, I think Cutter executed upon it really well.
For the majority of the novel the group dynamics between the kids and the scoutmaster are quite good. They do fall into rather familiar tropes, especially Kent, the bullish “alpha” leader of the group, Shelley, the unassuming weirdo with dark secrets, and Newton, an overweight “nerd” with more nurturing tendencies. Max and Ephraim are paired as best friends, the former being more level-headed and introspective, and the latter more prone to outbursts of anger, rude language, or reckless behaviour.
During the time they’re forced to deal with each other and their dire situation, which is most of the novel, their interactions felt really natural. Despite this, in the beginning these interactions felt a lot more forced. They spoke more like caricatures of 14-year-old boys, which is peppered in smaller doses throughout the story as well, and I was honestly a little worried at first about how much of it I could stomach. It thankfully turned out fine for me in the long run, so that’s important to keep in mind if you find those earlier points to be a turn off.
I liked the emotional arcs I went through with some of the characters, especially Kent and Newton. The former is instantly unlikable for his constant need to assert his will and his budding contempt for adults, believing he knows better than almost anybody. As things take a turn for him I found myself sympathizing with him a lot more. As those illusions broke down the reader is reminded he is just a kid, whose perspective has been shattered and fears gravely that there is much in life he will never experience. Newton is the group’s punching bag, yet he is very knowledgeable, which starts to give him more power and respect in the group dynamics as things become more desperate. It’s a little more subtly done, the characters not addressing it too outwardly, but I was happy to see a character become so strong when I felt there was a good chance his story would end remaining nothing but a victim.
Spliced in with the story as it develops are clippings from newspapers, diary entries, and interview transcripts. All but the diaries take place after the events of the novel, slowly revealing more and more detail of the nature of the worms that are infesting the island and where they came from. I liked these sections because along with giving some context to the reader that the characters wouldn’t be able to learn themselves they also help to build suspense really well. Hints are dropped here and there throughout them that give clues to how everything will turn out, but rarely quite enough information to know exactly what’s coming. More than once I was left with the great sense of foreboding.
I found the body horror throughout to be pretty haunting. Whether it’s the horrible things characters do to themselves out of mad desperation, the sickening things some of those afflicted consume, or the audible squirming of the worms under the skin of their host, this book continually made my skin crawl. This says nothing of the actual transformation an infected host goes through, and the way their bodies waste away and fall apart at the mercy of the worms. There are many effectively gruesome moments described in grave detail that stick with me still. This is aided by how grounded the idea of the worms are too. They do not exist, but an aggressive parasite is very believable. I can’t say this book terrified me, but I found it horrific enough that more than once I hesitated picking it back up, for fear of what was in story for the boys.
While I’m not sure it’d be to everyone’s taste, as some of the characters may be too unappealing and the scenario a little played out, I personally loved this novel. It wasn’t perfect, especially some of the dialogue early on and the tropes most of the characters fall into are a little obvious, but I think the blurb from Stephen King on the cover is perfectly apt: “old-school horror at its best.” The structure is familiar, but it’s playing off of classic models of horror storytelling, and I think executes upon them really well with engaging characters, despite their flaws, and a more unique, unsettling source of body horror.
My rating: 4 out of 5