Strong nerves, strong stomachs, no quarter: Nick Cutter’s The Troop

January 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The Troop. Nick Cutter; $29.99 cloth 978-1-4767-1771-5, 368 pp., Gallery Books

The_Troop(Note: This is an early review from an advance reading copy. Simon & Schuster Canada will release this title in February.)

Some novels comfort readers, snuggle with them and stroke their hair and whisper reassuringly that everything will be alright. Other novels come at their readers with a sledgehammer. The Troop, by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter, is the second kind. The book, about a group of five boy scouts who, along with their adult scoutmaster, go camping on an uninhabited island off the north coast of PEI, where they are beset by a stranger carrying a mysterious – and highly dangerous – contagion, is billed as “a novel of terror,” but this is somewhat akin to calling Ebola a minor skin irritation.

Cutter wastes little time on the niceties, setting up his scenario and sketching his characters in quick, broad strokes. He is much more interested in ratcheting up the tension, something he begins doing in the opening chapters and continues more or less remorselessly for the next three hundred pages. This is a book that works best if a reader knows little or nothing about the plot going in, so suffice to say that as the nature of the threat facing the boys becomes clearer, Cutter inserts scenes and set pieces that are more and more outrageous, more and more over the top.

Thanks to various national media outlets, it is by now an open secret that Cutter is actually Craig Davidson, whose 2013 literary novel, Cataract City, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Many critics, in describing that book, used the word “mature,” which seemed to be code for “restrained.” In his earlier literary work under his own name (one previous novel, The Fighter, the novel-in-stories Sarah Court, and a collection of stories, Rust and Bone) and a pure horror novel called The Preserve, also written under a pseudonym, the author had indulged in scenes of violence and machismo that were rare in CanLit and felt – to a certain sensibility, at least – like a breath of fresh air. These were not absent from Cataract City, but it was clear that Davidson had worked to tone down his more overt tendencies in the area of explicit gore.

By contrast, there is nothing restrained about The Troop. Operating within a genre context, the author has allowed the darker side of his imagination to run riot, infusing the book with moments of Grand Guignol and body horror that recall Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, as well as David Cronenberg’s early film Shivers and Eli Roth’s cinema debut, Cabin Fever. The writing is propulsive and the momentum fairly unstoppable. Once this book has you in its grip, it doesn’t let go.

What is most surprising in this regard are the moments of real tenderness that appear in the novel. A camaraderie develops between certain characters, leading in one instance to a moving scene in which they rescue a group of newborn turtles they have stumbled across. Elsewhere, one of the boys relates the story of a school project that involved carrying around a bag of flour as though it were a baby to teach the responsibilities of parenting. The boy, who is overweight and prone to sweating, carried his “baby” around diligently until the sweat from his hands soaked through the bag and it split down the middle. “I’m just saying that sometimes the more you care for something, the more damage you do,” the despondent boy concludes. This is an observation many more self-consciously literary novels would fail to arrive at. And there is an almost aching poignancy in the payoff involving a fictitious online persona the same overweight character creates to make himself appear more handsome and worldly than he actually is. What is most impressive is that these moments don’t feel like awkward authorial intrusions, but arise organically out of the context the novelist has created and developed.

Make no mistake, however: Cutter’s main concern resides with the horror aspects of his story, and he gives no quarter in this regard. Readers will require strong nerves and even stronger stomachs to endure some of what this novel throws at them, but there is a real energy to the writing, and it is clear that the author is having one hell of a good time, something that proves (pardon the pun) contagious. The Troop does not fall into the category of ironic, postmodern horror that was popular at the movies in the 1990s; rather, it is a straightforward, no-holds-barred tale of terror that starts strong and builds relentlessly to its conclusion. It is one of the goriest, gooiest, most gleefully grotesque novels to appear in a long, long time. Popular fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

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