The wind dropped to a brief lull. [His] voice could be heard clearly.
“You have to be careful,” he said, sounding immensely tired. “Whatever this is, it’s catching. I don’t know how. But it can be passed around...round and round...I’m so hungry, Max.”
The yearly trip to Falstaff Island was supposed to be a time of bonding and relaxation for Scoutmaster Tim Riggs and his bright-eyed troop—a long weekend of hiking, badge-earning fun in the crisp Canadian wilderness. All of that changes when a man (a very hungry man) arrives on the uninhabited island, begging for help. For food.
The Hungry Man, you see, is hungry for a reason. He has many, many mouths to feed. Those hungry, wormy mouths won’t stop until they consume everything—including Scoutmaster Tim and his troop of five boys.
Let me preface this review by stating outright: I love horror. I LOVE it. I love it in all of its forms—from the sinking dread of the unknown type of horror, to the schlocky, campy B-movie variety. I love ghosts and serial killers, the terror of the mundane and the supernatural. In The Troop, Nick Cutter’s debut novel, the type of horror on display is of the gross-out, high-tension variety. It’s the slick, slime Slither kind of fright, as opposed to a metaphysical It kind of fright. Nick Cutter has an exceptional gift for this particular subset of the genre—the images of writhing, ravenous worms consuming their hosts from the inside out are delightfully, disgustingly vivid. Let me put it this way: If you have a weak constitution, you might want to pass on The Troop. (Or, if you read this book on public transportation, you may get some strange stares and questions if you have a tendency to make EWWWW faces—I’m speaking from experience, here.)
Worms?, you might be thinking. What worms? Well, you see, Cutter’s book is the story of an infectious outbreak of genetically-engineered worms. Worms that compel their hosts to eat, and that—organ by organ—devour their hosts alive. The Body Horror trope isn’t exactly new (see any number of novels or films, from Cronenberg’s The Fly to Grant’s Parasite) or groundbreaking in its treatment in The Troop—but Cutter does a fantastic job working within the confines of this grand horror tradition. (And within the Enclosed Space trope, for that matter!) The fun when it comes to this kind of willfully gross, organic-transformation horror is…well, in the organic transformation. That is, the progression of the infection. And The Troop does that beautifully. I equally loved and was nauseated by the parasitic infection cycle, and gleefully read on as troop members fell to the unstoppable invasion of worms, one by one. From infection, to incubation, to the worms reaching their mature forms within their human hosts, there’s a lot of spongy, putrid, fleshy development—and I loved every obscene moment of it.
Lest you think this is just a book about slithery things that go squish in the night (well…ok, that actually is what the book is about), there’s also a high dose of adrenaline and tension as the boys try to escape a ravenous fate. I also very much liked Cutter’s choice of separating the tension with clever epistolary interstitials between chapters, including relevant newspaper clippings, advertisements, foreshadowing courtroom interrogations and scientific logs.
Now, all these praises said, The Troop also suffers from a number of significant issues—most notably, its stereotypical characters. As with its choice in tropes, The Troop is quick to rely on old standbys, and the cast comprises: one buff Bully (Kent), one overweight Nerd (Newt), one Sociopathic Serial Killer in-training (Shelley), one opposing Leader to the buff Bully (Ephraim), and one Normal kid with untapped depths of resolve, who happens to be best friends with the opposing leader boy (Max). It’s kind of like reading a paint-by-numbers version of Lord of the Flies, except not nearly as well-written or deeply symbolic.
There’s also the problem that all of these boys—and the few adults we meet through the book—think and sound exactly the same. (This is to say nothing of the fact that there’s not a single female character in the book—which, granted, is because the boys are on a small uninhabited island—but all thoughts and female characters represented are examples of stomach-turning misogyny.) This lack of actual characterization and failure in writing makes the book—the parts in between all of the wonderfully lurid descriptions of infection and horror—kind of disappointing. Like watching a beautifully shot horror film, with crappy dialogue and even crappier acting. (The bad dialogue part is literal—there are some cringe-worthy moments in The Troop’s conversations.)
Perhaps the best way to describe The Troop is to say that it’s a complacent book. It’s happy to play within established horror tropes (which it does very well) but it doesn’t actually challenge those archetypes or aspire to anything greater. Ultimately, this means that The Troop is a diverting monster of the week episode—it’s just not a particularly memorable one.
In Book Smugglerish, 5.5 self-replicating tapeworms out of 10.