(2013) Nick Cutter, Headline, £7.99, pbk, 355pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20624-4
My copy of The Troop – the uncorrected proof copy – came with a nifty little card inside. What is this, I wondered, thinking it might be something left between the pages by a previous reader. A postcard or something, perhaps half a birthday card. In fact, it was a promo from Headline for the book, a little advertising card showing a surprised looking woman in her undies, her thumb hooked around the waist of an old pair of her jeans that clearly do not fit her, that could probably fit two of her inside them, as she has gone from being a couch potato to a size 0, all from taking 'Thestomax', “'The Two-Pill Solution' to rapid, sustained, pain-free, weight-loss. 'Find your THINspiration' the card screams, and unfortunately as we are about to find out, someone has, to terrible results.
Nick Cutter has come up with a great little premise for a horror novel. “Scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. Not for the faint-hearted,” says a quote from a certain Stephen King on the front cover, high praise indeed, from the King of Horror. Basically, it’ is the annual three-day outing on little Falstaff Island for five Scouts and their Scoutmaster, local doctor Tim Riggs, who make up the troop of the title, off for some camping, hiking and survival lessons, and a bit of male bonding. But the Scouts are getting older and teenage hormones are raging and they all have their secrets, and hopes and aspirations and even a few demons at this tender age and some of them think they are better than their fellows, heck, some of them even think they are better than their Scoutmaster who should be challenged at every opportunity, and into this smouldering powder keg of an atmosphere appears a man who had stolen a boat from the mainland, a hunted man, who looks like a walking skeleton and is very, very ill, and the troop’s little three-day excursion is going downhill fast, all the way down to hell.
It is ironic that this book carries a quote from Stephen King, because in his acknowledgments at the end, author Nick Cutter cites King’s novel Carrie as being a major influence on his narrative structure. Carrie as everyone knows was King’s major breakthrough novel, and there is a story that it lay unfinished in his waste paper bin (his third unfinished novel) and was retrieved by his wife Tabitha who told him to finish this one, or else. King did, and the rest is best-selling history, but I have always thought that Carrie with a parallel structure of witness testimonies, extracts from hearings and autobiographies and quotes from books about Carrie White was a slightly clunky novel and King employed this structure to get the book finished. Cutter pulls the same trick by having news stories, witness accounts, testimonies, etc, etc, appear throughout the novel, in 24 other places if my maths is right, which combined with 50 actual chapters leads to a pretty pacy, page-turning novel that just gets darker and darker, with the parallel extracts leading to an altogether more sinister, if not appalling, conclusion as to why these events occurred.
This is great horror story, and there is a monster – no spoilers here - that will turn your stomach, and I was reminded of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing – claustrophobic, isolated location where distrust and paranoia start to rule; and “Lord of the Flies” where the teenagers have to turn their hand to anything, or think they do to survive. Cutter is particularly unflinching in this respect. My only quibbles are that we learn too much too soon, and there is some character back-building which gets in the way of the plot, and I didn’t like the very last chapter of the book, which is only half a page long, so perhaps I can let him away with that.
Hopefully The Troop will be picked up by some film studio and treated with the respect it deserves and turned from a gut-wrenching, rollercoaster ride of a horror novel into a gut-wrenching, rollercoaster ride of a film.
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