Gallery Books, 2013, 358 pages
Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip - a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. The boys are a tight-knit crew. There's Kent, one of the most popular kids in school; Ephraim and Max, also well-liked and easygoing; then there's Newt the nerd and Shelley the odd duck. For the most part, they all get along and are happy to be there - which makes Scoutmaster Tim's job a little easier. But for some reason, he can't shake the feeling that something strange is in the air this year. Something waiting in the darkness. Something wicked...
It comes to them in the night. An unexpected intruder, stumbling upon their campsite like a wild animal. He is shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry - a man in unspeakable torment who exposes Tim and the boys to something far more frightening than any ghost story. Within his body is a bioengineered nightmare, a horror that spreads faster than fear. One by one, the boys will do things no person could ever imagine.
And so it begins. An agonizing weekend in the wilderness. A harrowing struggle for survival. No possible escape from the elements, the infected...or one another.
A good horror novel can't be just about blood and guts and scary monsters. There is a certain entertainment value in watching slasher flicks with a jaded, cynical eye, but that's just buckets o'blood where we don't really care who lives and who dies.
The Troop, by Nick Cutter (a pseudonym for Canadian author Craig Davidson) has all the elements that made Stephen King's best horror great: characters you actually care about, who seem like real, flawed people, being thrown into situations that make your stomach knot up and try to crawl up your throat.
This is a boys' adventure, but although the main characters are kids, it's definitely not Young Adult. Nick Cutter writes a descriptive, well-paced story that quickly goes bad and squicky places.
The five boys stuck on Falstaff Island for a weekend of camping that turns into a real test of survival skills are real boys exactly the way I remember boys at that age - they're basically decent (most of them), but they also act like immature little shits whose wisdom is not enough to leaven their bubbling testosterone. They make bad decisions, and in a horror novel you know where bad decisions lead you.
Each boy is well-drawn, each one has his own little quirks and fatal flaws. Kent is the big, future captain of the football team, popular and handsome, son of an equally big man, the town's police chief. He's used to getting his way because he's big and popular, and thus is unprepared for actually having to fight. Ephraim is a wiry little bundle of reflexes and rage; he doesn't mean to be an asshole, but at fifteen he's already got anger management and impulse control issues. His best friend Max tries to keep him calmed down, Max being the level-headed one in the group, the one whose father is a coroner.
Then there are Shelley and Newt, the oddballs. Newt is fat, dorky, a born nerd. The kid everyone picks on, the kid who can't help having a "kick me" sign constantly taped to his backside. In one particularly touching section, told through the psychologists' reports and interviews that are interspersed throughout the book, Newt describes how he created a Facebook identity with all of his interests, but the photo of a handsome deceased cousin of his, and how he learned that as his "alter ego," he was popular and accepted, and all of his "nerdy" hobbies suddenly became interesting and cool. As he puts it, it's a glimpse at what his life might have been like if the dice had rolled a little bit differently. That's not even the heartbreaking punchline of that story.
Newt, as you can probably tell, is my favorite; he's meant to be the reader's favorite.
Shelley, on the other hand, is the necessary internal threat (as if the boys don't already have a serious enough threat) - he's the kid everyone dismisses as "slow" or "retarded," the one who wears a mask, the one who likes killing small animals. Yup, Shelley is a sociopath, and now he's all alone on an island with four other boys.
The Troop is excellent because it's gross and violent and well-written and it makes you care about who lives and who dies. You're rooting for all these kids (except maybe Shelley) and knowing they aren't all going to make it. It is reminiscent of some of King's classics like It or The Long Walk.
Verdict: A little scary, and very disturbing, The Troop is an almost perfect horror novel. The plot never slows down, the extras like interviews and news articles all add to the story, and the writing is polished, detailed, and descriptive without ever going off-course. Characters are real and engaging, and they act like real people. While the content may not be to everyone's taste, it gets my highly recommended tag.
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