Stranded on an island, a group of school boys must survive extreme circumstances without adult supervision in the inaugural James Herbert Award-winning novel, The Troop. With this eternally fertile premise at his control, Nick Cutter crafts a brutal and harrowing story of murder, survival and mutant tapeworms. The result is an excellent book that is entirely deserving of the praise it’s already had lavished upon it.
One of the main things people tend to discuss when they’re talking about good genre fiction is pace, and that’s a great place to start here. Put simply, Cutter’s 2014 novel is nothing short of relentless. The novel opens with the first of many news articles, but it is Cutter’s first line of the narrative, “EAT EAT EAT EAT,” that gets things started. Like a chanted mantra at the hands of an angry mob, that sentence sets the tone and the rabid hunger driving the ‘hungry man’ of the novel’s opening pages burns like touch-paper. Cutter follows this breakneck orientation with an intense plot that does not stop until you close the book and finally – finally – come up for air.
EAT EAT EAT EAT
The boat skipped over the waves, the drone of its motor trailing across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The moon was a bone fishhook in the clear October sky.
The man was wet from the spray that kicked over the gunwale. The outline of his body was visible under his drenched clothes. He easily could have been mistaken for a scarecrow left carelessly unattended in a farmer’s field, stuffing torn out by scavenging animals.
Nick Cutter. The Troop (Kindle Locations 48-52). Gallery Books. Kindle Edition.
Cutter’s major characters are drawn from a small scout group. Like any author, Cutter includes a few dynamic characters and rounds out the numbers with some static additions for them to interact with, revealing their essential character traits. Initially, we meet his characters through the perspective of Scoutmaster Tim. The sole adult meant to provide supervision; the Scoutmaster provides an overview of the boys’ traits before Cutter takes over. When he does, he fleshes out the details with an incendiary plot that leaves very little but blasted earth in its smoking wake.
A lot of the group dynamics are a result of the simple fact these young characters are forced to eke out shelter, food, and a pecking order without adult supervision. As you might imagine, Scoutmaster Tim is not with us for long. Nature, sickness, and the irrational logic of adolescents in dire circumstances see to that. With the only ‘grown-up’ removed from play, the plot races across the various paths of the island, ramping up tension and conflict as it escalates. A catalogue of threats to their health and safety force the boys to explode into their character arcs, allowing Cutter to take us on an emotional journey. It’s fitting that the story is heavily told from the POV of Newton, a sensitive boy who is equal parts Ralph and equal parts Piggy in this gripping narrative.
As the group fractures and splits, Cutter liberally dishes out enough visceral body-horror to unsettle even the strongest gut. Whether the grisly bits are self-inflicted, laboratory-based, or perpetrated by Shelley, who becomes a truly effective antagonist in the vein of Stephen King’s Patrick Hockstetter, Cutter’s prose communicates the fear and horror driving the violence with picture-perfect clarity.
One particularly effective scene that juxtaposes the good nature of his protagonists against the inhuman hunger and callous desperation of their circumstances sees two of the boys finding a turtle they plan to eat washed up on the shoreline. The raw emotion Cutter captures at this point of the story is poignant and touching despite the brutality of their actions. In turn, this only deepens the feelings of revulsion you experience later, particularly when he then contrasts this resolute humanity with Shelley’s deepening depravity.
They heaved the turtle up onto the sickle of rain-pitted sand. It tried to scuttle up the beachhead but it was hemmed in by steep shale. The boys hunched over with their hands on their knees—their kneecaps chapped red with cold—to collect their breath. The sky had gone dark: an icy vault pricked with isolated stars. A fingernail slice of the moon cast a razored edge of brightness over the sea. “We should build a fuh-fuh-fire,” Newton said, his teeth chattering.
Nick Cutter. The Troop (Kindle Locations 3323-3327). Gallery Books. Kindle Edition.
Of course, the horror in this one doesn’t only come from the parasites and the depths some of these characters are prepared to mine. There’s a powerful sub-plot that sees Falstaff Island quarantined by the military. Parents are prevented from rescuing their children and the threat of a scorched-earth policy adds a final sense of impending doom to the conflict. As you can imagine, the tension builds to breaking point before Cutter delivers his tragic resolution, leaving the reader breathless and exhausted.
In summary, this novel is highly recommended. It’s written incredibly well and it’s gripping from start to finish. Best of all, it will leave you thinking about some of the injustices these young characters are forced to endure.