By Nick Cutter
2013 Giller nominee Craig Davidson couldn’t have come up with a less inspired pseudonym than “Nick Cutter” for this (literally) visceral tale of terror, but that’s the only knock you can make against an outstanding pure genre debut full of chills, thrills, and very good kills.
The set-up finds a group of five teenage boy scouts and one adult scoutmaster camping on an uninhabited island off the north shore of Prince Edward Island. There they are joined by a man carrying a tapeworm that’s been genetically modified into an ultra-fast weight-loss agent/killing machine. The worm duly turns on the troop, leading to a series of nicely escalated and thoroughly repellent gross-out scenes that have the rest of the novel playing out like a splatterhouse version of Survivor.
Cutter confesses to borrowing the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (intercutting background information in different media forms with the main narrative), but in such a work as this there is no need to acknowledge what are obvious and inescapable debts. Every horror novel has to play within the given conventions, and The Troop is no different: from the gang itself consisting of predictable types such as the Jock, the Nerd, the BFFs, and the Mysterious Loner, to various homages throughout to precursors like Alien, Cabin Fever, and one scene lifted straight out of The Ruins. Familiarity comes with the territory, and the only question is whether it all works.
And in this case it does, marvellously.
Consciously or not, Cutter/Davidson has crafted a story that plays to all of his strengths. The island is an all-male environment, and the boys themselves are “machines that [run] on testosterone and raw adrenaline.” These are the two necessary ingredients in all of Davidson’s fiction, and they are well employed again here. In addition, the terror comes by way of bodies disintegrating in stages, another specialty that the author has a natural feel and facility for, with the story itself being a gritty tale of physical endurance, male comradeship, and personal conflict – territory that he handles very well.
Strong characters, a fast-twitch narrative, a wonderfully disgusting monster, and an obvious delight in going over the top with gory effects, all add up to one of the best horror novels of the last decade, and one certain to be coming soon to a theatre near you. But in this case you really don’t want to wait for the movie.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2014.