With the subtitle “A Novel of Terror,” there isn’t much room for confusion about the genre of The Troop. And perhaps not wanting to confuse is the reason that the author, a well-known Canadian literary writer, took on the pseudonym Nick Cutter (you only need to look as far as the copyright page to know that it is Craig Davidson, who wrote the Giller Prize short-listed novel Cataract City). How does a celebrated writer handle horror?
Conventions in the horror genre tend to be obvious, but it is hard to do them well. A scary premise can easily begin to feel like a B-movie gag, given that the line between comedy and horror is so thin. What lifts this novel above the rest is Cutter’s ability to put a fresh twist on horror conventions, while also writing a story that delivers the bodies.
The novel opens with an online article from the Weird News Network about an unidentified male who has consumed five Hungry Man Breakfast platters in a local diner (each consisting of four eggs, three buttermilk pancakes, five rashers of bacon, sausage links and toast). The odd thing, according to those at the diner, is that he looked to be starving: “never in my life have I seen a man so wasted away.” Next, a Scout Troop, led by earnest scoutmaster Tim Riggs, goes on its yearly trek to an unpopulated island off the shores of Prince Edward Island. It’s like the idyllic island of Anne of Green Gables, but it soon gets turned upside-down when the starving stranger shows up in a boat. Riggs can tell right away that something is off about the man. Despite years of medical experience, he can’t diagnose the problem or help. When he discovers the source of the man’s hunger, it is to late to stop the spread of the affliction. As one of the boys observes, one of the good things about being a kid is that you can abandon anything with no real repercussions. For the troop, that perk is soon gone.
A horror story often holds suspense by killing off a group one by one. The order in which the characters are killed, and how they are finished off, is often the way the author sends a moral message. Cutter plays with this convention in the best of ways by messing with a clear-cut sense of right and wrong. One creepy character says, “bad things happen to good people, bad people die happy in their beds.” As in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the boys show us what they are made of through their choices. But, where the inherent virtues of Golding’s little boys work against them, Cutter makes a case that while coming of age is tough, a young mind can cope with horror as it can “snap back, like a fresh elastic band.”
Another convention that gets the twist from Cutter’s pen is “the monster.” While filming Jaws, an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel, Steven Spielberg was unable to show the shark until far into filming because of a technical snafu. The result was a master class in suspense, and many authors since have observed the rule of keeping the monster hidden. In The Troop, Cutter shows the reader detailed information about the monster at the beginning with his inventive mix of articles, lab reports and transcripts. These give the reader a broader picture of the extent of the trouble the troop face and also allows the author shows his writing chops by amping up tension through pacing, character development and structure instead.
As the author readily acknowledges, the structure of The Troop is inspired in part by Stephen King’s Carrie. King was famously honest when he said that Carrie was about “what men fear about women and women’s sexuality.” As a reader who thinks about the portrayal of gender while reading, I sometimes hesitate to pick up a horror book. I dread the convention that treats the feminine role as nothing more than a victim (I fear most for those women who dare to go skinny-dipping). For readers who share my sensibility, Cutter neatly sidesteps this convention as the women in this story are, for the most part, wistfully remembered mothers. None of them go skinny-dipping.
One rule of horror that Cutter closely follows is the over-the-top descriptions of guts and gore. Be warned that putting the horror genre in the hands of a gifted writer is bound to have grisly results. As King, in a glowing quote that is included on the cover says, “for…us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”
Claire Cameron is the author of The Bear.