Book Review: The Troop, Nick Cutter (2014)

July 16th, 2014 1:45 pm by Kelly Garbato

Things that make you go “EWWWWWWWWWW!”

four out of five stars

Fact One: a boat had arrived.

Fact Two: he and the boys were on an isolated island over an hour from home. No weapons other than their knives – blades no longer than three and a half inches, as outlined in the Scout Handbook – and a flare gun. It was night. They were alone.

It was supposed to be a last hurrah for the boys of Troop Fifty-Two.

At fourteen years old, the guys – Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley, and Newton – had come up together through Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, and Venturers, but most (save for the ever-nerdy Newt) now felt that they were too old to be running around in the wilderness, earning merit badges for activities as dorky as bird watching and first aid. And so the late-autumn camping trip to Falstaff Island was to be their final adventure together, much to Scoutmaster Tim’s disappointment.

Their peace and quiet is interrupted on the very first night, with the unexpected arrival of an emaciated and ravenous stranger in a speed boat. While Tim attempts to treat the obviously ill man (in his other life, the Scoutmaster is a GP), there’s no cure for what ills him. “Typhoid Tom,” as he’d later come to be known in the papers, is Patient Zero in an experiment gone horribly wrong…or horribly right, depending on which project backer you’re talking to.

Ostensibly, Dr. Edgerton’s goal was to create a specialized tapeworm that dieters could ingest at will, harboring the parasites in their bodies only until their target weight is reached – at which time an antibiotic would handily flush the unwanted critters from their host’s system. Instead his experiments yielded a biological weapon – “the most adaptable and survivable parasite known to mankind.”

Edgerton’s genetically modified hydatids eat their hosts from the inside out: fat, muscle, organs, skin, eyeballs. While the (many) devourer worms consume their victims, the lone conqueror worm wiggles its way into the host’s brainstem, both cranking the host’s appetite into overdrive and lulling him into complacency. Once all of the host’s tasty bits have been consumed, the worms go looking for a new victim. Carried on the air, in the water, and in bodily fluids, the worms are highly contagious. Survivors. Gross, slimy, squiggly survivors.

And in just a few days, they will have eaten their way through all but one of the island’s human visitors. (Not to mention many of the animal inhabitants as well.)

Though I’d never hear of Nick Cutter before, Stephen King’s blurb (“The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best.” ) sold me on The Troop. (And, let’s face it, the temporary price reduction to just $1.99 didn’t hurt either.) As a middle schooler, I used to spend my summer vacations melting into the red velvet chair in the sun porch, devouring novels by Stephen King and John Saul – some borrowed from the library, others pilfered from my father’s personal stash. Before I knew it, the calendar read September and my to-read pile, seemingly insurmountable in June, was down to just a few books. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on horror anymore, but The Troop sure made me feel like I was twelve and on an eternal summer vacation again. It’s a pretty excellent summer read…if you like your S’mores with a chaser of super-gory ghost stories.

The Troop is reminiscent of vintage Stephen King – and in fact, Cutter tips his hat to King in the author’s notes: he credits Carrie for inspiring him to add “extra” material to help flesh out the story. The news reports, lab notes, and transcripts from Congressional inquiries are a nice touch.

That said, I found much of the story more gross-scary than suspenseful-scary, since it’s clear fairly early on that everyone is destined for the feeding trough save for one of the boys.

Most of the characters (except for Newt and maybe Max) are rather unlikable, though I suspect that this is largely intentional: you actually root for certain people to become infected and die already. Kent is a pompous, self-righteous bully, just like his pompous, self-righteous bully of a cop father; Ephraim is a hothead and masochist; and Shelley is a sociopath in training. (He delights in maiming, torturing, and killing animals, and by the end of the book he has moved on to humans. I’d add a spoiler alert, but really it shouldn’t come as any shock.)

Even the well-meaning Scoutmaster Tim is rather annoying, what with his total clueless about the boys under his charge. You’d think that, in all the time he spent with them, he’d notice how they all gang up on poor Newt, or the gleam in Shelley’s eyes while discussing how to best gut a fish or trap an unsuspecting raccoon. (They give merit badges in animal exploitation, right?)

Though I have a pretty strong stomach, I found myself skimming and then skipping the scenes of animal torture. (It starts with insects, and then moves on to cats and momma turtles.) Most people have a line, and that’s usually where I draw mine. That’s not to say that the violence is senseless: in Shelley, it’s meant to denote his moral bankruptcy and complete lack of a conscience, where it does the opposite with Newt and Max – the two feel so sick over their bungled slaughter of a turtle that, once she finally draws her dying breath, they bury her rather than consume her (much-needed) flesh as intended. Dr. Edgerton’s lab notes from his animal trials are pretty horrifying as well.

File under: Things that make you go “EWWWWWWWWWW!”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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