Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: The Troop

As I said in my previous review, I have a thing for trashy horror. And part of the thing I have for trashy horror is that it's not really scary--it plays so closely to the established tropes of the genre that it almost becomes paradoxically safe and predictable. There's a Hero, who you know will survive to the end of the book, and a monster, which will seem invulnerable but which will be beaten at the end by a determined effort from the Hero (with an optional "stinger" showing it's not permanently destroyed) and of course, a cast of supporting characters who will die at regular intervals (with the possible exception of the Hero's Love Interest, who usually has plot immunity as well). It's silly horror. It's safe horror.

And then every once in a while I read something like Nick Cutter's 'The Troop'. That's the other kind of horror. The real thing. Queasy, gut-twisting fear that forces you to put the book down every few minutes because you feel like you're smothering when you read it. Nerve-twisting dread that makes you go on the Internet and look up plot summaries so that you can at least get some idea of where the plot is headed in order to stop at least a little bit of that uncertainty. (There are no plot summaries of this book online. Just to save you a little time.) This is a book that does not play games. It is not safe. It is utterly terrifying.

The story is very simple--a group of Boy Scouts out on a camping trip on a deserted island have an encounter with a starving man, and it turns out that he's very very sick. He's infested with parasites, genetically altered tapeworms that are literally eating him alive from the inside, and they're seeking new hosts. It does not take very long at all for the camping trip to go horribly, horribly wrong.

But this book moves past the lazy tropes of "scary worms crawling around looking to get into your body" (although there are some scenes of suffocating dread involving the worms, both when characters are trying to avoid infestation and when describing the experience of being infested with them). It's the people who are the most terrifying here--each of them filled with flaws and weaknesses that are exposed like a raw nerve by the crisis. This is a book about people, not about worms, and about the way that disaster brings out the best in some and the worst in others. And for one boy, budding serial killer Shelley, the worst turns out to be very bad indeed.

If there is one complaint I could make about the book, it's that Cutter does wear his influences somewhat on his sleeve--Shelley is a bit too reminiscent of Patrick Hockstetter in 'It' (a clear inspiration for this book in many ways) and one of the deaths bears a close resemblance to a sequence in 'The Ruins' (which is also about a small group of people who run into the unnatural and cope badly). The book does very much read like a style pastiche of King and Smith. That said, it's a style pastiche that succeeds at reading something like King or Smith might have written, rather than an inferior imitation, so I'm not sure how upset I can really be. Talent borrows, genius steals, right?

So while I recommend 'The Troop', I can't do so unreservedly. Because only you know your particular tolerance levels for white-knuckle terror and your stomach for gore. (The descriptions of what the tapeworms do to their host are not to be read before, during or after mealtimes.) If all you're looking for is some safe scares, a good old-fashioned "chiller", this is probably not the book for you. But if you're looking for real can do a lot worse than Nick Cutter's 'The Troop'.

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