A Stephen King blurb. And, it’s declared: a novel of terror. Nick Cutter’s readers know what they’re in for.
And, if there was any doubt, little clues speckle the first few chapters.
Readers are “waiting for unknown wickedness”.
There are shadows coalescing into permanence and logs groaning. There is a sheet of insects cloying and a hand settling on a shoulder like a claw. Sunlight is glinting off braces, and a ball of snakes is hissing.
Images are dangled for effect, and we are to think of something being like a disembodied head in a sideshow oracle, or moving with the shamble of a disoriented bear, or smelling like the syrupy foulness in the bottom of a trash can.
These are isolated details which accrue and contribute to the story’s chill. But more powerful are the strings of details which swell.
The images of power, for instance, whether it is the smashing of a radio and the chaotic sparking mess of it, or the ordinary descriptions of fuses and cables, or the sensory details of green fuzz on old batteries or the taste of sucking on the metal.
But all of this is the tissue, and what sets this novel apart, what moves the fluids through its veins, is the troop: five boys who met as Beavers, moved up the ranks, and are now ready for an independent hike.
The diligent training of Scoutmaster Tim has informed Ephraim, Kent, Max, Newton and Shelley about a variety of wilderness and survival skills, but not even 42-year-old doctorTim Reeves is prepared for the threat on Falstaff Island.
That’s where it unfolds: 15 kilometres off the northern point of Prince Edward Island, on a landmass 10.4km in circumference, in three parts and 50 chapters.
The island, which is normally uninhabited (the troop knows this because it’s familiar territory and readers know this because the National Resources Canada Geographical Survey Report is included as one of the supplementary “documents” which dapple the narrative), is naturally protected, naturally isolated (the troop master intended the former, but the boys experience the latter).
It is a familiar place and the terrain and flora and fauna are recognizable. Which is what makes good horror stories so frightening, when the known collides with the unknown and unknowable.
Consider the following observations, seemingly innocuous.
“Medical instruments were often just precision variations of the same tools handymen used.”
“There are those who say the best scientists occupy that dangerous headspace teetering at the edge of madness.”
“But that’s people. People care too much. They love at all costs. And so they pay the ultimate price.”
Each of these statements could have resulted in a narrative very different from The Troop. Perhaps a DIY guide. Or a college student’s term paper. Or a Joyce Carol Oates short story.
But in Nick Cutter’s narrative, the mechanics are solid, the storyteller’s voice is dedicated and unflinching, and the story relentless and captivating. It is the whole package.
The Troop is a truly engaging and gut-wrenching tale; even if readers can hardly stomach it, they will feel driven to gobble it up.