Five boy scouts and their scoutmaster go to a small deserted island for a weekend of camping. On the first night, a stranger comes to their cabin looking for shelter. He is horrifically thin, and monstrously hungry. Scoutmaster Tim tries to help him, but his good intentions only bring disaster.
The stranger is carrying a vicious bioengineered parasite that soon begins infecting the scouts, giving them the same insanely torturous hunger that can only lead to a miserable death. The boys are young enough to hope that the adults will fix everything, but Tim quickly becomes more dangerous than helpful, and there is no hope that anyone from the main island will rescue them because they’ve been quarantined following the stranger’s escape from the lab where the parasite was tested. The scouts are stranded without additional supplies, and a storm is coming.
To make things worse, they’re a mismatched bunch who aren’t really friends, can’t trust each other, and soon begin to turn on each other. Kent is a bully who would endanger everyone in his determination to be the alpha male. Ephraim and Max are best friends, but Ephraim has anger management issues and is as much a danger to himself as everyone else. Newton is the stereotypical victim – a sweet, fat, nerdy boy who is constantly tormented by everyone else. And Shelley is a psychopath, a sadistic child who relishes this chance to play the kinds of twisted games that normal society would otherwise prevent.
Children trapped on a deserted island without adults, lots of violence, violent deaths, the breakdown of social controls, and the torment of a smart fat boy – naturally this novel has been compared to Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which was one of the few high school setworks I actually enjoyed reading. In the acknowledgements the author also says he was strongly influenced by Stephen King’s Carrie (another favourite), specifically in the use of new reports, transcripts, and other documents to build on the narrative.
However, The Troop reminds me much more of Dreamcatcher, also by Stephen King, but one of my least favourite books by him. Dreamcatcher also featured a small group of characters isolated in a cabin in the woods. They encounter a stranger who is infected with a fatal parasite. The host’s body is drastically affected by the growth of the parasite and dies horribly when the parasite escapes. Like King, Cutter also includes lots of flashbacks and anecdotes to fill in the characters’ backgrounds. Most of the kids are a bit troubled – absent, neglectful or domineering parents, psychological problems, social problems, etc. The one major difference is that King’s characters are close, loyal friends, while the boys in The Troop are not. Finally – and most memorably – both Dreamcatcher and The Troop are really, really gross.
This, for me, is the crux of the novel. It’s one of the most revolting books I’ve ever read and if Cutter was actually inspired by Dreamcatcher, then I’d say it was the stomach-turning aspects of the book that captivated him. There are many other things going on in Dreamcatcher, but physical horror seems to be the focus of The Troop, and I’m not only talking about gore. The parasite in the novel is a bioengineered tapeworm, and tapeworms are gross enough when they’re normal. Cutter pushes them to disgusting extremes.
The Troop includes graphic descriptions of the worms, the worms oozing out of human and animal bodies, the shocking deterioration of the hosts’ bodies (they lose most of their body weight in a matter of hours), self-mutilation, horrific animal experiments during the development of the worm, animal torture (by one of the boys), and other animal cruelty. I almost abandoned the book after a particularly bad experiment on a chimpanzee. After that I skipped over extended passages describing animal cruelty; I can be very determined when trying to finish a book I don’t like, but there are some things I won’t put up with. Add to this other nauseating details, like the things the hosts will eat to appease their ravening hunger – algae, rotten fish, a dead tapeworm, and their own bodies. Not that eating makes any difference, because it’s physically impossible for the hosts to ever satisfy their hunger.
It’s a sickening story. I don’t think any book has made me squirm as much as this did or made me want to abandon it simply because it was so fucking disgusting. And admittedly, that makes The Troop very effective as horror. It’s brutal, and once it gets going, it’s relentless. Not in a frightening way (at least not to me) but certainly harrowing.
The downside is that it’s extremely unpleasant to read. This kind of excessive, visceral savagery, used purely for its own sake, is my least favourite kind of horror. I didn’t hate it the way I hate a badly written or stupid book; it’s neither of those things. But I hated that it was so nauseating to read. I don’t have a problem with gore per se, but I prefer it to be one part of a more complex and unnerving story, not its defining features.
A few other things about the novel stood out for me. The virulent, fatal infection is a standard horror trope, and I think Cutter uses it well, even though it’s not to my tastes. The reasons for creating the parasites are mentioned in recordings and court testimonies. The boys are at the age where they’re starting to question the authority and dependability of adults, so this becomes a major issue, given their situation. Sometimes it add an interesting dimension to the story, like the way it affects their interactions with Scoutmaster Tim, for example. But at other times it just makes the boys a bit whiny.
The characters are ok but a bit one-dimensional, typically reduced to their definitive qualities. Nor is there anything particularly interesting about their relationships. As I mentioned earlier, the boys aren’t friends, except for Ephraim and Max. The five have obviously spent plenty of time together as scouts, but apparently this has done nothing to bring them closer. They often come across as assholes, especially Kent the bully and Shelley the psychopath. They all abuse poor Newt pretty much constantly – it’s like they can’t talk to him without insulting him, can’t include him without making him their victim. This is portrayed as being the natural way of things among 14-year-old boys.
I liked some of the flashbacks and the insights they gave into the characters’ behaviour, but besides feeling sorry for Newt, I didn’t care about any of them that much. Except perhaps for Ephraim, who has a more interesting mix of good and bad qualities, and whose story arc was more complex than the others.
Shelley the psychopath does at least add an intriguing dynamic to the situation. When I say psychopath I really do mean pathological in terrifying, clinical terms. Shelley doesn’t have emotions like normal people do, except for the excitement he gets from causing pain and fear. He’s delighted by the prospect of fucking with a group of terrified people, so he adds a touch of psychological horror to the gore. But he also tortures small animals, thus adding to the list of things I don’t want to read.
Ultimately, I’m not sure if I can say The Troop is a bad book. Everything that I think makes it horrible is also what makes it a good horror novel. At least for hardcore horror fans. If you want to be grossed out, if the word “repulsive” would make you look closer, then you’d probably love this. But I would tell most readers to steer clear, especially animal lovers and the squeamish. Personally, I’d be happy to forget I ever read it.