The world is full of scary things. And, while I’m as terrified by the thought of chainsaw-wielding lunatics (‘nuff said), friendly sociopaths (mainly the ones with a horde of dead bodies stashed in their basements), and evil clowns (who, let’s face it, are just plain creepy even when it’s only your Uncle Bob wearing a layer of grease paint and a stupid red nose) as the next person, those aren’t the things that really give me the heebie-jeebies.
What scares the living daylights out of me--turning run-of-the-mill dreams into nightmares--is quite ordinary. Losing control of my car and plunging over a cliff. Getting hopelessly lost--and running really late--in a humongous airport, all alone. Slipping through the treads of an open staircase, and falling to certain death below. In other words, Normal Stuff that Doesn’t Happen Only in the Movies. (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t too likely, but it’s my bad dream.)
The uniting theme is being powerless when something bad happens... a concept which Nick Cutter gets--and expresses--brilliantly, in his terrifying new thriller, The Troop.
It should’ve been just another ordinary weekend camping trip, with a scout leader taking his troop out for their yearly bonding-and-badge-earning excursion in the woods, with plenty of campfires, mosquitos, and ghost stories. And, indeed, this year starts out no differently.
Scoutmaster Tim--the local doctor in a small Canadian coastal town--and his troop of five boys are dropped off on an uninhabited island ten miles off the coast on Friday. They won’t see another soul until late Sunday afternoon, when the boat returns to pick them up.
Although a bad storm has been forecast, Tim hadn't wanted to cancel the trip--not with this almost certainly being the last one, since the boys are at that age when things like scouting become totally uncool. Worst case, he figures they can radio the mainland and get picked up within the hour if things get bad.
The unquestionable leader of the group is Kent--the jock, popular with (nearly) everyone, and son of the town’s police chief. Newton is his polar opposite--the nerd, an overweight boy who’s had to learn ways to avoid being picked on, and is happiest with his head stuck in a book or out by himself cataloguing the flora and fauna. Best friends Max and Ephraim (“Eef”) fall somewhere in the middle; most people like them, or at least have no beefs with them. And then there’s Shelley, the weird kid whom no one really understands or likes, just sort of ignores.
After sending the boys to bed, Tim heads outside for a last look around before turning in... which is when he hears something he definitely shouldn’t be hearing on a deserted island: someone else.
Walking into the shadows, he can’t believe what he finds. It’s a man, sort of--an emaciated, crazed, barely-recognizable-as-human creature. Tim debates the wisdom of taking the horrible specter back to the cabin where the boys are, but the doctor in him doesn’t have a choice, especially given the approaching storm.
He tries to make the fellow comfortable, but something is obviously very wrong. Ranting, sweating, and starving--no matter how much food he’s given--and certainly near death, the man is like nothing Tim has ever seen.
He should’ve radioed the mainland right then... but he doesn’t. And then, suddenly, it’s too late. The stranger freaks out in the night, smashing the radio. He attacks Tim, infecting him with... something.
Tim downplays what’s happened when talking to the boys; it wouldn’t help to frighten them when there’s clearly nothing they can do. In the morning, he sends them out exploring.
The boys return to the cabin late that afternoon to a terrifying scene. Dr. Tim has become a monster--incoherent, looking as though he’s lost 30 pounds in one day--forcing the boys to employ drastic measures to contain him. Meanwhile, the epic storm arrives, furiously pummeling the house with wind, torrential rain, and knocking down trees.
It only seems as though things couldn’t get any worse, though. When one of the boys starts showing the same symptoms as the ghastly stranger and Dr. Tim, the terror really begins... because if you can no longer trust the friends you’ve grown up with, then you really are all alone.
The Troop is one of those books that leaves a lasting impact in its wake. (I finished it over a month ago, and still get chills when I think about it.) It packs such an effective wallop because it simultaneously taps into some of the fears we have as adults--diseases (whether naturally-occurring, created as weaponry, or by-products of something else) that take root and mutilate/kill almost before we even know we’ve been infected, leaving us able to merely watch helplessly--as well as holdover fears from childhood--facing a monster all by yourself, without a weapon (or even having the faintest clue what an appropriate weapon might be).
It’s more than just an ingeniously-crafted and deeply-disturbing horror story, though; surprisingly, The Troop also offers up a poignantly realistic portrayal of boyhood. Cutter understands being a kid, latching onto all the uncertainties, anger, and fears one experiences at that age, and displays both brutal honesty and touching sensitivity when allowing us a glimpse of each boy’s unspoken thoughts and feelings. (Seriously, there were a couple of passages that brought me to tears... something which rarely happens.)
The Troop is, pure and simple, one helluva read... and author Nick Cutter is absolutely one to watch.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: All the Mousies