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Onyx reviews: The Troop by Nick Cutter

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 02/xx/2014

The setup of The Troop is reminiscent of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher. An ill man stumbles into a camp occupied by only a few people and his sickness spreads. In the King novel, it was a hunting camp in remote Western Maine and his illness was an alien infection that spread to the four lifelong friends who were out on their annual hunting vacation. In The Troop, the location is an uninhabited island off the coast of Prince Edward Island, the campers are the five 14-year-old members of a Boy Scout troop and their scoutmaster on an annual outing, and the illness is the result of biological experimentation.

The man who shows up on Falstaff Island is beyond hungry. He's ravenous. When he can't find normal food, he eats sand or wood or his own lips. He's eaten so much that his stomach has burst, but still he's compelled to consume more. However, instead of putting on weight, the more he eats the more skeletal he becomes. It isn't clear that his condition is contagious until Scoutmaster Tim (who tends to think in the voice and words of 2001's HAL-9000 computer) becomes sick, too, and the boys decide to quarantine him by locking him in a closet. Has anyone else been infected? Only time will tell. (The answer, of course, is yes.)

The boys are stranded on the island. The mainland is too far away to swim, and they have no means of communication. The boat that dropped them off is supposed to return in a couple of days, but a cyclone delays its arrival. The skiff  the mysterious stranger came on has been deliberately disabled. From the cliffs, the boys can see military ships surrounding the island, stopping anyone who attempts to approach Falstaff by whatever means necessary.

While the book may be vaguely reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies, the comparison is limited. The five boys aren't stranded so long that they need to recreate society. There are factions, but they existed before this crisis. Cutter (the pseudonym of Canadian author Craig Davidson) goes to great lengths to differentiate the boys. There is the smart one, the sensitive one, the bully son of a cop, the guy with anger management issues and the not-so-smart one who is also a sociopath. He goes to such an extreme to make them unique that they become stereotypes with no overlapping traits. It's easier to remember them by their characteristics than by their names. They often flash back onto moments from their past, even at times of crisis, which throws off the book's pacing at times.

The book will undoubtedly draw comparisons to other works. A group of boys on an adventure? Think Stand By Me, but without any trace of nostalgia and little of the group sense of camaraderie. There is an element of Ten Little Indians as the infection spreads. Scott Smith provided a blurb for the cover, and there is more than a little influence from his novel Ruins, too, in which nature runs amok, imperiling a group of stranded individuals. In his afterword, Cutter admits that the use of interstitial newspaper clippings and interviews was inspired by Carrie—it's a way of conveying information that isn't available to the main characters. 

But it is Dreamcatcher King fans will likely come back to time and again. This is a gross book. The infection manifests itself in a literally gut-wrenching fashion. The book explores how people react when their own bodies turn against themselves to produce grotesque manifestations. It's also a shrill warning against meddling with nature and bioengineering. It features the requisite mad scientist and the inflated-chest military admiral who does what has to be done and damn the torpedoes. 

The plot is a little fuzzy in places.  How exactly did the man "escape"? How did the military track him to Falstaff? Why was he so determined to smash the radio? Why are infected individuals so focused on playing hide-and-seek with spark plugs? It also stretches credibility at times. Could a sociopath really convince a weak-minded boy to operate on himself via walkie-talkie? This is balls-to-the-walls horror and the author isn't really trying to make his readers introspective or thoughtful. 

The Troop is a (mostly) fast-paced, visceral, cringe-worthy horror that may put many readers off their feed for a while. Gummy worms won't look at all appetizing after someone finishes this novel.

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