Friday, October 4, 2013

Book Review : Nick Cutter - The Troop (2014)


Pre-Order THE TROOP here

If this gets out, it'll make Typhoid Mary look like Mary Poppins.

Asian cinema redefined the landscape of horror fiction in the early 2000s. It tackled every aspect of the genre, from body horror to supernatural with such an uncomprimising, visceral eye, it raised the bar for the entire community. It's been a while since somebody hadn't redefined the boundaries of horror in literature, the way the likes of Takashi Miike and Chan-Wook Park once did for cinema. I feel this is what THE TROOP is doing, going a little bit too far in every direction and redefining the quality benchmarks for horror fiction. It's not going to do so without rattling some cages and offending the more conservative readers though. It's an original and clever, yet hardcore horror novel, coming out on bookshelves early next year. 

What THE TROOP has for itself is that it's a clever and well-written story. Not every startling horror tales are. There are six protagonists : Scoutmaster Tim Riggs and the five prepubscent members of his troop: Kent Jenks, Ephraim Ells, Max Kirkwood, Shelley Longpre and Newton Thonrton.They are stranded on Falstaff Island, a small island north of Prince Edward Island, on an overnight expedition. During the night, an unkown man lands on the island with his boat. He is visibly sick. Extremely sick. It's not long before he passes and unleashes a bioengineered calamity on Scoutmaster Riggs and his boys. The Canadian army declares a lockdown of Falstaff Island and the members of the troop will have to be creative if they want to survive.

I know I seem to have spoiled a part of THE TROOP, but I assure you I haven't. Its clever storytelling structure is a big part of why it's such an engaging novel. Between each chapter, there are a posteriori bits, spoiling parts of what happened on Falstaff Island, but not really. There are interviews of different actors of the drama and parts of an ongoing public investigation about the events. It's mostly used to subtly announce the content of the following chapter, but it took me a long time to understand that. I loved these bits for that they gradually reveal what the characters ignore and strike horror in the reader's heart as he is confronted to the consequences of the charaters' ignorance about the gravity of their situation. That's some reverse thinking 101 for you and it works beautifully in THE TROOP.

''Do you want to know the best, most effective transmitter of contagion known to man?''

Edgerton asks me with a pinprick of mad light dancing in each iris.

''It's love. Love is the absolute killer. Care. The milk of human kindness. People try so hard to save the people they love that they end up catching the contagion themselves. They give comfort, deliver aid, and in doing so they acquire the infection. Then those people are cared for by others and they get  infected. On and on it goes.'' He shrugs. ''But that's people. People care too much. They love at all costs. And so they pay the ultimate price.''

THE TROOP doesn't avoid certain pitfalls of using children/pre-teen protagonists. The five scouts are more or less archetypes. That's a pet peeve of mine. It's too easy. It's too simple to be realistic group dynamics. Kent is the jock, Ephraim is the wild-hearted rebel, Max is the reluctant leader, Shelley is the soulless weirdo and Newton is, of course, the bullied nerd. Nick Cutter seems aware of that issue and squashes some of these archetypes later on, through superb storytelling and engaging character arcs. Reading the first contact Ephraim and Max have with leadership and decision-making is empowering and gives an unexpected dimension to THE TROOP. But it's not every character that escapes its archetypal molding, unfortunately. Some remain predictable until the last page.

I aslo wanted to warn you : if children are a sensitive subject to you, THE TROOP will make you cringe. Nick Cutter puts the five kids in the troop through a meat grinder of an ordeal where they are confronted to unspeakable acts of violence, are forced to perform acts of unspeakable violence and sometimes have to turn against themselves. I don't consider myself a squeamish audience, but sometimes I had to squint my eyes and groan, confronted to the drama Cutter inflicts on his young protagonists. It dug deep into some old demons of mine and connected with the kid I once was at 13-14 years old. It's a sign of great storytelling, yet it's going to disturb the more conservative. Maybe even offend them.

THE TROOP is an intoxicating mix  of supernatural, psychological, existential and body horror. The thoroughness of its approach will reach deep into you, to a place you through safe and quiet. It is not for everybody. I expect a moral backlash against this novel to some degree. It's usually the case with groundbreaking art. I did not enjoy every aspect of THE TROOP, but it triggered a powerful emotional response from me. I love the way Nick Cutter writes horror. By the way, you know he's a pen name, right ? I'm not going to spoil who he is for you, but he's not exactly subtle about it on his Goodreads page. Some of you will recognize him right away and find pleasure and comfort in the idea that he tried his hand at horror. He does it better than most writers in the field. THE TROOP has an old school approach, yet has anything but a classi form. It's a novel that will be discussed and debated thoroughly for many years.

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