If you somehow spliced in the isolation and grim anarchy of Lord of the Flies with the unsettling, relentless infestation horror of The Ruins, you might get something like Nick Cutter’s The Troop. Maybe. But even then, you might not get something that’s as genuinely terrifying and disturbing as this book is – a book that ranks for me among the most viscerally distressing and genuinely scary books I’ve read in a really long time. And what’s best of all about is that I don’t even know where to begin explaining which part of it is scariest – the characters and their actions, the psychological terror that Cutter unleashes, or the viscerally disturbing gore that he tosses out when you’re least prepared?
And yet, the premise is deceptively, cruelly simple. It’s the story of a troop of older boys, all of whom have stayed involved in the Scouts, even as they’ve gotten older (they’re all about 14 here). And each year, they’ve taken a trip to an isolated island to work on their camping skills, accompanied by their Scoutmaster, who’s a doctor in his day job. But this time, a man arrives on their shore in a boat. He’s terrifyingly, unnaturally thin, and he’s eating anything he can – and he’s obviously horribly sick. And so, our Scoutmaster decides to help him. But what this man has turns out to be horribly, incredibly contagious – and far more dangerous than he expected.
What follows from there is an absolute nightmare read, as the boys begin to realize just how isolated they are, and just how dangerous this infection really is. More than that, though, they realize just how little they might know each other, and how people change when the rules and boundaries of day-to-day life have lapsed. And it’s there that the horror really starts to seep in.
Let me be very clear on this one: this is not a book for the faint of heart. Cutter goes for the jugular whenever he can. That’s not to say that he doesn’t know how to get under your skin (heh); trust me, the mind games in this one are unreal, as characters fear infections, worry what’s going on internally, and start cruelly manipulating each other for their own gain. But for all the constantly ratcheting tension (something Cutter only exacerbates through his clever decision to intercut the story with articles and reports about the aftermath of the incident, which help us understand just how bad things are going to go), Cutter’s smart enough to realize that for real, pure terror, sometimes you have to go visceral.
And man, does he ever, delivering some of the most nauseating, physically upsetting descriptions I’ve read in years, and only getting more and more intense as the book – and this disease – gets worse and worse. Without giving too much of the game away, what’s unleashed on this island is breathtakingly fast, absolutely unforgiving, and viciously dangerous, and Cutter uses that to prevent our characters from ever getting their bearings or a moment to think. The time’s too short, you see.
Even so, he does a brilliant job immersing us in those characters, making us care about them and keeping the book from simply being a cavalcade of horrors. No, we want these boys to survive, and Cutter keeps us wanting that, even as we rapidly realize that this isn’t a book that many of these boys are going to walk away from. This is old-school, take-no-prisoners horror, and its plunge into the moral darkness of Lord of the Flies is matched only by its willingness to viscerally disturb on every step along the way.
The short version is, I loved this book, even as it upset me, turned my stomach, kept me anxious, and knotted me up. It freaked me out, it disgusted me, and it kept me riveted to every single one of its pages. Cutter’s pacing won’t let you go until the bitter, vicious end, no matter how much you might dread where you’re going. And the result is one of my favorite – and most effective – horror novels I’ve read since I don’t know when, and one that I can’t recommend enough.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.