Sunday, September 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: THE TROOP...



Eaten from within by worms? People who grow so ravenously hungry that they'll chew their own fingers off? THE TROOP, written by a supposedly veteran author going by the pseudonym "Nick Cutter," sounded like my cup of meat. I've been yearning for some throwback horror fiction, something to make me forget the dreary vampire melodramas of recent years. This one, I thought, with all of its wormy splendor, would convince me that good horror novels were not a dried up thing of the past.



It took a while, but I was right. Mr. "Cutter," whose style owes so much to Stephen King that there should be a split of the royalties, eases into this story like someone who has some bad news to share, but isn't in a hurry. We know early on that something is wrong because a bedraggled character known to the locals as "Starvin' Marvin" is running amok, barging into diners and eating everything in sight (including napkins), stealing trucks, and generally being a nuisance. We eventually learn that he's been infested by worms that are chewing away at him from the inside, the result of a bioengineering experiment gone horribly wrong. It's gotten so bad for Starvin' Marvin that he's become a babbling, borderline cannibalistic idiot. To thicken the plot, there's a troop of boy scouts camped out on a nearby island. We just know that this hungry moron from the mainland is going to cross paths with the boys and cause some trouble.


Along the way we hear about a mad scientist who thinks killer worms are the answer to America's obesity problem, and the military leaders who think worms might make a good weapon during a war. Mr. Cutter succeeds in making worms into this year's most nightmarish terror, and has 1,001 ways to describe these slimy critters. "It emerged incredibly fast," he writes of one worm, "its whiteness stretching to a milky translucence. Tim and Max shielded their faces instinctively, petrified it would explode, splattering them with the contents of its alien body - what could possibly be inside such a thing?"

   
The descriptions of the worms and the horror that befalls anyone infested with them are among the best parts of the story. What stalls the book a bit is the boy scout troop, for Mr. Cutter is so indebted to King's influence that he shamelessly apes the tone of the boys in King's old story, "The Body," which was the basis for the film Stand By Me. The boys in Cutter's book sound like no kids I've ever known. They're simply dull replicas of the Stand By Me cast. There's a nerd, and a bully, and a troubled kid, and another kid who turns out to be a stone cold psycho. On their own, the boys don't stand out, not even when Mr. Cutter gives each of them a chapter to explain their quirks and backgrounds. It's only when the crazy man with the worms invades their turf that the story kicks into full-blown mayhem. We can tell this is where Cutter's heart as a writer lies because the scouts become far more interesting once the danger erupts.

Cutter's masterstroke is that the horror of his tale works on two levels. Those infested by worms go full-tilt crazy. The worms are hungry, so you are hungry, but no matter how much you consume, you end up starved, skeletal, as one victim is described as having "skin shrink-wrapped around the radius and ulna bones, giving his elbows the appearance of knots in a rope." The other level has to do with the worms themselves, mindless killing machines, quickly draining people from within, and hungrily looking for more, even when the person has been whittled down to the bone. There's an underlying fear on each page that these creatures, were they to really exist, could take over the world and suck every living thing dry. It's a nasty idea.

There's a mesmerizing scene told from old lab reports of a monkey being used for a worm experiment. The scene unfolds slowly, as the monkey loses his mind, chews at his own fur, and wanders around his cage in agony as his internal organs are torn apart, until finally collapsing in a bloody, emaciated heap. It's brutal, yet it's eerily hypnotic the way Mr. Cutter describes it.

Why did I love this book so much? Partly it's the ruthlessness of Mr. Cutter's technique. He writes well, using words to paint ghastly pictures, particularly when it comes to describing the horrible smells emanating from the worm-riddled victims. We find ourselves thinking no one is safe, and that the worms are going to conquer us all. I half-imagined Charlton Heston waking in the middle of the night to scream to his fellow citizens, "The worms! The worms!"

Another reason for the story's surprising power is that Mr. Cutter does away with the superfluous material that most horror authors feel compelled to include. There's not much love here, no adoring wives or girlfriends waiting at home, no sense of normalcy that has been disrupted. The scoutmaster is an interesting character, drunk and misanthropic, just the sort of guy who might redeem himself by rescuing the troop from the wormy danger, but he's done away with violently and early. No, Mr. Cutter is concerned with the havoc worms can wreak, and in creating a sense of doom.

 
The setting of the story is off of Prince Edward Island, north of Nova Scotia, where the weather is harsh and "the moon is a bone fishhook in the clear October sky." The very atmosphere of the troop's journey into the wilderness is hard and cold, broken up only by their occasional arguments over whether a zombie is tougher than a shark, or whether a certain kind of candy is better than another. Cutter keeps the weather churning ominously, with the wind causing the boy's cabin to groan, "a melancholy note like the hull of an old Spanish galleon buffeted by ocean waves."

Who is Cutter? I imagine he's a baby boomer, rather than a younger man, based on the book's use of old-timey terms like "hold your horses." Who says that anymore? And who would actually put the phrase in a book? But that could be another reason I enjoyed The Troop, for it seems like Prince Edward Island is cut off from society, with no mentions here of such mundane modern tropes as social media or reality television. Boy Scouts, too, those bastions of loyalty and honor, seem like relics of another era. One of the book's most moving moments is when the nerdiest of the boys, losing his own battle with the worms, dons his sash of merit badges, hoping to look good for his potential rescuers.

Though the book is fatalistic as hell, with Cutter knocking off most of our favorite characters, there are several memorable scenes of unexpected heart and beauty, such as when two of the scouts try to kill a sea turtle for dinner, and then regret their actions when the animal puts up a fierce fight to survive. It's during these scenes when you realize you're in the grip of a real writer, one who deserves a following. 

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