The story of five boys stranded on an island with a killer infection, The Troop is a horror novel with a lot of guts, but little heart.
Here is a book whose success could arguably be traced to a single Stephen King quote – “The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best”. This line takes pride of place on the front cover of the book, features on the author’s website, the publisher’s website, Goodreads, Amazon…in fact pretty much anywhere The Troop is sold or promoted. It’s not surprising. Such glowing praise from the most bankable author in the world is guaranteed to increase sales. But it does bring into focus the age-old connection between expectation and disappointment.
Once a year Tim Riggs brings his troop of boy scouts on a camping trip to a remote island off the coast of Canada. They tell ghost stories, learn survival skills and bond. Crucially (and conveniently) mobile phones are forbidden and there is no way off the island until their pickup boat arrives in three days. This year their trip is interrupted when a skeletal and sickly stranger stumbles into their camp complaining of an insatiable hunger. He is infected with biologically engineered tapeworms, which, as the campers soon find out, are voracious in their hunt for new hosts.
What follows is a grisly body horror intended to shock and disgust. Despite opening with a William Golding quote, The Troop has less in common with Lord of the Flies than the Saw franchise. The violence is gruesome and gratuitous, yet it’s hard to care about the victims. The kids are basic stereotypes (jock, fat nerd, creep, etc.), and multiple flashbacks serve only to reinforce these caricatures, rather than flesh them out.
The contagion, on the other hand, is brilliantly realised. Through scientific reports, newspaper clippings, and the horrific descriptions of the scouts’ torment, the hydatids are the stars of the show. We see in forensic detail the havoc they cause on the body. The familiarity and biological plausibility of these tapeworms result in some genuinely creepy and disturbing moments in the book. They are repulsive.
The Troop is disappointing for its lack of ambition. Taken for what it is, it’s a nasty little horror story, albeit a fairly forgettable one. For such a good setup, and the nods to Lord of the Flies, it’s a shame Cutter settled for so little. For Golding, a group of boys stranded on an island is an opportunity to explore themes of power, civilisation, and humanity. For Cutter it’s an excuse to let the blood flow. Granted, they’re very different books, but The Troop all but invites the comparison.
So this isn’t old school horror at its best, despite what it says on the front cover. The decision to prioritise gore over character robs the story of any tension or sense of dread. The gore does make you queasy, so on that front it’s a success, but it’s impossible to feel fear for people you don’t care about.