Published in the UK last June, The Troop came to my attention when it won the inaugural James Herbert Award for horror writing (is it the Herbert or the Herbie? I’m not sure they have settled on this yet).
Since the horror publishing bubble dramatically burst back in the mid-nineties, fans of horror as a literary genre have seen their corner of the local bookstore dwindle to (if they are lucky) a solitary stand largely stocked with Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and precious little else.
Horror is a hardy genre however, and has survived by infiltrating and disguising itself in other genres like crime, science fiction, and dark fantasy. It has even thrived in the burgeoning Young Adult sub-genre with the likes of Charlie Higson’s terrific and genuinely frightening The Enemy books. But straight up, bloody, unashamed, irony-free horror for adults has become harder and harder to find.
As a teenager (actually as a pre-teen) I devoured novels by the likes of King, Herbert, Shaun Hutson, and many whose names are lost in the mists. I scoured church-hall jumble sales for battered NEL paperbacks with gold embossed lettering, titles that began with ‘The’, and lurid and squidgy artwork. In my later teens my interest began to wane due to overfamiliarity with the sometimes formulaic plotting of mass-market horror (every fourth chapter introduce a new character, kill them in the last paragraph, put some graphic sex in around chapter eight). However, on one life-changing (this is no exaggeration) library visit I checked out Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory and a slim volume of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and a whole new wave of horror fiction broke over me. For a bookish gore-hound these were the literary equivalent of discovering Never Mind The Bollocks after listening to Mud records.
At university I moved on to American imports and discovered the Splatter-punk movement, a loose grouping of young horror with a desire to shock jaded horror fans by dialling up the transgression and tapping into underground subcultures and taboo topics (although I’m not sure any of them ever actually topped old-school Shaun Hutson’s killer aborted foetus novel Spawn for pure gross-out).
And then POP! One day it was like a tap was turned off. The horror novel market crashed, and apart from a few juggernauts like King and Koontz (the stadium rock perennials of the genre) writers drifted away into other genres to earn a crust. Clive Barker moved ever further into the realms of either dark fantasy or hobbitty tosh (depends on your taste), others moved into the booming criminal profiler/serial killer thriller sub-genre invented by Thomas Harris. The likes of Ramsey Campbell kept the flame burning, but were forced underground into limited run hardbacks for specialist markets. And I like a lot of horror readers moved to graphic novels and movies for my fix of the dark meat.
So reading Cutter’s fast paced and phenomenally disgusting novel was an absolute joy, like discovering the long gestating mutant offspring of a forbidden love affair between Hutson-esque leather-clad greaser horror, and pierced new wave Skipp and Spectory splatter-punk.
The general disreputability of the horror genre is demonstrated by the fact that Nick Cutter is actually a pseudonym for author Craig Davidson. Davidson is better known for more ‘literary’ books such as the short story collection Rust and Bone, the title story and another from this collection were adapted Jacques Audiard into the film Rust and Bone.
In The Troop, a scout master and his five teenage charges arrive on a small Canadian island for a camping adventure and find themselves unwillingly in line for merit badges in gore, cruelty and blowing chunks rather than woodsman-ship. Having set up camp, they boys are telling each other ghost stories when a stick thin stranger suddenly bangs on their cabin door complaining of insatiable hunger. Soon they are isolated, terrified, and fighting for survival against a particularly insidious danger.
It would be a shame to give away the true nature Cutter’s inventively satirical and impressively stomach churning threat, but suffice to say there is something more diabolically inventive afoot than the kids versus cannibal set-up the short synopsis above suggests.
This is a lean, mean read with a streamlined plot and a small cast of characters who roughly fall into familiar teen drama tropes (the jock, the nerd, the creep, etc). It moves at a click and is written in the hard hitting and deliberately blunt language of pulp. The youth of the central characters would suggest a YA angle, but the extreme gore, and several upsetting passages detailing animal cruelty (one a clear homage to Cannibal Holocaust) firmly move it beyond even the parental advisory label (this coming from someone who read James Herbert’s The Dark at age 11). The Troop is a bracing reminder of how cruel the classic shock horror of James Herbert often was. Terrible things happen to innocents and the author employs foreshadowing in the classic Stephen King style to ramp up the dread.
Some reviews have taken slightly against Cutter’s use of character archetypes, but this seems to miss the point. Whilst The Troop is (thank Christ) not a ‘meta’ novel, or dripping with irony, it is very much a stylistic homage to writers like Herbert and early Stephen King and uses stock characters as a kind of shorthand that turbocharges the plotting.
In the afterword Cutter cops to borrowing the structure of King’s Carrie as a template, but addition to the acknowledged horror influences there is also a strong flavour of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in the way that the novel explores how quickly the veneer of civilisation can become quickly eroded to expose primal savagery beneath.
Not a novel for those who like their horror genteel, one review I’ve seen has gone as far as to criticise The Troop for an over-reliance on scenes that provoke disgust. I don’t really understand that point of view, which seems a little like arguing that a Motorhead album is too loud. However, if you like your horror puke stained and plain nasty, then this is a safe bet.
The Troop is published in the UK by Headline and available in paperback and e-book formats.