Compassion For The Non-Human: A Review of The Troop
Nick Cutter’s The Troop is the kind of horror story that teaches you about the aching void at the core of your being. Tim Riggs, a scoutmaster on Prince Edward Island, brings his troop of five thirteen-year-old boys to the remote Falstaff Island for a excursion of merit-earning and campfiring. On the first night, a gaunt man arrives, motivated by fear and an all-consuming hunger, contaminating the island with a nightmare strain of parasitic worm. What ensues is a modern version of Lord of the Flies with pocket knives and a zombie-like threat of cannibalism.
The Troop does just about everything right. Carefully paced as its narrator flips between its primary characters in order to give you a glimpse of the internal machinations, deep intimate secrets, paranoia, and hunger pangs of the scouts and their chauffeur, the novel always gives you just enough foreshadowed material to forecast the truly upsetting events to come. The chapters are occasionally broken up with found documents, like testimony from a court case that took place after the event of the main plot, or a GQ article detailing an outsider’s perspective on the island’s creature feature. The Troop is fun to read, while constantly serving up different nuanced flavours of the uncanny, creepy, sublime, and bone chilling.
A contagion horror story at its heart, The Troop doesn’t break new ground with its concept (beyond the fact that it is gloriously and unapologetically Canadian). It’s not a zombie book, but the rules of the walking dead sub-genres are at play. At times, when the narrative switched over to an infected character, eating the moss off of a rock or shovelling anything – anything – into his mouth, I was reminded of the living rage-zombies of 28 Weeks Later. There are precedents to the terrors of this book. But that’s where the best horror lives. Great horror is about the concepts we we think we know, explored to the point where we become sick with our own frail humanity and inability to truly comprehend anything, even ourselves. Contagion horror plays on the familiarity we have with our own bodies. It puts us in a carnal reality, makes us aware of our senses, and then begins to make our most intimate space foreign to us.
For contagion horror to work like this, the reader needs to be able to self-insert. And that’s where Cutter shines best. He wields empathy like a surgeon’s scalpel, conjuring intimate moments of real and brutal vulnerability so that when shit starts to go down and the island falls under the cloud of darkest fantasy, you still can’t escape the screaming. Scenes of parental abuse, of pre-teen social exclusion, and of the slow disillusionment that comes with growing up – these all help humanize the wormfood characters on the pages. But what works best for evoking empathy in The Troop are the sadistically detailed descriptions of animal mutilation.
Whether it’s a description of how the worm causes hamsters to eat their hands, or the psychosexual memory of drowning a kitten (one of the children is a serial killer in the making), the most gruesome moments of The Troop are the meticulously crafted scenes of animals in pain. The vivisection of a bug, the crushing of a crustacean's eyeball – these images are captured with such tactile specificity that it’s impossible to not crumble emotionally at the unfair fate of the non-human entities in this book. And therein lies the key to what makes The Troop so incredibly resonant.
Just over half way through the book is The Troop's most horrific chapter. It involves two boys who have never really experienced violence, the sharp implements they have access to, a bit of fire, a lot of hunger, and a turtle. By this point, Cutter has made you empathize with spiders, children, adults, birds, practically anything that isn’t an infectious parasite. The ensuing violence is so inglourious, so reluctant, so real, and so utterly heart rending – the way Cutter describes those awful tortured peeps – that by the time it's over, you are ready to empathize with whatever the book has left to throw at you, no matter how unbelievable.
The Troop is thrilling and propulsive – I had trouble putting it down. The book also feeds off of base human germophobia, so for the past few weeks I’ve been haunted by hypochondriacal worry that I have a mouth-ridden parasite of some kind living in my guts. But it also transcends those basic horror novel qualities by facilitating real existential reflection, providing a glimpse at the horrible pain of all living things. The Troop shows us compassion for the non-human so that we can better feel empathy for each other.