I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.
The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.
A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games – har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”
I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)
Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.
Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.
I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)
The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.
I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.
Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.