If you’re looking to choose a bad-ass genre pseudonym, you could do a lot worse than ‘Nick Cutter’. Just ask author Craig Davidson (Rust and Bone; the upcoming Cataract City), who dives confidently into the horror genre with The Troop (February 25; Gallery Books), a harrowing campfire tale of trauma and tapeworms.
When Scoutmaster Tim drags five boy scouts out to an uninhabited island for their annual camping adventure, the appearance of a mysterious stranger serves as the catalyst for the gruesome nightmare that follows. Skinny and emaciated to the point of near-death, the stranger (dubbed the ‘Hungry Man’) is obviously ill and malnourished, and, in the first of many bone-headed character decisions to follow, Scoutmaster Tim decides to accept him into their camp, tie him down, and feed him.
A general practitioner with dubious experience, Scoutmaster Tim then follows up that dipshit decision with an even dipshittier one: immediate exploratory surgery, on a secluded island, without proper medical equipment, employing one of his scouts as an assistant. No wonder things go straight to hell. Scoutmaster Tim’s spontaneous surgery unleashes an experimental tapeworm on his disparate little troop of rejects. As the infected scouts begin to turn on the uninfected, the true nature of the little badge-earning bastards is finally revealed.
One of The Troop’s greatest strengths is its use of squirm-inducing medical details re: tapeworms and parasites. The narrative is occasionally interrupted by news stories or investigative documents (in the acknowledgements, Davidson cites Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ as an influence), which heighten the reality of a truly scary story, part Stand by Me, part body horror gone rogue. Davidson really lays on the grue, and at times the parasitical details carry the narrative.
But an abundance of flashbacks detracts from the claustrophobic vibe Davidson is trying to pull off (‘this reminded (blank) of the time (blank) happened’ becomes a strangely frustrating motif in the early going), and while I realize it’s a valiant attempt to build characters, it also completely removes the reader from Falstaff Island. And Falstaff Island is where the scary stuff happens. Davidson handles the genre tropes with the finesse of a veteran. But The Troop would have been better if he’d trapped us where the horror is.