I finished "The Troop" by Nick Cutter a week ago but it still echoes within me like the aftershocks of a major earthquake. What an exhausting yet orgasmic ride! The book grabbed me from the first pages and I was under its spell till the last page, and will probably feel its pull till the day I'm gone. It made me moan and groan, gasp and scream and mumble to myself like a lunatic. Maniacally, I underlined almost every sentence, the pencil my only defence against the horror. Visceral, like any self-respecting body horror story, but also infinitely disturbing and drenched in metaphysical anguish. "The Troop" is tied to Ryan C. Thomas' "The Summer I Died" as the sickest, scariest book I've ever read. Just like the torture of Tooth by Skinnyman in Thomas' masterpiece, Shelley's killing of Ephraim makes me scream and pull my hair out every time I think of it. I loved both Tooth and Ephraim like actual friends and their unbelievable torment and untimely demise makes me want to go to their graves and weep and mutter late words of consolation. It's not real, you say, just fiction, but their suffering feels all too real to me, just like my suffering for them.
The plot of The Troop is simple. For the weekend, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs is with his troop of scouts on the Falstaff Island, close to Prince Edward Island on the Canadian East Coast. The troop consists of five fourteen year olds: Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley, and Newton. On the first night they have an unknown guest, Tom Padgett, who had just escaped from Dr. Edgerton's facility. Needless to say, Dr. Edgerton is a sadistic mad genius with no regard for human life. Tom carries an infection, his body is taken over by worms, monster worms, conqueror worms — technically called "hydatid worms" — that take over your organism and give your brain the command to eat, eat, eat. Only it's not you who gets fed, it's them. They grow inside you and then, when you've fed yourself into starvation, they leave your hollowed system and conquer another host. These genetically modified worms are nothing but a biological weapon the military was experimenting with.
The island becomes the site of dangerous experimentation, and the Scoutmaster and his scouts are the guinea pigs.
Now, the plot thickens when we find that one of the boys, Shelley, is a psychopath who revels in making other beings suffer; spiders, fish, cats, dogs, other people, you name it. The panic that strikes his mates when the infection begins to spread is sweet music to Shelley's ears. The island becomes his playground where he finally has the opportunity to enact his twisted blood-games. All in all, with conqueror worms and a sadistic killer on the loose, shit is bound to hit the fan on the island.
Nick Cutter's original lyrical style is on full display when he describes the five boys through the eyes of Scoutmaster Tim: "All boys gave off a scent, Tim found — although it wasn't only an olfactory signature. In Tim's mind it was a powerful emanation that enveloped his every sense. For instance, Bully-scent: acidic and adrenal, the sharp whiff you'd get of a pile of old green-fuzzed batteries. Or Jock-scent: groomed grass, crashed chalk, and the locker room funk wafting of a stack of exercise mats. Kent Jenks pumped out Jock-scent in waves. Other boys, like Max and Ephraim, were harder to define — Ephraim often gave off a life-wire smell, a power transformer exploding in a rainstorm.
Shelly...Tim considered between sips of scotch and realized the boy gave off no smell at all — if anything, the vaporous, untraceable scent of a sterilized room in a house long vacant of human life.
Newton, though, stunk to high heaven of Nerd: an astringent and unmistakable aroma, a mingling of airless basements and dang library corners and tree forts built for solitary habitation, of dust smoldering inside personal computers, the licorice tang of asthma puffer mist and the vaguely narcotic smell of model glue — the ineffable scent of isolation and lonely forbearance."
Scoutmaster Tim is caught off-guard by the appearance of hungry Tom on the island. Tom is nothing but a shuffling corpse. Not strictly as zombie as his diet consists of more than brains: some algae and foam from inside a sofa bed are good enough for Tom; whatever he can stuff in his mouth and chew on. When the Scoutmaster reaches for the radio to get in touch with mainland and signal an emergency, Tom becomes violent, grabs the radio and smashes it on the floor. He then has a coughing fit, and some spit splashes on the Scoutmaster's face. Thus, Tim Riggs becomes infected. The conqueror worms will grow and eat him up from inside. He's a dead man walking.
Next, Tim manages to neutralize the intruder and tie him up on the couch. He's feeling unwell and hungry. Confused, he helps himself to more scotch straight from the bottle. The boys soon realize that there's something wrong going on in their cabin and that their master is unable to cope. Kent, their informal leader, is the most vocal of the bunch. When they see the worms crawling out of the dead man's body and they notice that Tim is losing weight at an alarming speed, they realize Tim carries an unknown, terrible disease. Led by Kent, they mutiny. Together, they isolate Tim in the closet of the cabin and lock the door with a key. To celebrate his victory over an adult Kent takes a drink from Tim's scotch bottle. Thus, Kent too becomes infected.
Psychopathic Shelly observes these developments with a cold, calculating eye. His sick and twisted mind takes center stage when he decides to linger by the Scoutmaster's closet when all other boys go outside. A bar of light comes into Tim's makeshift prison, from the small space between the door and the floor. Shelly decides to cover that light with two dishtowels and tape them in place, while singing to his master in a mocking voice:
Nobody loves me
Everybody hates me
I'm going to the garden to eat worms,
to eat worms
Big fat juicy ones, long thin slimy ones
Itsy-bitsy crawly-wawly woooorms.
At this point I realized I knew Shelly from somewhere. He reminded me of Patrick Hockstetter from Stephen King's IT. Patrick is one of the members of Henry Bowers' gang, the bullies who terrorise the loser club led by Stuttering Bill. Like Shelley, Patrick is a major creepazoid. He keeps a pencil box full of dead flies, which he kills with his ruler and shows it to other students. Like Shelly, who drowns his cat Trixie while sporting a hard-on, Patrick takes small, usually injured animals or stray dogs and locks them in a broken refrigerator in the junkyard, leaving them there to suffocate. In a fit of vague jealousy, Patrick also asphyxiated his infant brother when he was only five. Although they have different builds — Patrick is chubby, while Shelley is more tall and slender — they both have moonfaces devoid of emotion, slack and doughy, and their eyes are blank, alien.
|Sketch by RayDillon|
But what about the hydatid, conqueror worms? Aren't they the real danger, the real disease? The relation between the mutated worms and Shelly is complex and requires a study in itself. What Cutter emphasizes is that, when Shelley eventually becomes infected, he welcomes the worms, he identifies himself with them. He wants to be their parent and help them grow and annihilate everything. Shelley and the hydatid worms are two aspects of the same disease, of a mindless cancer that aims to obliterate everything that moves and bleeds. Once the worms infect Shelley, he thinks of himself as being pregnant with them. He's both their mother and father. "His stomach was a swollen gourd. It bulged through his shirt and over the band of his trousers. Its pale circumference was strung with blue veins and sloshed with a dangerous, exciting weight." Shelley promises the worms inside him to kill Max and Newton. "First I have to kill them. Then I'll be alone. Then I can give birth in peace. Then we can all play."
Clearly, Cutter is a great portretist, a lyricist reminiscent of Ray Bradbury. However, his poetic inclination doesn't impede the fast-paced action of the novel but augments it with a deeper psychological layer. His description of Ephraim sitting on a boulder and brooding about whether his body's infected with worms and how to pull them out is burnt in my brain and will haunt me forever. Ephraim is Kent's challenger, they're both athletic Alphas. When the island gets hit by a storm, the boys decide to take cover in the cellar, wanting to avoid the cabin with the dead guy and their sick Scoutmaster. But it's clear that Kent is also infected. Nonetheless, the former brave leader wants to join the others. Ephraim beats Kent up, a bit more savagely than the situation required, given that Kent was already weakened. Moreover, Ephraim has anger management problems, mostly because of an unhappy childhood, overshadowed by an abusive father. So Ephraim takes Kent down and punches him again and again, his first working like pistons. But in the process he touches Kent's infected blood. The skin of his knuckles is cut open, Kent's blood is under his fingernails. Is that how the worms wiggle in? Did Kent accidentally give Ephraim the disease? Once they're in the safety of the cellar Shelley is quick to ask Ephraim these questions, and take sadistic pleasure in gradually breaking the other kid down mentally and physically.
"Shelly could tell that Ephraim was afraid that whatever was in Kent had gotten into him — it'd leapt between their bodies, from Kent's lips to Ephraim's hand, swimming in on the rush of blood. Shelly knew Ephraim was scared and he foresaw a great profit in nursing that fear along. It would be easy. Ephraim was so predictable — so predictably stupid.
Of course, Shelley hadn't seen the teeny-tiny worms at that point — but he'd understood that the sickness, whatever it was, scurried inside of you, ate you from the inside out. That's what made it so scary. This wasn't a bear or a shark or a psycho axe-murderer; those things were bad, sure, but you could get away from them. Hide.
How could you hide from a murderer who lived under your skin? [...]
Shelly had a method of probing, of opening doors in people that was uncanny. He rarely used this gift — it could get him in trouble. But he was able to spot the weak spots the way a sculptor saw the seams in a block of granite; one tap in the right spot and it would split right open.
I saw something, Eef.
That was all it had taken. The smallest seedling — he'd slit Ephraim's skin, just the thinnest cut, slipping that seed in. If Shelley did some additional work, well, maybe that seed would squirm into Ephraim's veins, surf to his heart, and bloom into something beautiful. Or horrible. It didn't matter which to Shelley."
Masterfully, Shelley plans the seed of doubt in Ephraim's mind. Thinking himself infected Ephraim becomes distant, obsessive, and stops talking to Max and Newton, his real friends who only wish to help him. When after the storm the boys decide to go look for food, Ephraim tags along, but his thoughts are leaden with fear, heavier and heavier, paralyzing anxiety.
"Sometime around midafternoon, Ephraim sat down and refused to get up.
"That's it. I'm not walking anymore."
They had come to a copse of spruce trees. The air was dense with the scent of pine. [...]
Ephraim sat on the moss-covered rock with his fingers knit together in his lap. His body position mimicked a famous Roman sculpture that Newton had seen in a history book: The Pugilist at Rest. Ephraim looked a bit like a statue himself. His skin had a slick alabaster hue, except for around the lips and the rims of his nostrils, where it had a bluish-gray tint. Newton had a scary premonition: IF THEY LEFT EPHRAIM HERE AND CAME BACK YEARS LATER, HE WAS SURE EEF'S BODY WOULD REMAIN IN THIS FIXED POSITION — A STATUE OF CALCIFIED BONE."
Besides being an amazing lyricist, Nick Cutter is a masterful painter of decay. With surgical precision he manages to capture the weeping of flesh. Weeping, in his writing is sometimes used as a metaphor for bleeding. A wound, a cut, weeps. When it bleeds, meat weeps. In Cutter's universe organic matter is damned. It's a cursed universe. Everything that lives and breathes is destined to agony. In the words of philosopher Emil Cioran, "life is too limited and too fragmentary to endure great tensions." (Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair) The Romanian philosopher argues that death is imminent in life, it's not a reality outside of life, but buried deep into the very source of life. Life breeds death. Such a fragile phenomenon, it can only be understood as an abnormal materialization of death, a grotesque disease. "The flesh," Cioran also writes, "is neither strange nor shadowy, but perishable to the point of indecency, to the point of madness. It is not only the seat of disease, it is itself a disease, incurable nothingness, a fiction which has degenerated into a calamity. The vision I have of it is the vision of a gravedigger infected with metaphysics." (Emil Cioran, The New Gods)
In a way, Nick Cutter is a gravedigger infected with metaphysics. He knows all the faces of death and can see it in the smallest details of everyday life. Just like Leibniz's theory of monads or David Bohm's Holographic Principle, in Cutter's world each part of the universe is a reflection of the whole. And Cutter is an expert in capturing those bits of reality that uncover the disease eating at the guts of the whole cosmos. Here's one of those mundane scenes rich with metaphysical insight:
"Last summer, Max had shared his house with a family of shearwaters — a much fleeter version of a puffin. They colonized the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, nesting in the rocks. But due to a population explosion, shearwaters had began to nest in the houses of North Point. They'd chip away the Gyprock exterior, tugging loose Styrofoam and pink insulation to make room for their nests.
A family of shearwaters made one above Max's bedroom window. In the morning he'd crane his neck and see the daddy shearwater poke his head out of the whole he'd chipped in the house's facade, darting it in both directions before arrowing out over the water to hunt.
Max's father, however, wasn't impressed. The lawn was covered in Styrofoam and pink rags of insulation. The birds would wreck the home's resale value, he griped — despite the fact that he'd lived in North Point all his life and would likely die in this house. He drove to the Home Hardware, returning with a bottle of insulating foam sealant. He clambered up a ladder to the nest, shooed the birds away, stuck the nozzle into the whole, and pumped in sealant until it billowed out and hardened to a puffy crust. He climbed back down with a satisfied smile.
But the shearwaters were back the next day. They'd torn away at the sealant, ripping it off in chunks with their sickle-shaped beaks. Now the lawn was covered in Styrofoam, insulation, and sealant. Max's father repeated the procedure, believing the birds would relent. But shearwaters are cousins to homing pigeons — they always come back. I should shoot them, Max's father groused, though he could never do such a thing.
Still, he was angry — that particular anger of humans defied by the persistence of nature. He drove back to Home Hardware, returning with another can of sealant and a few feet of heavy-duty chicken wire. Using tin snips, he cut the wire into circles roughly the size of the hole. Clambering up the ladder, he made a layer cake of sorts: a layer of sealant, the chicken wire, sealant, wire, sealant, wire. Okay, birds, he'd said. Figure that out.
Max returned from school the next day to find a dead shearwater in the bushes. The daddy — he could tell by its dark tail feathers. It lay with its neck twisted at a horrible angle. Its beak was broken — half of it was snapped off. It's eyes were filmy-gray, like pewter. It'd made a mess: shreds of sealant dotted the lawn. But his father's handiwork held strong. The daddy bird must've broken its neck — had it become so frustrated, so crazy, that it'd flown into the barrier until its neck snapped?
When Max's father saw the dead bird, his jaw tightened, he blinked a few times very fast, then quietly he said: I just wanted them to find someplace else to live.
In the middle of the night Max had been woken by peeping. The sound was coming from the walls. Max padded into his parents' room. His father rubbed sleep crust from his eyes and followed Max back to his bedroom. When he heard those noises, his face did a strange thing.
At three o'clock in the morning, Max's dad had climbed the ladder. His housecoat flapped in the salt breeze. Using a screwdriver and vise grips, he tore out the sealant and chicken wire, working so manically that he nearly fell. By the time he'd ripped it away the peeps had stopped. He'd reached deep inside the hole, into a small depression he'd had not realized was there. He placed whatever he'd found in the pockets of his housecoat with great reverence.
In the kitchen, his face was white with shock, he laid them on the table: the mama bird and two baby birds. The mama bird's wing was broken. The babies were small and gray-blue, still slick with the gummy liquid inside their eggs. All three were still."
In Cutter's universe caring leads to death. The daddy shearwater's care for its family leads to its destruction. Life is limited and fragmentary. The bird was programmed by Mother Nature to answer the distress calls of its baby birds. Equipped with a limited range of behaviors, the slightest change in the environment — the layered cake of sealant and chicken wire built by Max's dad — leads to the shearwater's self-annihilation. Life is mad. In a gruesome instantiation of Einstein's definition of insanity, the daddy shearwater tries the same thing over and over, peeking away at the sealant, while expecting a different result. Care and love, the things that stay at the heart of life, are nothing but harbingers of death. In the words of Dr. Edgerton, "love is the absolute killer. Care. The milk of human kindness. People try so hard to save the people they love that they end up catching the contagion themselves. They give comfort, deliver aid, and in doing so they acquire the infection. Then those people are cared for by others and they get infected. But that's people. People care too much. They love at all costs. And so they pay the ultimate price." On this sobering picture, Mother Nature is nothing but a dying hysterical whore, crushed by the fear and guilt of being alive, yet desperately fighting for each and every breath, blindly clawing handfuls of earth and worms and stuffing them in its toothless, gaping maw.
All in all, "The Troop" is a remarkable novel, entertaining yet literary, warm yet visceral. I recommend it to all who have the strength to face the real horror behind the veils of the mundane and the stomach for the ugly metaphysical truths crawling inside it.
On a brighter note, here's a Six Feet Under song with relevant lyrics.
On a brighter note, here's a Six Feet Under song with relevant lyrics.