Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Title: The Troop
Author: Nick Cutter
Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Note: I was given an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher.

Imagine the savage survivalism of Lord of the Flies merged with the creeping bio-engineered dread of The Stand. Mix in the five personality archetypes of The Breakfast Club (albeit a boys-only version) and you get Nick Cutter’s (aka Craig Davidson’s) new horror novel The Troop – with all of the positives and negatives that implies.

Scoutmaster Tim Rigg has taken his 5-member Boy Scout troop on a 3-day camping trip to Falstaff Island, a small island off the coast of PEI. There’s the jock, Kent Jenks, son of the local police chief; the wild child, Ephraim Elliott; the sensible everyman, Max Kirkwood; the creepy loner, Shelley Longpre; and finally the nerd, Newt Thornton, last in the pecking order. Scoutmaster Tim, who is the town doctor back home, has high hopes for 3 days of hiking, learning, and otherwise hearty outdoor activity.

But there’s another person coming to the island. A man who carries inside him a genetically-engineered horror the likes of which the world is unprepared for. And he’s hungry – so very hungry.

So, let’s get the literary clone-work out of the way. Like many people, I had to read Lord of the Flies in high school, and absolutely hated it. My opinion as a teenager was that the whole descending-into-savagery thing would probably have been completely avoided if there were at least one female in the whole group. Growing up and learning about what occupies the minds of teenaged boys, I have to amend that opinion somewhat – but my absolute dislike of that book has not lessened. (And if you’re wondering, I couldn’t stand Catcher in the Rye that much either.)

At first, I was nervous that The Troop would travel down that same everyone-turns-into-animals-because-Man-is-the-real-monster path. This was especially worrisome in the first half of the book, since the author tries so hard to establish the meanness and social hierarchy of the boys. With the exception of Newt, the requisite fat nerd, the rest of them are cardboard cutouts: Kent is a bully, Ephraim is supposedly angry (I say “supposedly” because although we’re told an awful lot about how angry he is and how he always starts fights, he doesn’t actually act violently until he’s pushed), Max is friendly and average but resolute, and Shelley is your standard-issue sociopath-in-training.

However, once the true menace of the book is revealed, the characters display more psychological depth than I expected. There are some predictable turns here (especially regarding Shelley), but the addition of Tim, who believes he can help the sick man who’s wandered into their midst, adds a new dimension to the story. In Doctor/Scoutmaster Tim, not only do we see a man blinded by his own confidence in his abilities, but we also see the boys’ reaction to that blindness – and the lack of trust in the adult world that results.

Now that’s interesting.

Less interesting, but still helpful, are the interstitial pieces of text showing how the bio-engineered parasite came to be, and the political and cultural aftermath of the outbreak. They provide context and help the novel’s pacing, but I think they strip the real threat (a genetically-modified tapeworm meant to promote weight loss but secretly developed as a biological weapon) of some of its mystique. They do contribute to the novel’s ambiguous ending, however.

Other than that, the book contains some unusual and truly repulsive body horror. I have a pretty strong stomach, so when I say that, I mean it. I found it particularly hard to handle the scene where Ephraim cuts himself in order to remove the parasite from his body.

Overall, I thought this book was okay, but I wish more time had been spent on character development, especially in the rather creaky opening.

Up next: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book Review: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers

Title: Every House is Haunted
Author: Ian Rogers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author through Goodreads and Facebook, and am familiar with some of ChiZine’s staff;  although I have tried to remain neutral in this review, these circumstances have probably informed my opinion of this book.

Every House is Haunted is a collection of 22 short stories by Ian Rogers. Loosely arranged around the theme of homes – as both places and ideals – each story rubs up against the threshold between the real and the unreal. Although most of these stories are horror stories, they traffic more in the subtle dread of the soul than in gore.

The tales are broken up into five groups that refer to different parts of a house: “The Vestibule,” “The Library,” “The Attic,” “The Den,” and “The Cellar.” Those words alone should give the attentive reader a clue about what to expect, as they aren’t typically associated with modern-day housing. Instead, they make us think of houses that are old, or dark and decrepit – of places where dust and stale air linger.

Every House is Haunted has a few stand-out stories, such as the opener, “Aces,” about a teenage witch and her older brother, and how they each come to terms (or not) with her abilities. Other highlights include:

  • “Inheritor,” a mirror version of “Aces” that deals with a much more sinister brother-sister pairing;
  • “Cabin D,” about a man planning to destroy a haunted cabin as his heroic last act;
  • “The Nanny,” about a psychic investigator helping two murdered children enter the afterlife; and
  • “The Tattletail,” a winsome little story about a boy who wants to have a pet demon.

Other stories, like “The Currents” and “Leaves Brown,” are more subdued and could even fit comfortably within the traditional confines of Canadian Literature. “Leaves Brown” in particular is interesting because it’s the second of two stories in this collection (the first one being “Autumnology”) to talk about the impermanence of autumn compared to the other three seasons:

“You can travel to places in the world where it feels like summer all the time…or spring…or winter. But there isn’t any place on the planet where it’s always fall. That’s what makes it special. Fall is meant to be enjoyed in small doses. If the seasons were a four-course meal, then fall would be the dessert.”

Part of me wonders whether this passage should be taken as the book’s manifesto: things fade – especially things like sanity, the sanctity of life, and your ability to protect those you care about. Your choice to take those things for granted only puts you in peril.

Some of Rogers’ stories also contain well-realized characters, like the protagonist’s annoyingly hapless neighbour in “Charlotte’s Frequency” and Soelle, the main character in “Aces.” More often though, the characters remain ciphers and it is the situation itself that contains the story’s meat.

However, one of the main problems with this collection is that many of the story endings are either neutral towards, or in conflict with, the main plots. Sometimes, the tonal shift can be jarring, as at the end of “The Dark and the Young.” At other times, like in the story “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the ending is downright unsatisfactory; it’s open-ended and refuses to answer the questions introduced during the rising action and the climax. Perhaps this open-endedness is an attempt to make the stories sound more literary, but I prefer for these things to be more definitive.

Overall, though, I liked this collection, and was delighted to meet Ian in person at the World Fantasy Convention. I look forward to reading his other recent release, SuperNOIRtural Tales.

Up next: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print (hardcover)

I’ve decided to ditch the “Reading challenge” portion of my book review titles. This was the 12th book that I read this year, and dear Lord, was it a doozy.

About the book: It is 1847. The two boats from the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage – the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror – have been locked within the pack ice of the Arctic for well over a year. However, the steady depletion of coal, food, and supplies is not the only hardship that both crews have to face, for the arrival of a mute Inuit woman has coincided with the predations of a terrible supernatural creature with a craving for human flesh. Now Captain Frances Crozier, the highest-ranking officer still alive on this cursed expedition, has to determine how reach safety while evading both the monster stalking them and the mutinous thoughts growing within his crew.

What I liked: The opening of the book was planned out with care, as Simmons switched between different characters and different points of view. He painstakingly set up the environment and stakes of the story – the ships being frozen on the ice, the crew having the startlingly incompetent Sir John Franklin as commander, and there being barely enough coal to keep warm. I could sense that Simmons was building a strong house, and that he was laying down the planks and foundation with precision. Every chapter, every new development, every switch from one character to another, screamed one word: Deliberation.

In particular, I liked the slow buildup and unfurling of two crucial scenes: The disastrous Grand Carnivale out on the ice, and Crozier’s agony soon afterwards as he gave up drinking cold turkey and went through an agonizing detoxification process, complete with hallucinations and delirium tremens.

Astute readers will note that the Grand Carnivale sequence is an extended reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I am not so astute, as I haven’t read Poe, but I do read Wikipedia, so I understood the basics of the reference. It impresses and pleases me when an author pays such attention to pacing, structure, and literary allusions. It tells me that the author cares. It also tells me that they take their readers seriously, and expect the same level of care and attention in return.

What I disliked: Despite the respect I felt Simmons was paying his readers, this book was far too long. Reading it was a protracted affair, full of doubt – rather like the Franklin Expedition described within. I don’t know if the book’s length was deliberate in order to exhaust readers, but I suspect that Simmons would not find such a meta-effect unwelcome. However, I also felt a perverse sense of pride as I complained about The Terror book to my friends and coworkers – it felt oddly satisfying to heft this brick up into the air and declare that it was too long to be enjoyable. Ultimately, I finished it by giving myself a goal of reading at least 50 pages during every commute to and from work, effectively making it feel like a school assignment. I’m unsure why it was so difficult to read The Terror, as I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage (which was approximately the same length) last summer and finished it in less than a week.

Another problem was the lack of both a glossary and a character list in the book. There were over 100 men on both ships and the majority of them were referred to by name throughout the text; it would have been invaluable to have a list of all of the crew members, and a glossary explaining all of the naval terms, in order to help me understand who they were and what they were doing. In particular, one early conversation between the various officers of both ships included two participants who were both named John, and the only way to distinguish between the two was that one was referred to as “Sir John” and the other “Captain Sir John.” Trying to keep all of the names straight in this and other instances made me dizzy.

Finally, the closing chapters of the book were a dramatic, abrupt shift. After hundreds of pages of slogging through ice, starvation, scurvy, mutiny, and cannibalism, we move instead into a discourse on Inuit mythology and the origins of the snow-monster. I understand why this was included – you can’t just introduce a crazy man-eating monster in the Arctic larger and more cunning than a polar bear and not expect people to wonder where it came from – but the move away from the Franklin Expedition crew members came out of left field. It also disturbed me that in all of the pages devoted to the viewpoints of the crew members there was no chapter similarly devoted to Lady Silence’s viewpoint. She is an important character, and vital to the survival of Crozier, yet we never experience her thoughts.

The verdict: Simmons has skill – the effort which he takes to establish location and weave together the various viewpoints of the story are obvious – but The Terror was such a slog that my appreciation of it is muted. I spent so much time reading it that to give up on it would have felt like a waste, and would have seriously set back my book review efforts here. This is the first book I read in 2012 that left me sitting on the fence.

Next up: The Steel Seraglio, by Mike Carey, Louise Carey, and Linda Carey.