No less an authority than Stephen King calls Nick Cutter’s The Troop “old-school horror at its best.” The book, which goes on sale February 25, finds a young group of scouts on an isolated wilderness trip confronted by a strange man with a horrible, deadly infection. Early reviews are invoking everything from Lord of the Flies to Night of the Creeps, which is a good sign in my book. I’ll have my own review of the novel here at FEARNET next week, but for now we’ve got a few words with the author himself.
FEARNET: You've cited Stephen King as a major influence on your work and this novel in particular. What elements of his work do you see in The Troop?
CUTTER: Well, I cribbed its structure from Carrie, which is a debt I make clear in the acknowledgements. “The Body” (made into the film Stand by Me) is another obvious touchstone. Some people have seen elements of his novel Dreamcatcher in The Troop, which I can see, but to be honest that book wasn’t front-of-mind when I wrote. Y’know, very few writers understand childhood the way Stephen King does. Sure, he understands what scares us — he’s got that secret key to our fright cabinet, inscribed “SK: Personal Use” — but it sometimes goes overlooked how profoundly he understands the world of children. In that way he was hugely influential. So yeah, like I said in my acknowledgements, you’ve got to pay homage to the master. As Ash said in Army of Darkness: “Hail to the King, baby.”
Much of the novel is written from the perspectives of young teenage boys. How difficult was it to tap into that voice and get it accurate?
I’m very juvenile — infantile, you might even say — so it wasn’t that hard at all. In truth, there was some effort required, but it was a fun kind of effort. I’d sit down with friends of mine, all of us in our 30s now with kids of our own, and cast our minds back to those more untroubled times. We’d talk about, like, what our favorite candy used to be, the tactics we’d use to sneak into R-rated movies at the theater, how we’d try to peek behind those swinging saloon-style doors at the video store and get a gander at the X-rated flicks… y’know, those kinds of memories would flood back. I used them to situate me in that timeframe, and it allowed me to write from a kid’s perspective.
Did you have anyone of that age looking at the manuscript to offer pointers, or were you drawing strictly from your own experiences and imagination?
Nope, no child editors. It likely could’ve benefitted from one! But I find that once you jump down that rabbit-hole and start really dwelling on those past times in your life — I mean, for weeks while you write — then memories start chaining together, one reminiscence leading to the next, and you end up with a lot of useful material.
What were some of the ways the book surprised you as you were writing it? Did things change from your initial idea or outline? How significantly?
I think what surprised me most was the swiftness and ease with which it poured out of me. You hear about some writers getting a book done in what seems to be a terribly short time: Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in four weeks; Chuck Palahniuk jotted down Fight Club in six. You hear it, but books don’t usually come that fast for me. Eight months or a year is the norm. But this one I wrote in six weeks. Once I found that narrative stream and waded in, the current ran fast. One thing my editor asked is that I go back and flesh the characters out a little. The first draft was 75,000 words, a rip-snortin’, fireballin’, balls-out horror book. The final book clocks in at 90,000, and that additional verbiage was given over the characters. One adage in horror writing is that if a reader doesn’t care about the characters, they really won’t care what happens to them. So the point was to develop the characters until a reader hopefully reaches a point of care with them... at which point you can start snuffing them.
Did you do a lot of research as far as the science of the book? And did you stumble across anything we should be aware of... or afraid of?
Not too much. I did look into the, uh, critters who take the villain role in the book. As they exist in real life, those critters are revolting but in most cases not fatal. I souped them up, you could say, to make them a very serious threat. But I think horror fiction often veers towards the natural world, and what we humans do to alter it; the early works of my fellow countryman, David Cronenberg, dwell heavily on that notion. So The Troop follows in those same “body horror” footsteps, I think.
You've been candid about the fact that "Nick Cutter" is a pen name, and that you've published work under your real name prior to The Troop. Why go with a pen name for this novel?
Well, that was my agent’s idea. He felt that there ought to be some separation between those two spheres. As I respect my agent, I went along. I think he knows it’s not something I’m 100% sure about, which is why it is now very easy to discover my real name. I grew up reading horror and my aim, at first, was to be a horror writer. My career flowed in a different direction, but now I’m grateful it’s flowed back to where I can work in the genre that has always been my first love.
Were there elements of horror in your other works?
I don’t know that outright horror was present, but they were definitely more graphic and grisly that your normal Canadian novels. Early in my career that was a problem. Critics seemed to think I was being raw and nasty just to push buttons. That wasn’t it at all. I’d grown up reading King, yes, and (Peter) Straub and (Robert) McCammon, but also some of the rowdier horror writers like (Clive) Barker and (David) Schow and Ed Lee and Jack Ketchum. At the same time I was watching films by (George) Romero and (Mario) Bava and (Brian) Yuzna and Cronenberg and (Lucio) Fulci and (Dario) Argento and the early Peter Jackson stuff and any Video Nasty I could lay my hands on. So when people called my “literary” stuff too raw, I was baffled. It was kid’s play compared to what I’d grown up with! People are sensitized (or not) based on what they’ve been exposed to, and I’ve always exposed myself to the rawest stuff I can find.
Is horror a genre you might return to?
Oh, sure. I’d be delighted to. I’m editing the follow-up to The Troop right now, which takes place at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Beyond that… listen, if sales are decent and my publisher thinks it’s a wise gambit, I’ll be back. If not, I guess you’ll find me eating dog food under a freeway overpass.
As you know, sequels are a big "tradition" in horror—mainly horror films, but a fair share of horror novels have sequels as well. What are the chances of seeing a sequel to The Troop?
Pretty unlikely, I’d say. Never say never, but… I don’t know how much more I can say on this particular subject, y’know?
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.