Thursday, March 26, 2015

Grendel and the Tape-worm Were Hard Up For Cash

The Troop by Nick Cutter (pen-name of Craig Davidson) (2014): Falstaff Island gets relocated from Nunavut to two miles off the coast of Prince Edward Island in this ambitious, uneven, but enjoyable Canadian horror novel. 

An adult Scoutmaster and five Eagle Scouts in their early teens go to the uninhabited island every year for a camping trip.  This will probably be the last trip for the troop as they're close to outgrowing Boy Scouts. Boy, will it be the last trip.

An emaciated stranger shows up at their cabin on the first night, skeletal and so all-consumingly hungry that he starts to eat the couch on which he sits. The Scoutmaster, a GP, realizes the man is sick. Indeed he is -- and about to become extremely infectious as mutated tapeworms large and small start erupting from pretty much everywhere inside and on his body.

The Troop quickly turns into a tale of survival horror, its menace a science-fictional one in the manner of John Wyndham that rapidly creates human monsters that riff on everything from zombies to JRR Tolkien's Gollum. There's also a governmental menace to be dealt with -- or not dealt with. Canadian naval ships and boats surround the island, black helicopters repeatedly fly over -- but help does not arrive.

The novel succeed in its sympathetic characterization of the boys of the troop, though Cutter does draw upon stereotypes for their basic configurations (the Alpha-Jock and the Nerd being the most notable). But some of those roles change over the course of the novel. One of the missteps, though, is Cutter's choice to make one of the boys a nascent serial killer. Certainly this ups the stakes, but the effects of the worms are so dire that there's no need to posit a psychopathic sadist. It's really a case of too much, especially once that character pretty much turns into a cross between Gollum and Monty Python's Mr. Creosote.

Cutter notes in his acknowledgements that he got the idea of including interpolated material from after the main events of the book from Stephen King's Carrie. The Troop similarly uses interviews and excerpts from newspaper and magazine articles to give background on the true origin of the worms. Suspense is also nodded to as the number of boys who will survive the main narrative appears in this interpolated material. 

I'm not sure this structure is entirely successful, as sometimes in horror any information is too much information. Or as Ramsey Campbell once noted, "Explanation is the death of horror." That the stereotypes of the evil military commander and the mad, evil, super-intelligent misfit scientist appear mostly in these sections doesn't help the horror quotient either.

Nonetheless, The Troop is an enjoyable, fast-paced horror novel. The main characters are nicely fleshed out for the most part. Well, until they start losing that flesh to the parasitic worms. Recommended.

Grendel Vs. The Shadow: written and illustrated by Matt Wagner (2014): Writer-artist Matt Wagner returns to his 35-year-old character Grendel for a story-line involving that master criminal's battle with pulp hero The Shadow in early 1930's New York. 

Do people younger than 35 or so even remember Grendel? Dark Horse Comics has released four omnibus volumes of his adventures, and I can recommend at least the first two from first-hand experience, having read Grendel back in the day, that day being the late 1980's.

Of course, the Shadow is much older, a character created in the early 1930's. The battle between the two does seem like a natural, however -- both characters kill, and both characters have quasi-mystical abilities to go along with their physical and mental prowess. And this crossover is actually fun. The grimness of the Shadow plays off nicely against the deadly good humour of Grendel.

Wagner's art is smooth and illustrative, straightforward, though with a few stylistic flourishes as we proceed through the narrative. He uses multiple POV first-person narration to mostly good effect, though I wish someone doing a Shadow comic book would go back to the pulp novels (or even the DC comics of the 1970's) and realize that the Shadow works best as a supporting character in his own book. 

The pulps (unlike the radio show) focused on the Shadow's various operatives working a case, with the Shadow dropping in and out of the story to administer justice or give orders. And as he's a nigh-omnipotent character, this is a pretty good idea -- especially as it leaves the reader wondering what is going on inside the Shadow's head. 

Most modern comic-book Shadows, going back to Howard Chaykin's glorious revisionist take for DC Comics in the mid-1980's, also make the Shadow's romantic relationship with operative Margo Lane explicit in a way the pulps did not. Here, we get a B-plot about Margo Lane debating whether or not to leave the Shadow. It seems wildly out of place in an event crossover like this, and is the only real misstep in the book.

Overall, though, this is an entertaining visit with two old friends. Or fiends. And it was also an entertaining visit with Wagner as both writer and artist, his art gigs being much rarer than his writing gigs. He's streamlined his writing and drawing styles since the 1980's, mostly to good effect -- the occasional murkiness, clutter, and confusion of 1980's book like his Demon miniseries for DC isn't evident here. This may be the smoothest book he's ever done. Recommended.

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