Totally Disgusting: Nick Cutter (Craig Davidson!) on The Troop

Book Cover The Troop

The worst-kept secret in Canadian publishing is the identity of Nick Cutter, author of The Troop. Though Cutter won't confirm it himself (see below), his name is a pseudonym for Craig Davidson, who was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013 for Cataract City.

Nick Cutter was kind enough to talk to us about his latest novel, which is a fantastic read and getting a lot of buzz. 

About The Troop: Once a year, scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a three-day camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story and a roaring bonfire. But when an unexpected intruder—shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—stumbles upon their campsite, Tim and the boys are exposed to something far more frightening than any tale of terror. The human carrier of a bioengineered nightmare. An inexplicable horror that spreads faster than fear. A harrowing struggle for survival that will pit the troop against the elements, the infected...and one another.

Part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later—and all-consuming—this tightly written, edge-of-your-seat thriller takes you deep into the heart of darkness and close to the edge of sanity.

*****

49th Shelf:  So, what happens when you write a horror novel under a pseudonym and then get shortlisted for the Giller Prize under your real name? Do you suddenly get a little less attached to your pseudonym? Or do you cling to a bit tighter to keep your literary cred? What has this experience been like for you, Mr. Cutter?

Nick Cutter: I assume you’re talking about Craig Davidson, the Canadian writer with whom I’ve been linked? Let me state for the record: I know Craig. I am not Craig. Craig lives around my neighborhood. I can’t say we’re friends, though I’m sure he’d claim so—if we are friends, it is in the way a remora is a shark’s friend. It is a parasitical attachment!

He’s forever knocking on my door, hat in hand, looking for something to eat or a few beers (or “wobbly pops,” as he calls them, which I suppose he thinks is charming). Like many Canadian literary writers, he is poor by definition. I don’t mind helping the sad-clown sod out from time to time—he’s got a family, for the love of Pete!—but when he stops by all dewy-eyed and groveling, practically holding out a mooching sack … I feel like saying, “Good Lord, buck up and take charge of things! Be a man for once in your life!”

Book Cover Cataract City

I’m glad about that awards foofaraw, anyway. His mooching has dipped to tolerable levels since then.

As to your question: Were Mr. Davidson and I one and the same, I imagine we would be equally proud of our achievements in our respective genres. I’ve never really seen why one might taint the other. But that attitude does exist. I don’t pay a lot of heed to it, and I’d pray Craig doesn’t either.

"Were Mr. Davidson and I one and the same, I imagine we would be equally proud of our achievements in our respective genres. I’ve never really seen why one might taint the other."

49th Shelf: The Troop explores this maybe-illusory boundary that exists between childhood and adulthood, most of your characters operating (for a while at least) under the assumption that adults are capable of resolving even the most difficult situations. But then near the end, the power dynamic is shifted.

Max, one of the boys in Troop 52, notes that perhaps children are more resilient than adults in the face of terror because their imaginations are still expansive enough to consider seemingly unbelievable realities. Whereas an adult, with a more limited perspective, might just break.

Can you tell us a bit more about this idea and how it factored in the creation of this story?

NC: Well, I must give Mr. Davidson credit for that. We were sitting up one night, drinking my beers, woolgathering as we have a tendency to do when we’ve drunk one too many wobbly pops together. As usual he got mopey and maudlin and started maundering on in that blubbery way of his about the joys of childhood, that particular way a child views the world. And while he was prattling away (and before he picked up the phone to order a pizza he’d later expect me to pay for), he made a few remarks that pricked my ears up.

I did agree with him about the way a boy or a girl views the world. It is a particular viewpoint, a beatific one, and a view that erodes with adulthood. But I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive. They still believe in God or a Higher Power or something along those lines, a force or being who wouldn’t let that most terrible thing, capital-D Death, befall them. They could understand being tested and that they might get hurt and fail in a million other ways besides, but they wouldn’t die. The universe wouldn’t let that happen, because the universe is essentially fair.

"I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive."

Of course as an adult you discover the world is not a fair place, it takes the good and the bad and the deserving and not-so-deserving indiscriminately—and with that knowledge comes the sense that yes, you could die at any time for the silliest or most unfair reasons. But as kids that sense is not yet so keen. So it’s almost ignorance that keeps the boys alive. And in a situation like that which unfolds in the book, inconceivable as it is, such ignorance—or most properly, belief—would be vital, don’t you think?

Book Cover Anne of the Island

49th Shelf: This novel is different from the literary Prince Edward Island that most of us are familiar with (though I appreciated that Anne of Green Gables gets a name-check all the same). You have situated The Troop on an island off the coast of Prince Edward Island, however, an island which is otherwise uninhabited, save for your characters. What challenges and what possibilities did this isolated setting offer you as a writer?

NC: Oh, isolation is probably the primary trick in the horror writer’s bag. If you think of any number of memorable horror films or books, isolation is key. Haunted house stories often feature isolation: think The Shining or Hell House or The Haunting of Hill House. The list goes on. And of course there are plenty of memorable horror pieces that take place in populated areas, The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby or plenty of Stephen King’s work—but even with these, the isolation is there, albeit in different form: you’ve got characters who know something awful is happening and other characters who either don’t agree, can’t see it, or are actively in on the horror, so those first characters suffer a different kind of isolation, a psychic one.

But the physical was mandatory for the story I wanted to tell. It’s no secret that Lord of the Flies was an influence on this book, as was The Hunger Games and a Japanese novel called Battle Royale; what they all hold in common is that they isolate these young characters, strip away the underpinnings of decorum and morality that society imposes, introduce some kind of threat and watch how things fall to pieces. So it’s that isolation, the lack of enforceable rules, that brings out the horror elements in my book.

"It’s no secret that Lord of the Flies was an influence on this book, as was The Hunger Games and a Japanese novel called Battle Royale."

49th Shelf: The Troop features some really stunning sentences (e.g., “The moon was a bone fishhook in the clear October sky”) and its scenes of gore are just as deftly executed, by which I mean that parts of this book are totally disgusting. How did you know how far to take your reader? And how did you know when to pull back?

NC: The truth is, I don’t know how far to take a reader, I don’t know when to pull back, so I don’t worry about that anymore. It’s a fascinating question and one that has popped up many times in my career, but it’s essentially unanswerable because readers are so different. What one person likes, another hates; what doesn’t test one reader’s threshold exponentially exceeds another’s. So I’ve gotten to the point where … listen, I ask myself why I started writing in the first place, twenty-odd years ago as a high school student. And the truth is: to entertain myself. If other people liked it, great, that was validating and as a people-pleaser I got a kick out of it, but that wasn’t the main goal. Later, when I had something resembling a career and had editors and there was money involved and you had to consider what might be “saleable” or palatable for a wider range of readers—I tied myself in knots about it for years. How many potential readers will I lose if I write this the way that feels most natural to me?

But I forced myself to go back to that primary sense, which was: write stuff that I’d want to read. Entertain myself first, and if I was lucky what entertained me might give someone else a thrill. 

The Shining

Beyond that, when I think of the horror that I grew up reading and watching, The Troop is pretty tame. As a teenager, my buddies and I would go to this sprawling video store (remember those?) in St. Catharines, find the horror section and rent the vilest, goriest titles. We loved the classics like The Thing and The Shining and George Romero’s stuff, but we also gravitated towards more outré fare like Dead Alive and Cannibal Ferox and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Driller Killer and all the Video Nasties we could lay our hands on. Some of these things must’ve been shot with HandiCams by escaped mental patients, on a budget of whatever pocket change they could scrounge up. They were weird and warped and gleefully deranged and we loved them.

At the same time I was reading horror omnivorously. King and Koontz and Barker and McCammon and Herbert but also some of the off-centre stuff (in an already off-centre genre) by David Morrell and John Shirley and David Gerrold and Poppy Z Brite and Ed Lee and Jack Ketchum and Matthew Stokoe and Skipp and Spector. I even read some stuff that was much worse, stuff that really wrecked your view of basic humanity like Peter Sotos’s work. Splatterpunk and extreme horror were buzzwords with me.

"Splatterpunk and extreme horror were buzzwords with me."

Now a lot of people won’t know any of those movies or writers apart from King and Koontz, but I was a student of the genre—and I studied deep. The grittier and more excessive, so much the better for me. Even now I’ll happily watch horror flicks: mainstream fare like Insidious or The Conjuring, but I also love me some Human Centipede or A Serbian Film or I Saw The Devil, stuff that exists primarily push and test viewers and which aren’t even slightly subtle about their intentions—and sometimes, yeah, they might go even too far for me, or be gratuitous for no purpose than to shock, which isn’t an aesthetic I pursue anymore (though I used to and I don’t have much issue with creative sorts who take that route). But that’s the risk—that you go too far. And that’s kind of fun to me, flirting with that line between disturbing someone and/or creeping them out, or just grossing them out in poor taste. It’s part of the jolt I get as a writer.

49th Shelf: A clichéd question, I know, but I really want to know the answer. Where did you get the idea for this book, for this hypervirulent worm that incites insatiable hunger and eats away at its host’s insides? How does one think this stuff up? 

NC: You’ll be pleased that I can answer this one quickly! I was at the Royal Ontario Museum for an exhibit called WATER. It was about how we use water as a species … and also a little bit about the creatures that live in water. In a darkened cubbyhole set off the exhibit proper, there was a tiny screen playing a video on a continuous loop. The subject of that video were the same creatures which take the villain role in this book. And so, the spark!

February 27, 2014
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