by Randy Cordova)
Toronto author Craig Davidson is a smart, friendly guy with a quick sense of humor. But he also has one hell of a grisly imagination, judging by his latest book.
In "The Troop," which is published under the pseudonym Nick Cutter, a scoutmaster and five boys journey to an isolated island for an annual camping trip. A disturbingly thin man with a ravenous appetite shows up, and things plunge into nightmarish territory with whiplash speed.
It's graphic, gory and designed to make a reader sleep with the hallway light on. " 'The Troop' scared the hell out of me," no less an authority than Stephen King declares on the cover blurb. "Not for the fainthearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it's a perfect gift for a winter's night."
"I wasn't even aware that he read it," says Davidson, who has never met King. "He got the book through an odd series of events and so the quote came in from out of the blue. It's such an honor. There are generational talents in sports, like LeBron James, but Stephen King is a step above that. Not only has he influenced my generation, he has influenced generations before me and after me. He's just a special breed."
Davidson says in the book's acknowledgments that he borrowed a device that King used in "Carrie." Newspaper articles, interviews and scientific reports are interspersed between chapters to shed light on the novel's events and provide an eerie foreshadowing of what's coming next.
"What 'Carrie' does so well, among other things, is it lets you know ahead of time about the incidents in the book and what happens," Davidson says. "What happened with 'The Troop' is if the guy just showed up on the island, readers might feel adrift (until things go haywire). This is kind of a perfect chassis to let me explain certain things about the book."
It also allows for a frightening reveal of what's exactly going on inside the mysterious stranger with an alarming need for food. Davidson drew his inspiration from a traveling exhibit he saw about creatures that live in water, including tapeworms.
"Really close up, a tapeworm is a fascinating creature," he says. "It sort of has these leaves like a plant and they move. They're revolting and they're inside your body, like a villain you can't outrun. You know: It's under your skin."
It's not enough that there is an abundance of squirmy terror in "The Troop." Davidson also made one of the adolescent scouts, a boy named Shelley, a little odd, to put it diplomatically.
"I've never written a straight-out sociopath or psychopath before — I don't even know what his designation would be," Davidson says with a laugh. "There was something terribly fun about writing him. You need a character like that to push the narrative and throw another monkey wrench into things. When you dip into Shelley's viewpoint, it's a little chilling."
For all the positive notices the book has received, Davidson acknowledges that some readers have been turned off by violent passages involving animals, particularly a poor kitten and an ill-fated chimpanzee. The reaction has surprised and amused him.
"I love animals," he says. "I have a cat twirling around my legs right now as we speak. I was taught by my parents to value an animal's life as you would any life. Some of the ways humans treat animals stick in my head and horrify me. When it comes to writing, things that really terrify me tend to leak in there."
The amusing part?
"People are horrified by what happens to the animals in the book, but they're not objecting to what happens to the poor 13-year-old scouts," he says.
Because of the Internet chatter on the more gruesome aspects, he has avoided checking out social media and Amazon reviews.
"Back in the day, maybe two people would have read it and said, 'You know that 'Troop' book? I thought it was terrible.' And the other person would go, 'Yeah, that guy is probably a psycho.' Well, I wouldn't have heard that. But now on the Internet, you can hear that, and I want to go, 'That's not true! I'm just a normal Canadian person in my home!' "
But it does raise the question: Why use the pseudonym? The 38-year-old Toronto author has had success under his own name, writing such macho literary works as "Cataract City" and "The Boxer." And with all the praise "The Troop" has drawn, his identity is not exactly a secret.
"It was really more my agent's idea than mine," he says, a tad sheepishly. "To be honest, friends of mine who are part of the horror community asked if I was ashamed of the book or of this side of myself, and nothing could be further from the truth. But I am a bit of a people-pleaser when it comes to my agent."
Obviously, his agent and publisher are pleased: Another horror novel under the Nick Cutter name, "The Deep," will be out in January. It is set at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps there'll be tapeworms.
I've got my nightlight ready for that one.
Each month, The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com pick one title, fiction or non-fiction, that we think will entertain and shed light on who we are or where we've been.
Selection for April: "The Troop," by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster, $26).
Why we picked it: An engrossing, flat-out scary yarn that will keep you up late at night. The author knows how to ratchet up the suspense and populates the book with intriguing, multi-layered characters.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8849. Twitter.com/randy_cordova.
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