End Game

I’m really becoming a huge fan of Paul Tremblay.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, ever since I was a kid; I used to love watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago, and getting scared–sometimes having nightmares. But the supernatural has always interested me, as well as horror; in the 1980’s and even into the early 1990’s I saw myself as becoming a horror writer rather than a crime writer. And while I’ve written some “scary” stories and novels, I don’t know that I could classify them as horror– I think Sara and Sorceress are probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing horror; maybe even Lake Thirteen would count (it certainly bears my favorite cover of all my novels). But I see myself as more of a fan of horror than a writer of it; as I’ve said many times, I tend to write more about human monsters than supernatural ones. I had heard great things about Paul Tremblay before I started reading his actual work; my friend Megan in particular is a big fan of his, and based on her recommendation I started reading A Head Full of Ghosts, but it didn’t really strike my fancy that first time, and so I put it aside and moved onto something else. I did pick it up again later, and then, of course, I couldn’t put it down.

After finishing The Coyotes of Carthage, I was looking through the TBR piles, pulled out a book or two before putting them back, and then finally decided to read a second Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World.

It was a most excellent choice.

The girl with the dark hair walks down the wooden front stairs and lowers herself into the yellowing lagoon of ankle-high grass. A warm breeze ripples through the blades, leaves and crab-like petals of clover flowers. She studies the front yard, watching for the twitchy, mechanical motion and frantic jumps of grasshoppers. The glass jar cradled against her chest smells faintly of grape jelly and is sticky on the inside. She unscrews the aerated lid.

Wen promised Daddy Andrew she would release the grasshoppers before they got cooked inside the homemade terrarium. The grasshoppes will be okay because she’ll make sure to keep the jar out of direct sunlight. She worries, though,, that they could hurt themselves by jumping into the sharp edges of the lid’s punched-in holes. She’ll catch smaller grasshoppers, ones that don’t jump as high or as powerfully, and because of their compact size there will be more leg-stretching room inside the jar. She will talk to the grasshoppers in a low, soothing voice, and hopefully they will be less likely to panic and mash themselves against the dangerous metal stalactites. Satisfied with her updated plan, she pulls up a fistful of grass, roots and all, leaving a pockmark in the front yard’s sea of green and yellow. She carefully deposits and arranges the grass in the jar, then wipes her hans on her gray Wonder Woman T-shirt.

Ironically, in my earlier paragraphs I talked about writing crime because I want my monsters to be human; ironically, the monsters in Paul Tremblay’s latest, sublime entry into the horror genre could easily be considered a crime thriller as well because his monsters are all too human, and this set-up is just as terrifying as any supernatural horror novel I’ve ever read. Being out in the country has never really appealed to me very much (ironically, my current work-in-progress is set out in the country) precisely because it’s no safer out in the country than it is in the city; at least in the city someone will hear your screams or cries for help. The very isolation of the country is part of its terror for me; in no less part because country people always smugly assert (and reassure themselves) that crime and murder are MUCH more likely to happen in the big, bad, dangerous city.

Sidebar: I still think there’s a terrific essay to be written about the proliferation of rural horror/crime novels in the 1970’s, directly tied to the inherent racism of white flight from integrated schools and neighborhoods to the suburbs and the country, and perhaps someday I will have the confidence to write the essay based on that abstract theme.

Tremblay has set his terrifying tale in a small cabin on a lake in upstate New Hampshire, close to the Canadian border, where our heroes–a married gay couple (Andrew and Eric) are spending a ‘back-to-nature’ vacation with their adopted child, Wen. The story is told in the present tense (always creepier in horror, seeing the action unfold as it happens rather than in the much safer past tense–it’s happening as opposed to it’s already happened) and the point of view shifts between the two dads and their young daughter. Wen is out on the lawn catching grasshoppers and naming them when a big man appears suddenly out of the woods, friendly and nice, he tries to win her over but ultimately fails, sending her running inside to warn her daddies that they are no longer alone in their rustic cabin–with no cell service and no wi-fi (which, ironically, was part of the cabin’s original appeal–to unplug; that appeal will righteously bite the in their ass now that a Dionysian influence has arrived in their idyllic world).

The big man, Leonard, isn’t alone; he has three friends with him, all wearing similar button-down shirts in different colors and jeans: Redmond, kind of an asshole every-straight-man; Sabrina, a nurse; and Adriane, who is older. As the three family members barricade themselves into the cabin, the four seemingly normal visitors let them know they are there to present them with a horrible, horrific choice: they have seen, in visions and dreams, that the apocalypse is nigh, but have been shown the cabin and the small family, and told that if one of them will voluntarily sacrifice himself, the end of the world will be stopped.

This is, of course, every parent’s worst nightmare: a threat to not only their family but to their child, and Tremblay does an amazing job of letting us, the readers, get to know all three of the family members, developing them into complicated, realistic characters with backstories and levels and layers; I also applaud him for writing about a same-sex family and making the characters absolutely real. (This is how you do it, people; read the book and take notes). Wen is completely believable as a little girl; the family bond and love is absolutely real; and that makes the horror even more horrible, more horrifying, more of a gut-punch…as we go through every step of the process with them, all over the course of less than twenty-four hours, as their lives are irrevocably altered and changed, as they refuse to believe the story of their visitors, but slowly but surely the wonder begins to creep in…what if this is absolutely real and they are indeed messengers from God?

I will leave it to the horror academics to discuss the symbols and symbolism threaded throughout the story–but I have to bring up the colors of the shirts the visitors are wearing, and the fact there are four of them: representing the four horsemen of the apocalypse along with their warnings of doom. The questions of faith, of existing as gay in a heterosexist society, of family and love–all of these are beautifully explored and written about, and the building of tension and suspense is unparalleled; it’s really hard to put the book down and walk away from the story without finding out how it all ends–will they make the sacrifice, or will the world end? Are the visitors right–and how will anyone ever know if they were, because the world not ending doesn’t prove anything if the sacrifice occurs.

Or are they just insane?

I highly recommend this book, and cannot wait to read more Tremblay.

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