Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World
Paul Tremblay is an author who has ranged widely: hard-boiled crime fiction, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and suspense. From each outing, he carries something to the next. In recent novels, he’s juxtaposed several genres, deconstructing, satirizing and, at times, revitalizing the conventions within which he’s working. The effect, thankfully, is not an experimental aridity, but a rambunctious craftiness—a curious and creative artist embracing (and exploiting) any mode or technique available to serve the larger vision.
In his 2015 Stoker-award-winning A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay reached back to the 1970s demonic-possession narrative to offer a portrait of a New England family struggling when their older daughter starts exhibiting behavior that requires the help of either a psychiatrist or, quite possibly, an exorcist. By slyly remixing the horror story with the contemporary genres of web-blogs and reality TV, he explored themes of family dysfunction, mental illness, religious faith and doubt, satanic panic, gothic girlhood, pop culture, and social media (to name just a few), while also spinning a thrilling and chilling yarn. He followed that, in 2016, with Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, a mystery also set in New England, about a teenage boy who goes missing in the woods, and about his family desperate to find him—or to find out what happened to him. But like a good storyteller, Tremblay doesn’t make it easy on them. He inundates the mystery with urban legends, folklore, internet hoaxes, diary entries, police procedurals, and ghost stories.
By adding the possibility of supernatural forces to his mystery, he complicates matters not only for the family but for the reader, too. At the end of both of these novels, readers aren’t much better off than the characters when it comes to getting a tidy resolution. (Is the daughter really possessed or mentally ill, or faking it? Did the son really get lost in the woods or did he run away, or is something sinister going on at Devil’s Rock?) Tremblay keeps the reader guessing until the end—and then beyond. That lack of complete resolution isn’t so much an aesthetic choice as it is a psychic one: closure is a myth, he seems to be implying; full understanding of a tragedy is not permitted to humankind.
In his latest novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, yet another New England family gets the Tremblay treatment. Seven-year-old Wen, a transnational adoptee from China, and her two dads, Andrew and Eric, have come from their home in Boston to vacation in a remote red cabin in northern New Hampshire, a “lonely red dot on the southern shore of Guadet Lake. . . . only a handful of miles from the Canadian border”—no internet access, no nearby neighbors. But their idyllic getaway turns nightmarish when four oddly dressed strangers arrive on foot, three of whom are carrying medieval-looking weapons and demanding to be let inside the cabin. It has all the makings for perhaps the most disturbing of all genres: the home-invasion story. But, as in his previous work, Tremblay complicates that narrative in provocative ways.
Yet, in this new novel, Tremblay doesn’t merely complicate genre, he produces an entirely new one: the binge-able novel. I’m not talking about the ‘macro-binge,’ devouring an entire series: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the ‘micro-binge’—what we used to call a page-turner. In The Cabin at the End of the World, you don’t just turn pages; you binge them.
While this quality makes the novel a blistering summer read, it also makes it somewhat difficult to review. The tension Tremblay builds from the outset is so taught, each scene so suspensefully set-up for the next, that to give even the most cursory summary would spoil some of the pleasure. I can, however, discuss two elements that make for some of this delicious binge-ability, and in the doing, offer all you’ll need to know before stepping foot inside Tremblay’s Cabin.
The first element has to do with his narrative technique. Alfred Hitchcock had some advice about good storytelling. He said that if a film shows two characters sitting at a table, and then suddenly a bomb under the table explodes, the audience will experience shock (a technique Hitchcock considered cheap). But if you show the audience the bomb under the table first, as well as the ticking clock strapped to it, and then you reveal the couple sitting at the table, the audience will experience suspense. The more you delay that explosion and keep the clock ticking, the more you heighten the tension—and the more the audience squirms. Tremblay follows that advice but adds a second element: he makes us care about the characters sitting at the table, or in this case, the family vacationing at the cabin.
When the novel opens, Wen is alone on the Cabin’s front lawn, collecting grasshoppers in a jar, while her parents relax out back on the cabin’s deck, out of earshot. Tremblay lulls us with placid descriptions of Wen walking down the wooden front stairs and lowering herself into the “yellowing lagoon of ankle-high grass,” as a “warm breeze ripples through the blades, leaves, and crablike petals of clover flowers.”
One of the ways Tremblay builds this crucial reader-character intimacy has to do with his subtle use of point of view. He brings us closer to Wen’s subjectivity in these early pages despite the objective third-person narration: “Wen promised Daddy Andrew she would release the grasshoppers before they got cooked inside the homemade terrarium. The grasshoppers 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.” It’s the use of “Daddy Andrew” that makes all the difference. Whereas a more distant narration would have used ‘her father,’ Tremblay uses Wen’s own language (“Daddy Andrew”), even though it’s presented in third-person, shrinking the psychic distance between Wen and the reader ever so slightly and building more intimacy. As well, the repetition of “the grasshoppers” serving as the subject of the second sentence—instead of the expected pronoun ‘they’—signals subtly how young Wen is. And those grasshoppers (it gives nothing away to say) will become a metaphor for Wen’s own small family, themselves soon to be trapped inside a place where they could be very hurt.
This technique also allows Tremblay to give this information through his characters. We know Wen is loved and secure and well-cared-for by Andrew and Eric because she herself feels it. She knows they will take care of her; she is secure in that knowledge. And we know she’s right because we’re also granted access to Andrew and Eric’s perspectives, as they too share the narratorial duties. We learn about them and their love for Wen, and we learn about their pasts, their jobs, their fears, their faith, their relationships, and the struggles they’ve faced as gay men, both within society and within their own families, struggles that could return as plot twists later in the novel. (But enough about that.)
These barely noticeable technical moves produce lasting emotional effects for the rest of the novel. It is this deeply human element, I would argue, that complicates Tremblay’s home-invasion novel much more than any genre-subversion could. The stakes are too high to make this book a postmodern deconstruction; Tremblay has to play fair with the reader presenting material this disturbing. And he does. A book whose subject matter many people might avoid becomes a book that’s impossible to put down. We feel connected to Wen and must bear witness to what happens to her. Even though the going gets tough for her and for the reader. Very tough. Bad things are about to happen to this family.
Only a few pages in—page six to be exact—Tremblay shows us the first of many bombs that will tick unbearably throughout the rest of the novel. While Wen is blissfully collecting her grasshoppers, she hears someone walking, out of sight, on the dirt road that winds by the cabin. She thinks it’s “something big . . . Really big. Maybe it’s a bear. Daddy Eric made her promise she would yell for them and run inside if she saw any animal bigger than a squirrel.” Suddenly, a “man rounds the bend and walks briskly down the driveway like he’s coming home. . . . He is easily taller than her dads. He may be taller than anyone she’s ever met, and he’s as wide as a couple of tree trunks pushed together.”
The man is polite, smiling. He waves a hand that “might as well be a bear’s paw,” and introduces himself as Leonard. Again, it is through Wen’s perspective that we learn about Leonard. As a toddler, Wen has had a cleft lip surgically corrected twice, and thus she has “studied smiles.” She’s a smile expert. So we trust her when she assesses Leonard’s smile: “He is not faking. He is the real thing.” As she begins to trust Leonard, so do we. Almost. When Leonard tells her that as a kid he used to “love to catch grasshoppers . . . Do you need any help? I’d love to help. I know I’m much bigger than when I was a kid . . . But I’m still very gentle,” we might be suspicious of his agenda, but then we learn from Wen that “up here, in the woods and on the lake, standing in the grass, under the sun and the sleepy trees and blue sky, she feels safe, and she believes this Leonard looks okay. She says so inside her head: He looks okay.” Soon the sound of the bomb’s ticking is drowned out by the whir of grasshoppers and the whistle of the breeze in the trees and the soft chatter between Wen and Leonard. That is, until they hear the sound of more “feet tramping and stomping their way down the dirt road, like earlier.” And then three of Leonard’s friends arrive, dressed like Leonard, in colors “black, red, and white,” but unlike Leonard each is carrying a makeshift weapon that looks to Wen “menacing, nightmarish.” And then Leonard turns to Wen: “None of what’s going to happen is your fault,” he says. Wen backs away toward the cabin, and Leonard warns, “Your dads won’t want to let us in, Wen. But they have to. … We need your help to save the world.” And so to this home-invasion story Tremblay adds the apocalypse narrative, replete with four horsemen, three carrying weapons, one not; all wearing the same colors described in the Book of Revelation: black, red, and white. Like those four, these four arrive to herald the end of the world.
What happens next? I won’t tell exactly, except to say that Tremblay complicates this terrifying premise even further by deepening the stories of the home-invaders. The novel is told through multiple perspectives, not only those of the invaded (Wen, Andrew and Eric) but also of some of the invaders (Leonard, Sabrina). This is a chancy move on Tremblay’s part, but a generous one, too; it complicates our encounter with this novel even further because we come to understand not only what the antagonists want, but what they believe, fear, and love; what lines they won’t cross, and what lines they will. And as those lines blur so too might that crucial line between antagonists and protagonists. As readers of this novel we become complicit in what truths we are willing to accept and thus what actions we’re willing to witness—and maybe to forgive. How we see all of these characters may shift over the course of the novel. Will the four strangers grow from being the kind of one-dimensional home-invaders we’ve seen in such stories as Wait Until Dark, You’re Next, Funny Games, and Hush to become recognizable people whom we grow to understand—despite our terror and confusion? And, finally, how strong are Andrew and Eric and Wen? And how far are they willing to go to survive?
As for tidy resolutions, in The Cabin at the End of the World, even the apocalypse resists complete closure.
Wednesday, July 25th, 7 PM, Paul Tremblay will be reading in Brooklyn, along with Laird Barron, Nadia Bulkin, John Langan, and Livia Llewellyn at McNally Jackson Williamsburg, 76 North 4th Street, Brooklyn, NY.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore