The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay (Morrow 978-0062679109, $26.99, 288pp, hc) June 2018.
Anyone who has followed Paul Tremblay’s short fiction, from the stories collected in the remarkable In the Mean Time, to “Where We Will All Be” in Joseph Pulver, Sr.’s The Grimscribe’s Puppets and “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” in Bourbon Penn magazine, knows that one of his preoccupations is with the apocalypse. Time and again, his stories treat situations in which the world we know is coming to an end. Sometimes, that end is precipitated by familiar means – a nuclear exchange, say – while in others, it is the result of more exotic causes: a plague of brain aneurysms, or a mysterious subsonic call which makes everyone march into the sea like so many lemmings. End of the world concerns are no stranger to horror narratives, of course. They form a major subset of the field, reaching from Joe Hill’s recent The Fireman back through McCammon’s Swan Song, King’s The Stand, and Matheson’s I Am Legend, all the way to Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and further, to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. They’re the secular version of the apocalyptic elements found in the three major monotheistic religions, which have played such a prominent role in American Protestantism, in particular.
With The Cabin at the End of the World, his extraordinary, white-knuckle-ride of a novel, Tremblay engages his concerns with the apocalypse through the form of the home invasion story. The book’s premise is straight-forward: Eric and Andrew, a married couple from Boston, have just started their summer vacation at the eponymous cabin, which is located in Northern New Hampshire, not far from the Canadian border. They’ve chosen the cabin precisely for its remoteness, its lack of a decent cell signal, and its absence of wifi. As their adopted daughter, seven-year-old Wen, is playing in the front yard, collecting grasshoppers for a makeshift terrarium, she is approached by a stranger, an enormous young man wearing a white dress shirt and jeans. Although Wen knows she is not supposed to talk to him, the man, who introduces himself as Leonard, seems open and friendly, helping her catch grasshoppers. Soon, however, Wen sees additional people walking up the dirt road to the cabin, another man and two women, all dressed in the same style as Leonard, jeans and a dress shirt. The other man’s shirt is red, while the women’s are black and a kind of pale white, respectively. The three are carrying strange implements, long poles that might have come from rakes or shovels, to whose ends have been affixed assorted tools. The effect is disturbing, and Wen retreats into the house. As she does, Leonard tells her that he and his friends need her and her fathers’ help to save the world.
The meaning of Leonard’s statement will not be clear until after he and his companions have forced their way into the cabin and subdued Eric and Andrew, concussing Eric in the process. Once they have secured the men to a pair of kitchen chairs, Leonard reveals the purpose of their presence at the house. Driven by dreams and visions, the four of them have assembled to tell Eric and Andrew that the world is about to end in a series of escalating catastrophes, unless their family is willing to sacrifice one of its own to avert it. Although the four express no affiliation with any specific denomination, there are echoes of familiar Biblical narratives in their story. The figure of the reluctant prophet, compelled by God to perform their duty, recalls Jonah, while the reliance on the few to save the many nods in the direction of Lot’s quest for an ever-diminishing number of virtuous men to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. The killing of a beloved family member at the bequest of God looks to the story of Abraham and Isaac, while the salvific purpose of such a death is at the center of the Christ narrative. Of course, Leonard and his three companions evoke the four horsemen of the apocalypse found in the Book of Revelation.
Needless to say, Eric and Andrew refuse to take part in the proposed killing. This precipitates an act of savage violence. During that moment, Eric glimpses what might be a fifth form joining the four, a figure composed of the afternoon sunlight, but neither he nor we are sure if what he witnesses is anything more than a side effect of his concussion. More significantly, in the aftermath of the violence, Leonard and his companions turn on the cabin’s TV, the sole piece of electronic equipment that functions. On its screen, they watch a report of a natural disaster, one which seems to bear out the first of the predictions the four made after they invaded the cabin. However, Andrew points out that the event actually occurred hours earlier, in plenty of time for Leonard and his companions to have learned of it before their appearance at the cabin. This raises the distinct possibility that the invaders are using their knowledge of the disaster to help foist their homicidal game on the couple. Eric, still concussed, is uncertain; his own religious sentiments stirred to a degree that surprises him by the apparent earnestness of the four.
This sets up what will be the novel’s principle drama, an ongoing argument between Andrew on one side and the invaders on the other, concerning the nature of their situation. For Andrew, the men and women who have broken into their vacation home and tied them up are in the grip of a dangerous delusion, one with decidedly homophobic overtones. For Leonard and the others, they are in the grip of a divine experience, one they would rather avoid but which they are powerless to resist. For each side, the stakes are the highest. Caught in the middle of this debate is Eric, who begins by siding with Andrew but who, as the narrative continues, and further reports on the TV seem to bear out further of the four’s predictions, grows increasingly doubtful. From his earlier crime novels, The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland, through his more recent horror novels, A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, as well as in his short stories, Tremblay has shown an abiding interest in uncertainty, in those moments and situations in which we cannot determine the exact nature of our experience, in which the answer is both A and B. More than most of his contemporaries, his work lives in Clutean equipoise, that region where opposing possibilities remain open. This gives to his fiction an added layer of epistemological suspense, which further heightens its tension.
Even as the argument between Andrew and his captors continues, he and Eric continue to plot their escapes. When at last this happens, the ensuing fight between the couple and Leonard and then, the others is brutal and messy, less action-movie-extravaganza and more study in chaos and confusion. Andrew has a firearm concealed in the family SUV, but any hopes he (and we) have of his gun allowing him to win the day are dashed in horrifying fashion. In the end, he and Eric still confront the appalling choice the four have set before them. In so doing, the novel moves in the direction of the existential, raising the question of how we are to live in a universe where what powers may be are inimical to us. It’s a dilemma Leonard and his companions had to confront first, and it’s a mark of Tremblay’s ability that, however monstrous their actions, he never loses sight of their humanity, so that they never descend to cartoon villainy.
With A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World forms a thematic trilogy, one in which families are subject to extraordinary pressures and, called upon to face unbearable circumstances. Like the great horror novels of the 1970s and 1980s, Tremblay’s novels are social melodramas, employing the conventions of the horror field to dramatize and explore the conditions which threaten the contemporary family. In their own ways, each of his novels is an apocalypse in miniature, detailing a scenario in which the world his characters knew is shattered, replaced by something new and terrifying. (Much the same might be said about the best horror narratives, in general.) His novels chronicle the struggle his characters endure as they seek to find a path through a world grown strange and frightening. With The Cabin at the End of the World, he takes Eric, Andrew, and Wen on his most harrowing journey yet, and we are with them, every step of the way.
John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections of stories, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (2011). One of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, he served as a juror for its first three years. He lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.
This review and more like it in the May 2018 issue of Locus.
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