by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)
Paul Tremblay (b. 1971) has won or been nominated for a number of awards in the horror field for a body of work that at the moment is relatively modest. That work includes two short story collections, Compositions for the Young and Old (2004) and In the Mean Time (2010), and several novels, the most notable of which are A Head Full of Ghosts (2015) and Disappearance at Hanging Rock (2016). He has also written a number of separately published novellas and co-edited four anthologies of weird fiction. This work—based on what I have read of it (one story collection, one novella, and has last two novels)—has elements of substantial merit but also some flaws that render it considerably less effective than it could have been.
In the Mean Time (the significance of whose title remains opaque) is a highly uneven collection, alternating wildly not only in quality but also in subject matter from pure weird fiction to surrealism to psychological terror to post-apocalyptic horror. Its failures considerably outnumber its successes, although among the latter are some highly noteworthy tales. Some stories—such as “The Marlborough [sic] Man Meets the End” (about the iconic figure in Marlboro cigarette advertisements) and “The People Who Live Near Me”—are so slight as to warrant no discussion. Other stories are beset with deficiencies of various sorts. Consider “The Two-Headed Girl,” a surrealist fable about a young woman who has two heads, the second of which takes on the features of a succession of famous females. Her mother tells her that her father deserted her when she was a baby, but she finds him living next door: he has two heads. There are all manner of themes and elements in the story, but they fail to cohere into any sort of unity. “Rhymes with Jew” is a crude political satire about some future dystopia where discrimination against Jews and other injustices are institutionalised in red states.
Other stories are generally effective but not weird by any stretch of the imagination. One of the best is “Feeding the Machine,” a tale of a pregnant lesbian who is afflicted with Pica (the tendency to eat non-food items). It is quite touching and evocative, but is a purely mainstream story. “Headstones in Your Pocket” is a lengthy tale about a border patrol agent in Arizona, Joe Marquez, who admits to being conflicted about his job of hunting down undocumented immigrants (“He knows he hasn’t saved anyone and can’t save anyone” ). During a raid, he takes from one immigrant a tinfoil pack that contains the man’s son’s baby tooth, and then neglects to give it back to him. The symbolism of this act is never clarified. The tale has elements of poignancy, but (in spite of the fact that it was published in Weird Tales) it is not a weird tale.
Somewhat closer to the weird is “Harold the Spider-Man,” a whimsical vignette about a man’s obsession with spiders. “The Blog at the End of the World” is narrated in reverse chronological order, in a series of blog posts by a woman named Becca Gilman, with responses by others appended. Suggesting a possible epidemic of brain aneurysms, it is an unnerving and harrowing tale.
This tale is one of many post-apocalyptic narratives in the volume, each of them presenting a different—if at times cloudily expressed—future scenario, with inevitably lamentable consequences for the pathetic remnants of humanity that remain in the land of the living. “There’s No Light Between Floors” begins promisingly with the gripping tableau of a man and woman apparently trapped in the rubble of an immensely tall building, barely able to move. But the tale bogs down with tiresome talk of “old gods,” who are then identified as “Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (154). But we are given too little information to grasp even a fragment of the scenario in this pretentious and self-consciously literary tale.
“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, Danny, as his family is on vacation by a lake. Gradually we are led to understand that some cataclysm has occurred in the outside world—but what that cataclysm is, we are never informed. Tremblay tries just a bit too hard to wring poignancy out of the narrative. “We Will Never Live in the Castle” has a title that appears to derive from Shirley Jackson’s grim novel of crime and psychological terror, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), but the relationship of the story to the novel seems extremely tangential. Here we are given to understand that a group of people are living in an abandoned amusement park. Well and good; but amidst all manner of tedious maunderings by the first-person narrator, the author coyly avoids specifying in any way the causes or effects of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed the world.
The one genuine success in In the Mean Time is “Growing Things,” a gripping narrative that tells of some nameless plant that is growing all over the world: “the growing things [were] like a combination of bamboo and kudzu” (86). The tale is made memorable by some spectacular cosmic imagery: “Angie slept most of the day, waking only to tell a quick story of the growing things cracking mountains open like eggs, drowning the canyons and valleys in green and brown and drinking up all the ponds, lakes, and rivers” (90–91). This grim and compelling tale focuses on the plight of two sisters, Angie (age twelve) and Florida (age seven), becoming acutely terrifying when the plants invade their house and come up through the basement.
Tremblay’s fixation with post-apocalyptic scenarios is evident in the novella Above and Below (2007); but it is a seriously flawed work. The overall idea is that an enormous megalopolis has been built upon a pier above a body of water, the poorer inhabitants (including criminals) confined to the lower regions. In the first two sections, we are treated to a complex tale of crime in which one Harry Faulk, “the most popular and elusive weapons dealer above or below City” (17), encounters his son, who wishes to purchase some “bioforms” (21) that Faulk has created. There is a fascinating suggestion that Faulk’s son has been able to create synthetic DNA so as to plant false evidence at crime scenes—a conclusion arrived at by a Catholic priest, gifted with psychic powers, who is working with the police.
But in the final two sections, Tremblay inexplicably drops this plot thread almost entirely to focus on one Nicholas Thomas, a librarian who is obsessed with supernatural balloons (yes, really) and, in the final section, with a woman named Gia. Although she is acquainted with a minor character from the first section of the work, we never return to the scenario outlined in those initial sections, and the tale simply ends inconclusively and anticlimactically. If Tremblay had been intent on merely presenting various vignettes of life in his City (either above or below), that would have been an adequate justification for this novella; but the highly specific nature of the scenario outlined in the first two sections causes readers to seek a resolution of that plot element, and none is provided. Tremblay has returned to the City in a novel, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye (2012), but I have not read this work.
Tremblay’s current reputation rests largely on his two recent novels; but these are as uneven as the rest of his output. A Head Full of Ghosts (the title is derived from a song by Bad Religion, “My Head Is Full of Ghosts”) references Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (or, perhaps more accurately, the film version of the novel), and other works of literature and film—not to mention making coy allusions to Tremblay’s friends and colleagues—while telling a multi-layered tale whose focus is an exorcism gone bad.
The framework is a long story that Meredith (Merry) Barrett tells to a best-selling novelist, Rachel Neville, about the incidents that happened at her house (impressively named Barrett House), involving her parents, John and Sarah, and especially her older sister, Marjorie, when Merry was eight and Marjorie was fourteen. The two sisters are the chief focus of the book, bringing to mind the relationship of Constance Blackwood and her younger cousin, Mary Katherine (called Merricat) in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; but aside from the quasi–haunted house atmosphere that both novels generate, the resemblances are superficial—until we reach the end.
The novel attempts to generate complexity by superimposing a multitude of metafictional levels upon the basic narrative. For Tremblay presents a scenario whereby the actual events at Barrett House are then reinterpreted by way of (a) a reality TV show that was based on those events, and then (b) by a blogger who writes long and tiresome analyses of the TV show—and matters are only made worse when we learn, midway through the book, that the blogger is Merry herself, writing under a pseudonym. There might be even another layer of metafiction, if we assume that the story Merry is telling to Neville, fifteen years after the events, is not a veridical account of those events; but in fact Tremblay never suggests that her account is anything but truthful.
Marjorie gets into trouble when she tells Merry several disturbing stories that trouble her younger sister to such a degree that she thinks there must be something wrong with Marjorie; and the latter doesn’t make things any easier when she reports that “there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out” (43). (One of the stories, as it happens, is nothing more than a truncated version of Tremblay’s earlier tale “Growing Things.”) Sarah compels her daughter to see a therapist, but her pious father makes her have a consultation with Father Wanderly (a name derived from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story), leading to the speculation that Marjorie is “possessed by an evil spirit” (71). When Marjorie vomits at the dinner table and begins speaking in strange voices, the allusions to The Exorcist (both book and film) could not be any clearer; and if they weren’t, the blogger expounds on these similarities—as well as allusions to other horror books and films—in the pompous commentary she supplies at the beginning of part two of the novel (91f.). Tremblay is treading dangerous ground here—specifically, the thin line between homage and pilferage. The fact that he, through the blogger, acknowledges the borrowing of many details from prior works of literature and film does not in any way lessen the reader’s disturbing suspicion that a certain poverty of imagination has led him to lean on his predecessors a bit too much.
In any case, it is at this point that the TV crew shows up to document what has happened, culminating in a live filming of the exorcism. Marjorie’s mother fills the role of Regan MacNeil’s mother in The Exorcist: both are religious sceptics, while Father Wanderly is a stand-in for Father Damien Karras, who brings in a colleague to conduct the exorcism. But the very parallels that Tremblay is establishing to this work only underscore his tepid rehash. At one point Merry sees Marjorie masturbating so vigorously that she draws blood; but such a scene pales in comparison to the appalling episode in The Exorcist where Regan masturbates violently with a crucifix.
It becomes abundantly plain that Marjorie is faking being possessed, for reasons that long remain unclear. She states flatly to Merry, “I am not possessed by a demon or anything like that” (122), going on to state that she is actually possessed by “ideas”: “Ideas that are as old as humanity, maybe older, right? Maybe those ideas were out there just floating around before us, just waiting to be thought up” (122).
The key episode in the book is Marjorie’s confrontation with Father Wanderly and a Dr. Navidson who is brought in to determine whether Marjorie is really possessed. This scene is quite gripping, although not in a weird manner; for Marjorie shrewdly taunts her pious interrogators, profoundly shaking their faith. At the end of the interview she boldly queries Father Wanderly, who had admitted to performing a few exorcisms in the past:
“After you performed the exorcism, how did you know that demon wasn’t still in there, hiding? How do you know it didn’t go in a hibernation state, quieting down to come out later, years and years later when no one would be around to help? Hey, how do you know if the wrong spirit left? What if you expelled the person’s real spirit and only the demon’s spirit was there to take its place? If I believed in any of that stuff, I’d be afraid that was going to happen to me.” (176)
Then, as a final coup de grâce: “Father Wanderly, how do you know if a person has a spirit inside their body in the first place? Have you ever seen that, at least?” (176). The novel is beginning to read like an atheistic—and, therefore, non-supernatural—version of The Exorcist; and so it proves to be.
(Incidentally, it is interesting to hear Marjorie drop references to Yidhra, a name that the writer of the TV show, Ken Fletcher, claims to have Googled: “Yidhra was a minor demon in the fictional cosmic horror universe of the early-twentieth-century writer H. P. Lovecraft, a universe that featured nameless Elder Gods and tentacled beasties from other dimensions” . It would be interesting to know what Google search turned up this information, since neither Yidhra nor Elder Gods are found in Lovecraft’s own work; Yidhra, indeed, was the creation of the neo-Lovecraftian writer Walter C. DeBill, Jr., in the story “Where Yidhra Walks” . Possibly Tremblay meant to refer to Yig, a god created in Lovecraft’s ghostwritten story “The Curse of Yig” .)
After the bishop gives permission to perform the exorcism, the cameras set up shop in Marjorie’s room. Her mother apparently binds her to the bed with leather straps. As the exorcism proceeds, Marjorie becomes crazed and takes a bite out of the hand of Father Gavin, who is conducting the exorcism; also, a desk drawer is seen to open and close, seemingly on its own. In the subsequent pandemonium, Marjorie somehow frees herself from her restraints and leaps over the railing of the staircase—not to her death, but with some injuries nonetheless (a broken ankle and a concussion).
Tremblay now commits the serious blunder of having the blogger (whom we now know to be Merry) write an incredibly long and smart-alecky analysis of the exorcism, which was presented as the final episode of the TV show. During the course of this blog we learn (not that it is a surprise) that Sarah did not in fact tie Marjorie to the bed, and that the opening and closing of that drawer was done by some mechanical device, although the precise means is not specified. This whole blog is a blunder because, in the first place, it seems highly implausible that Merry, who still seems (if the tenor of her account as told to Neville is any gauge) much disturbed by the episode, could write about it in the manner that she does; and in the second place, the reader must shift mental gears radically in absorbing the substance of the blog, which forces us to look at the events at least one step removed from them. I am not aware that very many people have ever been frightened by a piece of literary or media criticism.
In the few chapters that remain, we learn—or seem to learn—that John later poisoned his entire family by feeding them poisoned pasta. (Merry survived because she does not like pasta sauce—into which the poison was mixed—on her spaghetti.) Just before this event, Marjorie wished to talk urgently to Merry on a “life and death important” (266) issue—namely, the increasing mental aberration of her father. “He’s why I put us through everything, Merry. I knew he was getting sick, so at first I faked that I was sick so that someone would figure out that Dad was the one who needed help” (270). Sensing that John is planning on poisoning his family with potassium cyanide, she finds a bottle of the stuff and throws away nearly the whole of it; but it comes to no one’s surprise that, in a final twist, it is Merry who puts the remaining poison in the pasta sauce, at Marjorie’s urging. For this is approximately the scenario in Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, where we learn at the end that it is Merricat, and not Constance (who was accused of poisoning her family but was acquitted), who is the poisoner. In Merry’s case, she is angered at Marjorie’s eating of her portion of pasta: “Marjorie had fooled me again” (277). Evidently this refers either to Marjorie misleading Merry into thinking that there was only enough pasta to sicken the family members, not kill them, or to her tricking Merry by actually committing suicide. And that is how the novel ends.
A Head Full of Ghosts could have been an excellent and tightly constructed weird novella; but Tremblay has made the decision to pad it out to a full-length novel. Even aside from the occasional longueurs that drag down the text, the metafictional superstructure transforms the novel from a story about actual people and actual incidents into (in the approved Iowa Writers Workshop fashion) a story about the telling of stories. In particular, the irritating blog posts should have been eliminated, and indeed the entire framework of the TV show should also have been jettisoned: in this way the compelling events—and they are compelling, or could have been if properly narrated—would have emerged in a chilling and dynamic manner. Although the portrayal of both Merry and Marjorie is subtle, complex, and telling, other characters are largely stereotypes or caricatures, and the novel’s ultimate impact is not nearly as powerful as it could have been.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock suffers from several of the same difficulties as its predecessor, although it is mercifully written in a uniform third-person narration without any attempt at metafictional layering. The crux of the story is the vanishing of thirteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson, in the course of a sleepover with his friends, Josh Griffin and Luis Fernandez. They had gone into Borderland State Park (an actual park about 25 miles southwest of Boston), and Tommy had apparently run off by himself and failed to return. His mother, Elizabeth, already shaken by her divorce from her husband, William, about nine years ago (he had died, either by accident or by suicide, a few months later), is understandably traumatised by the event, and Tremblay does not fail to milk the maximum sentimentality out of the situation (“I can’t lose Tommy. I can’t” ). Her mother, Janice, arrives to comfort Elizabeth and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kate.
Soon after the disappearance, Elizabeth is convinced that she sees Tommy’s ghost sitting in a chair—she not only sees him, but smells him (37). Readers might pass this off as merely the result of Elizabeth’s overwrought nerves, but she becomes convinced that the sighting means that Tommy is dead. More seemingly supernatural episodes follow, notably the mysterious appearance of random pages from Tommy’s diary on the living-room floor. Given that Elizabeth has installed a surveillance camera in the room and elsewhere, it seems impossible that these pages could have been left by any human agency. Only much later do we learn that Kate left the pages, having turned off the surveillance camera at key moments by manipulating an app on her cellphone.
The pages reveal Tommy’s increasing obsession with his father’s fate: “when I’m in school I think about fadeing [sic] away and disappearing like Dad did” (57). At one point Tommy imagines his father rising up from the grave like a zombie (74): Tommy is obsessed with zombies, and the boys had a long-drawn-out discussion of the subject just before his disappearance.
But the novel gradually shifts its focus to a person named in Tommy’s diary as Arnold, a man in his early twenties with whom the boys, especially Tommy, seem to have become fascinated. Arnold tells a long story about how a feature in the park called Split Rock gained the alternative name of Devil’s Rock. It appears that, about a hundred years ago, the former owner of the park land, Oakes Eastman, had an encounter with the Devil there and, remarkably, managed to trap him in the cleft of the rock. The next morning the Devil is gone, but a dead tree is now seen emerging out of the cleft; if you touch the tree, you will summon the Devil.
Arnold professes himself to be a seer and in fact reveals remarkable precognitive abilities, identifying elements in the boys’ lives that he could not possibly have known; but Luis believes these things to be merely instances of “catfishing” (137)—making a lucky guess based on the boys’ own reactions. Tommy fervently wants to believe Arnold is a real seer—especially as Arnold tells Tommy that he himself might also be one.
Further pages from Tommy’s diary indicate that Arnold once took the boys to his ramshackle house, where he lived with his uncle. Arnold compels the boys to beat up his uncle and, worse, stab him with pieces of broken glass, perhaps killing him. Why didn’t Josh and Luis report this event to the police? Josh claims that Arnold threatened to kill them and their families if they did so.
Arnold is eventually identified as one Rooney Faherty. Tracking him down, the police find his uncle, Martin Weeks, dead in the bathroom. Faherty is arrested for his murder, although in transcripts of his interview with the police he maintains that the killing had all been done by the boys. Faherty then claims that Tommy was pursuing him in the park with a jackknife, and that in a confrontation on an island in a pond he hit Tommy (in self-defence) with a rock. Sure enough, Tommy is found dead on the island.
Once again, the conceptual difficulties in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are many. Tremblay throws out number of threads, only to drop them and move on to others. At first, Tommy’s relationship with his father is purportedly a central feature of the case, but this element is discarded and the focus shifts to Arnold—whose tedious tale about the Devil ultimately has not the slightest bearing upon the events, which (at least as far as his relationship with Tommy is concerned) are entirely non-supernatural.
Tremblay presents that relationship itself in a contrived and deceitful way. As Josh remembers the final meeting between the boys and Arnold, he reflects: “Watching the two of them climb down the rock, Josh knew that Tommy would follow Arnold to the ends of the overworld” (217). But whereas this suggests that Arnold has become a kind of pied piper or mentor (even if unhealthily so) to Tommy, it is later made transparently clear that Tommy’s pursuit of Arnold is a matter of vengeance, especially after the encounter with Martin Weeks at Arnold’s house. Luis recalls that Tommy “said he had like a plan” (279); in other words, that the boys were going to “stop” (280) Arnold from further depredations. Of course, Arnold’s self-serving justification for striking Tommy with the rock is of a piece with his protestations of innocence in the death of his uncle, and we are led to understand that Arnold was probably the aggressor in the final confrontation with Tommy. But Tremblay curiously fails to specify the upshot of Arnold’s subsequent trial for murder.
Is there, indeed, any supernaturalism in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock? Elizabeth’s sighting of the apparent ghost of Tommy is never fully clarified; and, although the mysterious dropping of pages from Tommy’s diary are manifestly attributed to Kate, the final batch of pages—found in an art book that mysteriously fell to the floor in Tommy’s room—is similarly left unaccounted for. Hints that Tommy’s ghost might have peeked into the windows of various houses in town are subsequently dispensed with, as we learn that it was Arnold who had been doing so. Finally, Arnold’s final taunt to the boys—“Are you saying I’m the Devil?” (206)—is clearly another instance of his attempt to exercise a quasi-supernatural influence over the boys.
But the novel ends intriguingly with the possibility of a genuine supernatural incident. Elizabeth tells the lead investigator in the case, Allison Murtagh, of another vision of Tommy that she had had—“I saw Tommy between the chair and end table in my bedroom” (313)—and goes on to say that this vision was uncannily similar to a drawing of himself that Tommy had made on one of his diary pages: “It was Tommy’s face all swollen and beat up. It was his dead face with those pennies on his eyes. That’s what I saw in my bedroom” (313). (The mention of pennies refers to the fact that Arnold had broken into Elizabeth’s house and taken some rare pennies he himself had given Tommy, which were then found on his body.) Even more disturbingly, Tommy himself may have seen this apparition during his final pursuit of Arnold. Elizabeth concludes horrifyingly: “He fucking saw his own dead self there out in the woods and then he ran away, and oh, God, he must’ve been so scared, Allison. My poor baby …” (313). This is a grim and chilling supernatural twist, but it scarcely makes up for the other deficiencies in the novel.
Like A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is really a novella-length idea that has been stretched out to a novel. Large parts of it are of little relevance to the final outcome, and certain scenes—such as Elizabeth’s installation of the surveillance camera—are extended needlessly, apparently for the sole purpose of fleshing out the book. And in the end, what is the point of the novel? That a mother loves her son (and a sister her brother) and is traumatised by his disappearance and death? That teenage boys shouldn’t fraternise with older men? The novel’s title clearly alludes to Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), based on a novel of that title (1967) by Joan Lindsay, itself based on an actual case in Australia dating to 1900; but that subtle, complex film, dealing with the disappearance of some schoolgirls and their teacher, is hauntingly compelling in a way that Tremblay’s novel fails to be. No doubt Tremblay is seeking to duplicate the ambiguities in the film, especially the question as to whether the supernatural is actually involved; but his novel simply cannot match the film’s fusion of wistful pathos and nebulous terror.
Paul Tremblay is a writer of notable literary gifts. His prose (whenever he can avoid certain recurring errors of style and grammar) is fluid and evocative; his ability to draw character with successive layers of nuance is enviable. Where he seems to fall down is in the conception and execution of his scenarios, which are too often marred by lack of concision and focus and an absence of clarity in regard to the message he ultimately wishes the reader to receive. These problems are presumably correctible, so it is not unreasonable to hope that subsequent works will be more tightly written and feature a more unified thematic emphasis.
The degree to which Tremblay’s work is reliant on prior works of literature and film is troubling, if only because it perhaps unjustly suggests an imagination incapable of devising truly original weird scenarios. His short stories reveal an abundance of originality, so it would perhaps be advisable if Tremblay wrote novels that are less dependent on their predecessors than he has done heretofore; it would also help if he were to rein in his tendency toward preciosity and pretentiousness, writing works that honestly and sincerely express the numerous interesting conceptions he has to convey. In that event, he could emerge as one of the noteworthy writers in our field.
Above and Below: A City Pier Novella. n.p.: Prime Books, 2007.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. New York: William Morrow, 2016.
A Head Full of Ghosts. New York: William Morrow, 2015.
In the Mean Time. Toronto: ChiZine Publications, 2010.