Weird Fiction Review #9: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay has been moving rapidly into best-seller territory for several years. His major novels include A Head Full of Ghosts (2015), Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2017), which won the British Fantasy Award for best horror novel, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018), which won the Bram Stoker Award, and Survivor Song (2020), published by HarperCollins. He has also published a collection of short stories, Growing Things (2019), edited several anthologies, and collaborated with Stephen Graham Jones (reviewed earlier in this series). He has recently begun a series of neo-noir novels that will go on my summer reading list. Check out his website for more information.

Whereas Gareth Miles’ Soul Shakedown (reviewed below) charts the intersection of weird fiction and speculative fiction, The Cabin at the End of the World can be located at the intersection of weird fiction and horror. It provides an opportunity to discuss some of the distinctions between these genres, which are frequently mistaken for each other. In order to better understand the difference, I will consider how three sensations–weirdness, suspense, and horror–converge and diverge in this novel. The following review has two parts. In part one, I focus on the weird elements of the novel, without spoilers. In part two, I focus on the horror elements and there are major spoilers.

Weirdness at the World’s Edge

The sensation of weirdness involves hesitation, when the normal/known falters or rearranges itself; Todorov is correct to observe this sense of uncertainty as the genre’s minimal requirement and principle plot. The tone or texture of this suspension cannot be determined in advance. Although many weird tales evoke “cosmic dread,” strictly speaking, fear is not required and its figuration as a monster is absolutely unnecessary to the genre. Similarly, although the dynamics of the uncanny are unquestionably at play, any association of Freud’s term with creepiness or terror should be disregarded for the moment. Weirdness can evoke curiosity, wonder, a premonition of the marvelous just as much as it can conjure fear, terror, or a sense of inevitable doom. Weirdness itself is not horrible, fantastic, or marvelous; it is the more primal and disorientating sense that one may or may not be entering such territory. Dread captures the sense of potential, while still tilting the equation in horror’s favor. (And it’s always good to remember that within the reading experience, these sensations continually reverse and recombine themselves; for example, while we may identify with characters in weird stories who dread what’s coming next, as readers of the genre, we’re usually also hoping for the worst.)

Suspense is a broader category of sensation. We experience suspense when we know the outcome but not what will happen next. Suspense pervades nearly every popular narrative structure: romance plots, adventure stories, mysteries, all generate suspense by posing the possibility of a significant outcome and delaying its arrival. There are many forms of narrative delay, with different kinds of anticipations.

Suspense and weirdness intersect in complicated ways. Obviously, the suspension of the known or normal–the hesitation occasioned by the possibility of the impossible–is frequently imbricated with suspense more generally. This is obviously true in weird tales that follow a mystery/quest narrative: will the impossible thing be discovered? Is the house haunted? Is here a monster in these woods? Do the outer gods exist? Equally important in the weird tradition is a form of suspense related to skepticism. Is this manuscript to be believed? Are these witness accounts accurate? Did I just notice that? Could this be true?

However, weirdness can also interrupt or dislocate suspense. Suspense narratives, with few exceptions, are premised upon a degree of certainty. We know that the mystery will be solved, that the lovers will overcome the barriers between them, that the delayed thing will arrive. Our certainty that the suspense will not last indefinitely is part of its pleasure. We get to watch the plans derail, knowing that they will come together eventually. This quality heightens suspense because the generic formula structures expectation. Weirdness can disrupt this certainty, and a great many of the best weird tales do exactly that: leaving us in a state of confusion or irresolution. Was that real? Is this story to be believed? Did anything happen or not? In short, weirdness can suspend suspense, rewriting the narrative as it unfolds so that the inevitability forecast by suspense never arrives. A dream may have no conclusion save in the waking. One of best images of this quality of the weird must be the anarchist’s railroad in China Mielville’s Iron Council, which pulls up the tracks from behind itself in order to lay them down in front, and which (spoiler) becomes frozen in time. Radical weirdness may derail conventional suspense narratives such that they never arrive at their destination.

This quality illuminates an important contrast between the weird and the horrible. Their is no denying the close ties between these sensations; weirdness emanating from the supernatural is associated with horror throughout centuries of literary tradition. But in the modern weird tale (which we can date to the Gothic novels), horror emerges as a resolution to the weirdness. When the monster steps into the light, the strange is replaced by the terrifying. This function is obvious in many Lovecraftian weird tales, where coming face to face with the impossible thing serves as a climactic moment, turning the story into an adventure narrative, tipping the narrator into madness, and / or ending the story altogether. Obviously, the figuration of the the thing endows it with meaning, cancelling its status as the impossible object. In this regard, horror’s sensations negate strangeness. Against the open-endedness of weirdness (is this really happening?), horror overwhelms us with its inevitability (yes, it is happening–the impossible is real, there is no escape, etc.). In horror narratives, the suspense comes with a guarantee that it’s going to get worse (but also that there will be survivor). A horror narrative may draw out the suspense almost indefinitely, but the axe must eventually fall.

There need be no axe at all in the proper weird tale. There are few better examples of the weird suspense narrative than Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1950). Widely recognized as one of the best postwar works of weird fiction in English, this story evokes a tremendous amount of uncanny anxiety in its few pages. A retired white couple, the Allisons, decide to stay at their rural summer cottage after labor day, when they (and the other summer residents) would normally return to New York City. When shopping in town for additional supplies, the news of their decision seems to evoke slightly ominous responses from the locals and to circulate too quickly among them. It seems more difficult to remain after the summer season than the Allisons expected. The gas can’t be delivered, the car breaks down, the phone doesn’t seem to work. By the end, nothing outlandish has happened but the suspense is almost overwhelming. Without ever leaving the ordinary, everything has become strange. It seems, somehow, as though the Allisons’ world will end–as though their existence could only be tolerated (by the local economy, by the local culture, by the natural order itself) until labor day. The normal is haunted by a paranoid suggestion that their idyllic summer life on the lake is indeed an idyll: a dream maintained by unspoken conventions which cannot sustain itself when those conventions are innocently breached.

In setting her protagonists in a cottage on the lake, Jackson draws on a long and rich history of weirdness at the margins. Weirdness emanates from the space / time beyond the known and normal. This is true in Gothic novels, which prominently displace their narratives in time and their characters in space. Walpole’s Otranto manuscript is situated on the edge of the age of reason; Radcliffe’s Udolpho is a mountain fortress beyond the control of civil society; Shelley’s Frankenstein pursues his creation into the Arctic wastes. Countless stories make similar use of these spatial / temporal / epistemological edges: unchartered continents, primeval forests, uninhabited islands, forgotten cities and abandoned houses appear again and again.

The Cabin at the End of the World draws on these conventions, and Jackson’s story in particular, to establish an isolated, interrupted normal. The setting is a summer cabin in northern New Hampshire, on a lake and beyond cell phone service. The majority of the novel’s third-person narration focalizes upon the cabin’s three inhabitants: Wen, a precocious almost eight-year old girl, and her two daddies by adoption: Eric, a market analyst, and Andrew, a professor at Boston University. The story’s events are told by switching back and forth between these focalizations, but the narration remains sequential, without significant narrative overlap (i.e., more than one character’s account of any given event). While there is some difference in perspective between these characters, because the focalization is relatively light (i.e., it doesn’t descend far into any character’s psychology) and because they are facing the same crisis, the movement between them feels artificial. There is nothing Faulkneresque about the shift in perspectives; as with Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It (reviewed below), the switch between characters often feels more like a movement between cameras than between psyches.

The first chapter introduces Wen, who is playing in the font yard when “A man rounds the bend and walks briskly down the driveway like he’s coming home” (7). He introduces himself as Leonard and although “She’s had the stranger-danger talk with her dads countless times,” Wen doesn’t run away when he approaches (8). They talk for awhile, and Leonard seems charming in a vaguely sociopathic way, taking an outsized, affable interest in the girl’s activities. They are still talking when he is joined by three more strangers “carrying strange long-handled tools” (24). The narrator gives us a detailed look at these makeshift weapons, which suggest that Wen has just met members of an evil cult or possibly a group of zombie survivors. Leonard’s words to her before she runs to get her daddies confirm the menace without revealing its origin: “None of what is going to happen is your fault,” he tells Wen. “You haven’t done anything wrong, but the three of you will have to make some tough decisions. . . We are not here to hurt you. We need your help to save the world” (25).

Cut to Eric and Andrew on the back deck, relaxing with books and idle chatter when Wen rushes in to tell them about the strangers in the front yard. Panicked, they immediately lock themselves into the house. They demand that the strangers leave and try to call the cops (no reception and the landline has already been cut by the time they think to use it). I wish I could say that the sheer terror that seems to inflict Eric and Andrew at the sight of these rustic strangers was presented as satire, but Tremblay plays it ‘straight’: these two gay but otherwise full grown adult professionals seem nearly helpless at the mere prospect of unknown folks calling at their rental cottage. Andrew’s animus toward these uncouth but not unfriendly (so far) strangers is at least explained; after being gay-bashed outside a bar in Boston years earlier, he has suffered traumatic anxiety triggered by the presence of what appear to be “the hate-filled, ignorant cavemen he’s had to deal with his whole life” (47).

The four strangers soon breach the cottage; a brief fight ensues and Eric and Andrew are incapacitated, with Eric concussed by a fall. In a scene we’ve seen before, they are bound to chairs at their own table, and made to listen to their captors’ demands. Leonard explains that their captivity has nothing to do with their sexual identities and that their captors are obeying an imperative beyond their own understanding. “We’re just normal people like you, and we were thrown into this–this extraordinary situation,” he explains, “We didn’t choose this. We’re here because, just like you, we have to be” (72).

Leonard’s conviction, his patient explanations of their predicament, and his caretaking of Wen (he is good with children) is the most significant source of weirdness for the next several chapters, which otherwise follow a home invasion horror plot. There’s a gun in the car if only Eric or Andrew could get to it. Fortunately, the rustic freaks have a lot to say. They introduce themselves in turn: there’s Sabrina, from So. Cal.; Redmond, who is menacing and ironic; Adriane, a practically-minded former line cook (80) and Leonard, a former elementary school mentor and bartender from Chicago, turned ringleader. He explains their predicament in remarkably direct terms: “Ultimately, whether the world ends or doesn’t end is entirely up to you three… The message is clear, and we are the messengers, or a mechanism through which the message must pass” (83). You know it’s coming, and Tremblay doesn’t waste any time getting there. Leonard continues, “Your family must choose to willingly sacrifice one of your three in order to prevent the apocalypse. After you make what I know is an impossible choice, you must then kill whoever it is you choose. If you fail to make the choice . . . you will only live long enough to witness the horror of the end of everything…” (84)

Here we can see the divergence of the weird tale and the horror narrative. In the weird tale, events would conspire to make Andrew, Eric, and Wen seriously consider that their sacrifice is required. In another story, they might convince themselves that the prophecy must be obeyed or act as though a sacrifice were necessary for reasons obscure to the reader, etc. But the hostage scenario, the stock cult psychos, the general tenor of the work, and events as they unfold move us in another direction. While Tremblay sustains the weirdness as far as it will go, in the final two thirds of the novel suspense is primarily generated along the horror axis. The weirdness is relegated to a delusion; the problem is not so much whether we believe that the world will end, or that the protagonists believe it, but that Leonard and his gang believe it. Although the TV begins to report events that correspond to the cult’s apocalyptic scenarios, this only strengthens Eric’s and Andrew’s awareness of the danger posed by the cult, not their prophecy. In any case, the “impossible thing” they’ve been asked to do–sacrifice one of their own–is not impossible; it is merely intolerable.

As we enter the fantasy time of horror, the suspense begins to follow a clear logic predicated upon physical survival. The question becomes, how to escape? Can these two well-educated fathers reason their way out, perhaps sow dissent in the ranks? Or can they delay the maniacs and make use of their daughter’s relative freedom to make a run for the car? How can they support each other as they succumb to exhaustion and their own delusional thinking? Above all, how do they keep Wen safe? Their predicament supplies plenty of suspense, but as the tension increases the strangeness dissipates. Looking more closely at the textures and temporalities of the novel’s horror suggests that, at least in a contemporary novel like this one, horror’s imperative normalizes the text, canceling its weird potential. The violence horror commits against weirdness is a subset of the violence it commits against life. For weirdness is profoundly lively, organized around various fantastic possibilities; its suspense mingles dread with curiosity. The unknown is universal and unique; it is thoroughly disorienting. By contrast, the horrifying is particular and repetitive; it reorients the subject toward an unalterable singularity.

Horror as the End of the World

There’s big praise from Stephen King on the back cover of The Cabin at the End of the World. The master of horror calls it “thought-provoking and terrifying.” That should be warning enough to lovers of the strange and fantastic; King has written two or three weird stories, but his corpus is deeply, broadly, achingly normative. In this section, I will investigate some of that normativity, before concluding with an examination of horror and the unalterable.

So, Eric and Andrew are tied up and Leonard has presented them with a grade-B moral dilemma. How shall it be resolved? The horror plot calls for senseless violence; it is not long in coming. When Redmond begins torturing Eric, the other members of the gang kill him with a sledgehammer. There’s plenty of splatter and spray. The cabin on the lake is beginning to look more like Lizzie Borden’s father’s house than the unnervingly quaint interior of the Allison’s cottage.

The texture of the text slips into an informative mode (the differences between focalizations matter less and less, even as they expand to include the cult members). Theories for the cultist’s bad behavior are explained in tedious, faux-professional detail by Andrew, who “recalls reading about a uniquely twenty-first century mental-health crisis with a growing population of people suffering from clinically paranoid, psychotic elusions deciding to ignore professional help. . . The online groups reinforce and validate the delusions. . .” (157) His reasoning with the home invaders is equally uninspired: “Look at us tied up here. Really look at us. Is this right or normal? . . . How about you go and look at the guy you mashed to a pulp out on the deck, tell me that’s not wrong” (141).

The hard, dull light of the normative can be heard in passages that describe actions in a heroic frame and with an excruciatingly objective attention to details. Here’s Andrew in action: “He doesn’t hesitate. He calmly shrugs and lifts his right shoulder, a movement as innocuous and ordinary as a breath expanding within his chest. As his shoulder rises, he slides his right hand up. . . He is composed and considerate as he goes about the serious business of untying the leg ropes. The knots behind his calves are thick and obvious, and they give away their secrets to his battered fingers” (167).

It is the lack of incredulity that most offends. The universe has become entirely too neat; the absurd is erased to make way for the inexorable. Only a reality much more stable than our own can sustain the painfully objective style that emerges here. Such dullness, I fear, is the price to be paid for horror in the age of King. Although our protagonists suffer bouts of irrationality, the madness is figured in the cult members; this externalization of the irrational leaves us with an all too rational and mechanistic universe, which is to say one shaped by the narcissism of the normal. Part of this is the ‘straightening out’ of the structure of suspense. As we enter the horror narrative, the scenes of gross physical violence can only mean that more and greater forms of violence are coming. Soon we encounter sentences such as the following: “If Eric is a cornered lion tamer, then Adriane is the lion, stalking, pacing, and darting forward at Eric and then skittering back when he swings what was once her staff. She has a steak knife in each hand, the blades thin but serrated” (177). Note how the simile draws on what it takes for an easily digestible symbol, the “cornered lion tamer,” and how this symbolic content supports a description of the imagined materiality of the scene–the positioning of bodies and weapons. This is a good example of the normalization of narrative textures that seems ubiquitous in contemporary horror narratives. You will find exactly the same quality in the best-selling novels of King or Peter Straub. I simply can’t read them; not because they are scary but because they are so prosaic.

Spoiler alert!

So far, I have been localizing the deadening effect of the horror narrative in a contemporary style of normativity that has become the hallmark of success in an era when popular novels aspire to become movies (not to mention Netflix series). In the final paragraphs, I want to go further in order to describe what I’m calling horror’s imperative. To do this, I will spoil the end of Tremblay’s novel. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens. Furthermore, and more significantly, I am going to spoil major parts of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games.

Funny Games (1997)

Funny Games is also set in a cabin on the edge of lake. In this case, the middle-class family, Anna, Georg and Georgie, has arrived a little early in the season. They are settling in when two young men stop by, claiming to be friends of the neighbors. Intense naturalism focused upon politeness, hospitality, parenting, and propriety generates nearly overwhelming suspense when the young men refuse to leave. When the family is bound and the torture begins, Funny Games becomes the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen. I do not recommend it. I was in a daze of terror for more than week. (Although directed by Haneke, the U.S. remake (2007) is not nearly as effective, in part because the tensions around politeness don’t exist in the American vacation house as they do in Austria and in part because Tim Roth, while a wonderful actor, was a poor choice for the father role.)

Here’s the spoiler, if you haven’t already guessed it. In The Cabin at the End of the World, the unthinkable horror is the same as in Funny Games. It is the child who dies (on in the case of Haneke’s film, dies first). Andrew ends up with the gun. He shoots Adriane, whose “throat explodes in a geyser of blood” (184) and then he and Leonard are wrestling for control of the weapon when it goes off and little Wen “doesn’t see or hear or feel anything anymore” (186).

Wen’s death is the novel’s ultimate horror. Everything has been done to protect her; she is the adopted child of the family, protected by Leonard, and adopted by the readers, who spend time in her head and that of her parents. It is surprising, shocking, and almost unspeakable. The end of the world has arrived earlier than expected; the sacrifice, meant to protect a world for young Wen to grow up in, has deprived the world of her. This horror doesn’t conclude the narrative, but it tilts us into an extended denouement, the narrative purpose of which is to restore the broken normal by punishing the wicked and making a space or the survivors to endure. While accidental, Wen’s death would seem to fulfill the prophecy. It also breaks the psychotic spell for Sabrina, who kills Leonard, then herself. Eric and Andrew are left alone on the road outside their cabin. Eric, concussed, wonders if maybe the world is about to end, while Andrew, wracked with grief and guilt, struggles to maintain their mutual sanity. At one point Eric “waits and gives Andrew a chance to say the right thing, the impossible right thing that would make this all go away and take us and Wen back home safe” (267).

The inability to take it back is central to horror narratives. No film commits to the inexorability of horror than Funny Games. It is structured around five or six truly horrific moments. One occurs when young Georgie is killed by the intruders; it is unexpected and casual, a sort of accident. As in The Cabin at the End of the World, the parent’s inability to protect their child is a horror almost beyond reason. But there are two more and more powerful horrors in the film. The second one occurs when Anna grabs the shotgun they used to kill her son and shoots one of the men in the chest. It appears that justice is about to be restored–that we are entering the revenge narrative (as in Last House on the Left (1972) or Revenge (2017)). But the other tormenter grabs the remote control and rewinds the film that we are watching, reversing the incident. The cruelty of this is almost unbearable. A metafictional leap restores the unjust to life, but it can’t bring back Georgie or justice. The miracle is in the hands of the tormenters; the film’s rejection of the normative horror narrative, which gives us a survivor, clarifies the nature of horror, I think. It is to be found in the sense of inevitability. Indeed, the final, equally horrific episode in Funny Games occurs at the very end. Anna is bound and put onto a sailboat. With a terrifying casualness, she is pushed into the water. There is no escape. There are no survivors. There will be no justice. This is the horror of horror.

Tremblay’s novel offers a more conventional ending. Drawing directly from Beckett, he has Eric say, “What will we do? We can’t go on.” To which Andrew replies, “We’ll go on.” Their love for each other, their reasonableness will prevail. As in most horror novels and films, the survivors are as necessary as the violence. This restoration is not available in Jackson’s story or Haneke’s film, but for entirely different reasons. In Jackson’s story, the violence never arrives. In Haneke’s film, it continues to arrive beyond all reason and until their are no survivors. While Jackson’s story is purely weird, Haneke’s film is utterly horrific.

Tremblay’s novel draws on weird conventions and incorporates a weird theme, but it is a horror narrative at heart, and unfortunately a very normative one at that.

The next and final installment in this series of Weird Fiction reviews will examine what I hope and expect was the weirdest novel of 2018: Michael Cisco’s Unlangauge, published by Eraserhead Press.

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matthiasregan

I am a writer and editor, artist and activist. I live in Rogers Park, Chicago.

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