If you’re reading good horror right now, then chances are that Paul Tremblay owns a spot on your favorite author list. 2015’s Head Full of Ghosts (which managed to “scare the living hell” out of Stephen King) is still one of my all-time favorite novels, horror or otherwise. The next year, he brought every parent’s worst nightmare to life with the fantastic Disappearance at Devil’s Rock.
This June, Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World arrives, bringing with it a healthy dose of terror built on paranoia, family disruption, and bizarre gardening tools.
Wen is a 7-year-old girl who is about as precocious as they come. While on vacation at a remote cabin with her adoptive fathers, Eric and Andrew, she is approached by a strange (and very large) man named Leonard. Although she knows it’s not good to talk to strangers, Leonard appears to be both incredibly friendly and smart. He even shows what appears to be a genuine interest in the grasshoppers she is catching and cataloguing in the front yard. He certainly doesn’t seem like the type to murder or kidnap a child–especially with her parents just a few feet away and behind the house.
But when three more strangers show up wielding bizarre weapons, Wen makes a beeline for the house. Before you can yell “STRANGER DANGER,” Leonard and his posse are demanding that Eric and Andrew let them inside. They also going to great pains to be as polite as possible while simultaneously insisting that they’ll get in the house one way or another.
Their reason for such a daring daylighting intrusion: Eric, Andrew, and Wen must help them do something horrible to keep the world from ending.
If you’ve read Tremblay’s last two books, then you already know the formula. The Cabin at the End of the World once again proves his incredible knack for building suspense and intrigue via your questioning of the story’s speculative elements.
While the real story here is what happens to the characters, let me assure all my fellow LOST series finale haters that Tremblay doesn’t use the characters’ personal journeys as a crutch to shrug off the mystery behind the speculative elements. Just like his last two books, this one is sprinkled with plenty of evidence both for and against the supernatural–and all of it is terrifying.
What really makes Cabin great, however, is the way Tremblay utilizes the claustrophobic space of a living room to explore how this devastating experience affects the characters, including the ones who you want to hate. Wen’s viewpoint in particular is a joy to read. The way her young brain processes things is both illuminating and heartbreaking. Where adults see a narrow road, she sees infinite possibilities…which in this case often means infinite amounts of things to be terrified about.
And then there’s the violence. Tremblay writes every bit of harm the characters experience in a way that’s uncomfortably real and relatable. Pain carries an emotional cost that is often paid in diminishing courage or will. Intimate perspectives into nearly all the characters’ lives provide even more of a connection to the mental and physical anguish they are going through.
By the last page, you’re nearly as exhausted as the ones who manage to survive…or maybe that was just me because I didn’t sleep much due to not being able to put the book down. Whatever the case, it’s one heck of a ride that ends with even more weight and impact than I’d expected.
Only two things (in my opinion), but they’re big ones. They’re a bit hard to talk about without spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
Early on, a major plot point is put in to play via a massive (yet potentially purposeful) coincidence. I’m not a big fan of this, but I can live with it. Unfortunately, this coincidence is compounded by the fact that it’s not even mentioned/acknowledged until well after it would have made the most impact on the story.
Would the story have been more interesting if it was revealed earlier? Maybe. It certainly would have made narratives initial escalation much more difficult. Either way, though, it felt a bit ridiculous for such a major revelation to happen at the point it did in the story.
The other thing that bothered me was the loss of a viewpoint I found to be essential/critical to the story’s wonderful tone. All the perspectives end up being important, but the narrative never quite recaptured the juice it lost (although it was still plenty good).
A Head Full of Ghosts is still safe on my list of all-time favorites, but The Cabin at the End of the World makes a strong case for it to be included on everyone’s list for Best Novels of 2018.
Note that I didn’t say Best Horror Novels. This book is a fantastic read no matter what genre you come at it from. Tremblay weaves a relentless, heart wrenching tale of love, family, and belief, all framed by a primal fear about the end of the world–both the physical planet we inhabit and the vulnerable, precious lives we’ve managed to build during out time here.