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The Sublime Horror of Choice

PAUL TREMBLAY IS the author of nearly a dozen books, many of which could be classified as horror. He is probably best known for his possession novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, which won the 2015 Bram Stoker Award and which The New York Times praised for “the pleasurable fog of [its] calculated, perfectly balanced ambiguity.” The novel that followed, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, strikes me as cannily bringing Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock into collision with American horror in a way that gives us something quite original.

Each recent book of Tremblay’s seems to me to take on a subgenre of the horror genre. He both explores it and puts pressure on it to see if he can make it do something new. Paul is anything but a complacent writer — rather than resting on his laurels, he offers work that is consistently new and unique.

Paul and I talked about his most recent novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, which appeared on June 26 of this year. Paul will be reading at The Last Bookstore on July 1.

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BRIAN EVENSON: One thing I like about your work is that it often takes a subgenre of horror that we think we know and looks at it in a new way. In A Head Full of Ghosts (to name perhaps the clearest example), you have a very particular take on the possession story, and you bring that take into collision with reality TV. I see The Cabin at the End of the World as both acknowledging the home-invasion story and taking such stories apart, critiquing them. And yet, at the same time it’s suspenseful and a good read. How hard was it to figure out that balance?

PAUL TREMBLAY: A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World both began with me thinking jeeze, how would I write this-kind-of-subgenre-story. AHFoG was an expression of my love for horror and the possession story as well as a pointed critique of some of its tropes and gender stereotypes. I won’t call Cabin an anti-home invasion story, because that’s not exactly true, but the home invasion subgenre is one I generally don’t gravitate toward as a reader or film viewer. There are examples of home-invasion stories I have enjoyed, including Wait Until Dark, Misery, and more recently the French film Ils (Them) and Mike Flanagan’s Hush. I’ve found the subgenre — particularly the movies — are too often thin in character and motivation, and they revel in the sadism of violence without consequence.

I don’t want to lose my horror street cred; the above is not to say that I am anti-violence in entertainment, particularly when the over-the-top gore-fests of Evil Dead II and The Thing are two of my favorite horror movies. A home-invasion story almost always necessitates personal, up-close violence, and it’s rooted in realism. I think that kind of violence should be represented in a way that treats those transgressions with dignity (which might seem an odd word choice), reflecting how the victims (if they survive), witnesses, and even the perpetrators are fundamentally changed by the violent acts.

That’s a really long-winded way of saying I was excited by the challenge of writing a home-invasion story that I would want to sit through.

I tried to use my twists of the subgenre’s expectations to either propel the plot and/or set those traps of surprise for the reader, and then I let the characters fill in those quieter, in-between moments. There really isn’t a ton of plot. I thought the only way the book would work would be to focus on the seven characters, treat almost all of them (even the invaders) with a certain level of empathy. Not that I’m a playwright by any stretch, but I imagined I was writing a one-setting play so that the characters would ultimately carry the story. If you know the players, and know them really well, then the anticipation of the terrible thing that is sure to happen next builds the suspense for you.

The marketing of the book mentions the home-invasion fiction that a lot of people might think of Stephen King’s Misery and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. But I found myself thinking about things more on the fringe of the genre as I read it movies like Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice or Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for instance, or even William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. What were some of the less apparent books and movies that you found yourself thinking about or responding to as you were writing Cabin?

I didn’t see The Killing of a Sacred Deer until very recently, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Martha Marcy May Marlene is excellent. I adore how the film is both grounded in realism and at the same time it has an ethereal, nightmarish atmosphere.

I reread Lord of the Flies when working on this book. It’s not home invasion but qualifies as “survival horror,” I think. I wanted some of that book’s feel and mindset. Or at least, I wanted how that book made me feel to seep into my book. The opening paragraph of Cabin is a riff on the opening of Flies.

Our current socio-political situation, shall we say, very much informs the mood of Cabin as much as any other book or movie might, and it is my hope the book works as a political allegory.

There are other films and stories that inspired smaller parts here and there. For example, in the opening chapter, Wen sitting on the grass across from the huge Leonard came from the iconic scene of Frankenstein’s monster similarly sitting with a girl next to a pond. Leonard’s name and size is a purposeful allusion to another famously large Lenny. Putting in little references like that (even if they’re deep cuts or so obtuse no one else but me would get them) is the fun part of writing for me, and it even helps to keep me motivated or focused on the macro-view of the story. I think what the seemingly random collection of inspired bits had in common was the feeling of anxiety of what I was referencing engendered in me. I wanted to work that tone or feeling into the DNA of Cabin, so I tried to seed it everywhere I could. I’ll add (because I know you’re a big fan of Samuel Beckett, Brian) that I almost had a fourth epigraph for the book, one quoting Beckett, but I left it out fearing it might too strongly hint at the novel’s ending.

Ah, that’s good to know. I’m glad that Beckett almost made the cut …

Eugene Thacker talks about horror as offering a choice for its characters (and by extension its readers): it asks the readers to believe that either something is wrong with them (madness, insanity, the awfulness of human nature) or something is wrong with the world (the unlikely, the supernatural). Would it be fair to say that Cabin acknowledges both of those strands of horror but doesn’t choose between them?

Eugene Thacker? He owes me money!

Yes, I think that’s more than fair. The interplay between both of those strands helps build a wonderful atmosphere of ambiguity while reflecting both the interior and exterior pressures placed upon the characters.

The plots of my previous two novels hinged on ambiguous supernatural elements, and in the case of AHFoG, ambiguous characters too. I know I can’t do the ambiguous thing forever (my editor and agent playfully refer to me as Mr. Ambiguous Horror), but I thought Cabin would fit in a thematic arc with the previous two novels, each book about families in crisis, while Cabin ups the stakes, going for a more existential and metaphysical ambiguity.

One of the most important elements of the story for me is the idea of choice. Several of the characters are put in a position in which they have to make a choice and if you know a lot of home-invasion horror you think you know how that’s going to play out, but neither the nature/pressure of the choice or the choice itself quite works out the way we think. And there are other characters who feel they have no choice, that they are compelled to do what they do. That strikes me as ultimately being about how responsible we are for our actions and how much we can blame others for them. That’s not really a question, I guess.

You are correct, Brian. That is not a question.

Choice is part and parcel of our daily, ambiguous existence, isn’t it? (That’s more of a rhetorical question, just to be clear.) It’s the sublime horror of choice. We never know for sure what the outcome will be, never mind whether or not we made the correct decision (if such a thing exists). More terrifying or anxiety inducing, what sort of ripple effect or unforeseen consequence does a choice have on our future selves or the lives of others. I approach most horror stories with the horror of choice in mind. I’m fascinated not necessarily by the horrific event or the transgression itself, but what decisions and choices will then be made by the characters.

The feeling of having no choice or no say is a fear of mine, partly because the idea of loosening oneself from the burden and responsibility of choice and consequence is so intoxicating. I mean, at first blush that sounds almost blissful. But responsibility is the compact, and it’s the measurement of a person’s humanity.

The idea of religion and cult is something I haven’t seen all that often in your work (it does appear in The Harlequin and the Train, though in very odd form admittedly it’s odd here too). Was it difficult to get into the minds of those involved? And was it difficult to balance their sometimes very different personalities against their feeling almost compelled to perform certain actions?

Without my attributing malice here, I think it’s fair to say religion blurs (but doesn’t necessarily obliterate) the line of choice in service to their god/greater good. The cult completely erases the line and severs the compact I referred to earlier. What the best horror stories (and that includes so many of your stories/novels, Brian) about religion and/or cults do is probe for the location of the line between worship, group think, and the individual. How does a person arrive on one side or the other of that line? What decisions are they capable of as a group that none of them would be willing to make individually?

I didn’t want all four invaders to be faceless cartoons. I thought their experience — one of the characters in particular — was a horror as well and worth exploring. I certainly do not want the readers to sympathize with any of the invaders, but empathy is okay; the want to understand why they were doing what they were doing.

A technical aside: I put in a little extra work in trying to make sure that the four strangers (half of whom do not get any POV time in the novel) were distinct people with their own voices. Post-draft I underlined the dialogue of all six of the adult characters in different colors so I could more easily do a read-through as one character.

Can you talk a little more about the POV? What sort of challenges did you have working with so many different perspectives?

Prior to Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, all of my novels were first-person POV with a single narrator. I hadn’t realized that until I sat down to write the book. I was surprised by how initially daunting it was to stick to third (okay, fine, I did cheat somewhat and had some first-person diary entries in the novel) and to shift into the heads of so many other POV characters, but the story of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock necessitated that kind of narrative approach, my comfort level be damned.

Cabin’s story required a mainly third-person/shifting POV approach as well. I did feel a bit more at ease this time around having survived the writing of the previous novel.

I spent some time pre-planning the POV shifts between the main protagonists Wen, Andrew, and Eric. It was a balance between wanting to give those characters close to an equal amount of page time or say in the proceedings, while making sure there was a reason the POV was with them for a particular section.

There is a section that’s a sneaky third-person plural, which was kind of fun to mess around with, as well as a slightly different kind of POV/narration in the final chapter.

I mentioned pre-planning out the POV switches and swaps, but sometimes it comes down to instinct and sometimes the only way to know if one or the other is the right choice is to try something out and then decide if it’s the right fit. In the initial draft of Cabin, I wrote one small section in second person, thinking I’d use it as a way to implicate the reader in the goings on, but I changed it to third person partly because I was worried that readers might mistakenly interpret the second person as my wanting them to sympathize with one of the invaders.

There’s something that happens at the end of the second section of the book that is quite shocking and that repositioned where I thought the book might be going. Without giving too much away, was that something that you’d planned from the beginning, or something that developed as you were writing? That moment also suggests that chance randomness is as important as choice or lack thereof, that we as humans are caught between the choices we make (or fail to make) and things that happen to us by chance.

That part was there very early on in the process. By necessity, I wrote a 10-ish page summary or plot outline. It was necessary because my two-book deal with William Morrow had been fulfilled by A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and my editor needed 50 pages and an outline before they could make any sort of offer to get me back on deal. Suffice to say, I wanted to be back on deal.

The part to which you are referring is one of a handful moments in Cabin when chance/coincidence could be interpreted or confused by the characters and the reader as potential, malignant purposefulness. All of which is in service to building both sides of the ambiguous argument (of whether or not something supernatural is happening).

Chance, choice, and consequence are fundamental parts of existence, and perfect fodder for a horror story, or any story for that matter that asks: How do you live through this? How does anyone live through this?

The ending, too, I’m curious if that’s something you knew you were heading toward from the beginning or if it was something that asserted itself later.

When I handed in the first 50 pages and the summary to my editor in late summer of 2016, I didn’t tell my editor what the ending would be. I wrote something cheeky like, “Is ___ going to happen, or ____? I don’t know, I have to write it to find out.” But I did have an ending in mind.

I don’t want to say one way or the other as to how, but the ending changed shortly after the presidential election in November.

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Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, most recently A Collapse of Horses and The Warren.

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