Book Review: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
The last verse of the classic Leonard Cohen masterpiece Hallelujah he reminds us that “love is not a victory march but its a cold and its a broken hallelujah”. The Cabin at the End of the World is the literary equivalent of the last refrain of this song. It is cold and it is broken but it is one of the best things I have read in very long time. It asked questions I was not prepared to answer. It offered answers I was not prepared to hear. Usually books that offer complex themes and ideas are written in equally complicated prose. This is Tremblay’s greatest gift as a writer. We can engage with his material with such ease we hardly notice its asking so much of us as readers. It is a book for readers but also and arguably more important it is a book that makes readers.
I was first introduced to Paul Tremblay with his novel A Head Full of Ghosts. I immediately took to this book for many different reasons not the least of which was that I have always found movies with exorcisms to be creepy in that there is always an element of mental illness that seems to be an acceptable diagnosis that goes ignored. Its creepy because mom, dad, doctor, and priest all seem to fail at their jobs. Tremblay explores this subject in a refreshing if not conclusive manner. There is also an element of found footage to Ghosts that made it feel cinematic. Perhaps its this cinematic quality that prompted Focus Film to buy the rights to the book.
Just as Hallelujah starts with the line “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord That David played, and it pleased the Lord”,Cabin starts by introducing us to the most interesting and likable character this book has to offer. Wen is a soon to be eight year old girl whose precociousness never sullies her child like innocence. That is not to say that Wen is naive or immature for her age but quite the opposite. She is a fully realized character with a complete scope of self and a good sense of who she is and who she wants to be. The fact that she has two fathers and was adopted from a Chinese orphanage helps provide context for her but never seems singularly defining. Her parents, Daddy Eric and Daddy Andrew, never seem contrived but rather indicative of what a diverse family in the United States looks like (more on this in moment). Wen is undoubtedly the lifeblood and heart of this story. Even when Leonard and his not so merry band of misfits show up its pretty clear that its Wen whom everyone cares about. We can feel this tenderness even as Leonard announces chillingly “none of what’s going to happen is your fault, you haven’t done anything wrong…” Wen is a witness, an innocent, the future, and a pawn, all while still being an eight year old girl.
What plays out during the first part of the novel are a series of small micro theological debates which culminate in moments of terrible violence. Eric and Andrew will be asked over and over by this group of interlopers to sacrifice one of their family to save all over humanity. Tremblay gives us a very simple plot. Leonard, Sabrina, Adriane and Redmond have all had shared dreams where they travel to this spot at this time and perform a ritual of sorts which end either with a willing sacrifice from Wen’s family or with the absolute destruction of humanity. The crusaders job is to try and convince this loving family to perform this task willingly to protect all of humanity.
Just as A Head Full of Ghosts gives us just enough information to allow different readings of the novel he performs the same ballet in Cabin. We are given tantalizing bits of information which shift the kaleidoscope every chapter. Every chapter we shift our focus from one character to another. It serves to give us multiple view points but also to keep the reader off kilter. Just as we begin to develop our own opinions we are given a different chapter with a different character and thus a different viewpoint. Tremblay proves to be a master of ambiguity. Less talented writers either use ambiguity as crutch allowing the lack of detail or originality to explain away plot holes or lack of subtext. Worse yet some don’t trust the audience and explain everything shying, away from the unknown completely. Tremblay lives in the world of ambiguity. This shadow between competing sets of truth is where he can weave his literary magic. He wants the reader to engage with his material. His confident storytelling trusts us with both sets of realities. We get to choose the reading we want. Or even better we can choose neither and join him in that valley of ambiguity.
There are elements of this book that speak to the current climate in the United States as well. Wen’s family is progressive even if its only in appearance (we do not really get into the politics of the Andrew or Eric but it is safe to assume they are probably left of center). Leonard and his group are at least partially guided by an apocalyptic conception of Christianity, albeit one that looks more like Heaven’s Gate then your typically Sunday Mass. We stand at a crossroads in American culture. As we dig deeper into our own ideological trenches Tremblay uses these ideological certainties to provide doubt on both sides. I cannot help but think perhaps we are as hopeless as the characters in the cabin.
One word of warning, If you want a book that is strictly horror this is probably not your thing. Tremblay is working very hard to make this book bigger than that singular genre. Although I would contend it has all of the elements of your typical horror novel it just feels so much more urgent and real than some horror novels, it may be jarring to someone that is looking for the unfamiliar monsters in far away lands that sometimes make up genre fiction. I went into this book knowing very little but expecting an inventive take on the cabin in the woods trope. I was not disappointed. This is that novel but without a truth to moor the characters. Their actions are unique leaps of faith. Not unlike the leaps of faith readers take every time they open a new book. When those leaps of faiths are rewarded we get books like The Cabin at the End of the World. All I can say is Hallelujah.
Tyler’s Grade: A+ ( A violent experiment in faith of all kinds)
Cabin at the End of the World is now available for preorder. It will be released on June 26th. A fan of Tremblay should include this in their library for sure. It is a must have for anyone that appreciates ambiguity and horror.
Update: The critics all tend to agree with our assessment. Cabin at the End of the World is a terrifying journey through ambiguity. It is now out in all forms. We are certain someone will snatch up the movie rights if they haven’t already. Go get your copy now!!
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.