Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale
Golden Gryphon Press, 2000
Joe R. Lansdale is one of the greats. There aren’t many folks who have ten Stokers, and his haul includes a lifetime achievement award. ‘Nuf said.
What makes Lansdale’s work special to me, though, is that he loves to write short stories. Oh, he writes novels, too, of course. Lots of them, and damn good ones. But as he makes clear in his foreword to this 2000 collection, the short story form is a favorite of his. And when I read a collection like High Cotton, I can really feel the love. No matter how dark and disturbing the material gets (and it gets plenty dark), the dominant vibe for me is that here’s a guy doing what he loves to do. The result is a book that ought to be on everyone’s reading list, even twenty years after its initial appearance.
The range of material here is impressive, and it presents a strong selection of the kind of work that made Lansdale famous. For horror fans, the stories that will probably jump out first are tense, violent, haunting ones—stories like “The Steel Valentine” and “Incident on and off a Mountain Road” and the unforgettable “Night They Missed the Horror Show.” This is Lansdale at his unnerving best. Each story presents believable characters who find themselves in the middle of class-A clusterfucks after their lives take some frightfully quick turns. The road out, if there is one, usually leads through some serious brutality and bloodshed. Lansdale goes full-throttle on these, and the results are memorably gut-wrenching and horrific.
Beyond that, the collection contains a wonderful variety of work. There’s the strangely sweet and evocative encounter with death that goes by the title of “Not from Detroit.” And there’s the fascinating alternative history “Trains not Taken,” which packs a lot of world-building into a tight space. Then there are deliciously weird, funny yarns like “Mr. Weed Eater” and “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” that don’t fit into any particular category but are unmistakably Lansdale.
It’s been a long time since I last read High Cotton. Turning it over again this time, a couple of the other stories really jumped out at me in different ways. I remembered the disturbing, hungry flower creatures in “Tight Little Stitches on a Dead Man’s Back,” but the paralyzing sense of guilt and pain the permeates the story really struck home this time (probably because I’ve raised a child of my own since the last time I read it). And “Steppin’ Out, Summer, ‘68” was simply a hell of a lot funnier than I remembered. I’m sometimes standoffish about mixing horror and comedy, but Lansdale just reminded me that if you do it right it works well. That’s the fun thing about taking time to re-read an old favorite: when the stories are this good, they show you something new each time around.
Mass Market Paperback
And so it's back to my teetering stack of vintage 70s horror on the corner of the shelf!
I’ve been happy with most of my 70s reading pile, but my luck has run out. 22 Hallowfield is a terrible novel. I would put a spoiler alert here, but this sucker telegraphs its “surprise” twist so obviously that it really comes pre-spoiled.
There’s no doubt about it. Doris Shannon does a number of dumb things here that writers shouldn’t do, and they add up a shabby mess. Let’s take a look at the felony charges against Shannon:
Count #1: Treating her readers like dumbasses. To be Shannon’s ideal reader, you are not supposed to realize that someone named Lucifa might have connections to Satanism. Moreover, you’re supposed to be so thick-witted that you don’t realize that the name Natas is Satan (EEEK!!!) spelled backward. And you are not supposed to able to guess that the Beele family name that was shortened because it was “unacceptable” just might have originally been Beelzebub. In other words, you’re supposed to be so dim that you don’t realize that little Nancy Beele is not as defenseless as the leering cultists gathered around her think she is. That way, the ending will surprise you.
Count #2: Hoeing someone else’s row. I never trust a book that proclaims on the front cover “In the tradition of [fill in the blank].” Often, this suggests a book where the author is attempting to cash in the popularity of someone else’s work. Generally, the results of such projects run the gamut from profoundly unoriginal to seriously awful. Remember all those multi-volume young adult fantasies about special kids that engulfed the world in the wake of the triumph of Harry Potter? No? Well, don’t feel bad—most of them were pretty forgettable. In this case, poor Ira Levin and the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby are apparently to blame. So we get the young woman moving into a new apartment, the strange neighbors, a growing sense of unease, cultists, etc. Virtually nothing that happens in the book is original or surprising. If you’re a writer, learn from Shannon’s example here and invest your time in your own ideas, not playing around with someone else’s. Cthulhu is cool and all, but H.P. already did that, and he doesn’t really need help.
Count #3: Forgetting the pay off. In the end, 22 Hallowfield seriously under-delivers. Even if we pretend the big twist worked and readers are surprised by the arrival of Mums and Daddums to help little Nancy out of her jam . . . then . . . um, how shall I put this? Nothing fucking happens. Daddy (you know, Natas! EEEK!!!) gives those silly wanna-be Satanists a heavy-duty tongue lashing and locks them into the building so they will have to do one another in to survive. And we don’t get to watch the contest. The end.
No, really. I’m done.
Greg F. Gifune
Macabre Ink, 2020.
Greg F. Gifune has written some mean shit here.
For horror fans familiar with his work, that’s not a surprise. If you aren’t familiar with his work, you should be.
God Machine, Gifune’s latest, is out from Macabre Ink. It’s a grim journey through a disturbing world full of darkness and uncertainty. The novel tells the story of Chris Tallo, a former cop turned hotel security guard who becomes obsessed with the suicide of one of the hotel’s guests. Is it the unusual brutality of the young woman’s death that draws him? Or is it that she reminds him of his own daughter, killed five years earlier while serving in Iraq? Or is there some other, more elusive force tying Chris to the girl’s death?
The book does not provide easy answers to these questions, nor does Gifune shrink from examining the heavy toll that grief, loss, pain, and violence take on Tallo’s life. From what I’ve been able to determine over the years, Gifune doesn’t shrink from much of anything. He looks evil in the face, then pulls it close so he can smell its breath. It isn’t pretty, but it makes for a dynamite read, both chilling and thought-provoking.
From the beginning, it’s clear Tallo’s life has been in a downward spiral since his daughter’s death. His career is on the skids, therapy hasn't helped, and his relationship with his wife isn't, understandably, the same. At times, the only thing that seems offer any comfort--other than the bottle--is the unconditional love of the family dog. He discovers the dead woman had been involved with a cult determined to recreate a nineteenth-century ritual to designed bring God--or some other, darker, entity--to earth. Unfortunately, her death did not put an end to their plans.
A lot of the book’s horror comes from Gifune’s knack for tying the known and unknown together in knots. Alone in his home, Tallo knows something is there in the dark watching him but does not know what it is or why it has come. At times, the book feels like a surreal nightmare where levels of (un)reality intertwine and time frames shift unexpectedly. Tallo is an alcoholic who climbs further into the bottle the worse things get; he is, obviously, an unreliable narrator. But it’s more than that: reality itself becomes a contested concept. Drunken dream states are spiked with what may be memories, or hallucinations, or visions. Tallo cannot—and Gifune, thankfully, does not—try to sum up what’s what. In these extreme circumstances, life is mysterious and inexplicable. It’s notable that, in the end, the effort to explain events and shape them into an easily-digested narrative is made by government agents bent on concealing the truth. Beware of easy answers.
That preceding description may make the novel sound like a meandering acid trip. It’s not. Tallo’s subjective experience creates dissonance and layers of uncertainty, but Gifune’s plot keeps rolling full force. I think it’s his ability to dive deep into the unknowable while keeping one foot firmly rooted in his crime-writing experience that makes Gifune such a powerful horror writer: you get the nightmares, but you also get tight plotting and solid action. God Machine certainly does not disappoint in this regard. It all comes to a bang-up climax, complete with a hand-to-hand combat sequence that might make John Skipp himself a bit jealous.
How does it all end? Read it and find out.
The Wonders of Nature and of Providence, Displayed. Compiled from Authentic Sources, Both Ancient and Modern, giving an Account of Various and Strange Phenomena Existing in Nature, of Travels, Adventures, Singular Providences, & c.
Hardbound in full leather.
Here’s something weird you don’t see every day.
I bought this book a couple of years ago as part of one of those wonderful online auctions where someone takes three of four pictures of five or six boxes of books and everyone pretends that they know what they’re bidding on. As is usually the case, the auction turned out to be a mixed bag. There were some fairly valuable books (like a couple of limited edition Arkham House titles) and some that got thrown in the recycling bin (like an old copy of The Blithedale Romance that had been gnawed on—and I mean a lot--by something with teeth bigger than mine).
Then there was this book . . .
Unfortunately, the first few pages are missing, including the title page, which means I don’t have a publication year. It is, however, clearly an early copy of Josiah Priest’s weird classic, The Wonders of Nature and of Providence. The first edition of The Wonders of Nature and Providence came out in 1826 (you can see a digitized copy of it here, courtesy of Google books). I’m guessing, because my copy lacks the plates that were typically in the first edition but is otherwise the same, that this copy is from the second edition of 1833.
Nowadays, the book is primarily remembered as a possible source for The Book of Mormon, specifically portions of the book that speculate on the “Hebrew” origins of Native Americans.
But that’s not what drew me to the book. My interest began with the idea that Priest writes some wild and wacky stuff about “natural” things that we know never really existed. He’s the literary descendent of those fifteenth and sixteenth century travel writers who filled the unknown corners of the world with many strange creatures and inexplicable miracles. This, I thought, will show me some good old-fashioned cryptozoology in its raw form. I figured it for an entertaining read.
Boy was I wrong.
It’s not just that Priest is incredibly long winded, although he is that. Nor is it his nearly unbearable, smug piety, although that certainly does not help. No, what I learned is that Priest is an annoying example of a particularly disconcerting American breed: the self-appointed “expert” really knows very little. He goes on and on citing all sorts of sources for all sorts of “wonders” and much of it is moonshine and hogwash. This may sound amusing and harmless enough, but it isn’t. Among other things, the prolific (and distressingly popular) Mr. Priest wrote Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro (1843), a racist polemic that perverts biblical scholarship to build an argument that God specifically created black people in order to be slaves. His ignorance is neither amusing nor harmless.
Today we live in a world today where many self-appointed experts are more than happy to dispute scientific research about topics as diverse as global climate change and virology. Such people are, like Josiah Priest, often proud of their own ignorance. This is, as Isaac Asimov once pointed out, a unfortunate trend in American culture:
"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
Priest is, alas, just an early part of this long, winding thread.
The Invisible Man
File this one under stop acting so impressed.
And, yeah, there are spoilers ahead . . .
Leigh Whannell’s film The Invisible Man presents an update of the old H.G. Wells novel. The story itself bears little resemblance to Wells’s original story, but that’s hardly surprising. The keynote of the rework is to recast the story as tale of a woman, Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss), who begins to suspect that her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has faked his death in order torment and regain control of her. I suspect
Wells—a progressive socialist who embraced the idea of equal rights for women—would approve of the feminist slant here.
The gender politics are not the only things to like. Whannell clearly knows his way around a camera, and the result is a good-looking, visually-interesting movie. Moss’s performance is strong, at times even compelling, as she struggles first with trying to adjust to her new-found freedom, then with the uncertainty about her own sanity, and, lastly, with the frustration of not being believed. In this last phase, the movie’s social commentary is particularly trenchant: Adrian’s invisibility makes him a potent symbol of “average guy” abusers everywhere, who get away with their crimes because people simply refuse to see the toxic creep for what he is.
The Invisible Man is, however, far from a good movie, and the reason is simply that Whannell is not as good a screenwriter as he is a director. Oh, the script has its strengths: I like how the beginning drops the viewer right into the midst of the story with Cecelia’s escape without bogging us down in needless explanation, but mostly it presents static two-dimensional characters (Cecelia is the exception) clearly earmarked as good guys or bad guys from the start and who behave in utterly predictable ways. Far worse, the script has plot holes large enough to drive a semi through.
Consider, for instance, the jaw-dropping ineptitude of the finale. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Adrian, who we’ve been told is a master manipulator who understands Cecelia inside and out, is unobservant and thick-witted enough to let her go wondering through his house with no concerns about what she’s up to. And there’s no doubt she had to be gone quite a while here—long enough to locate the invisibility suit that just happens to still be sitting around there somewhere, put it on, and figure out how the damn thing works, too. It never seems to occur to Whannell that an Adrian clever enough to hatch the plot with which he tormented Cecelia is not likely to be dumb enough—even given his massive ego—to wait there for her to sneak back in and cut his throat. That’s not even the biggest problem here, however. It’s the cameras. You know . . . all those damn cameras we saw Cecelia shut off during in the opening scene? In the end, she is clearly counting on the dining room surveillance footage to help sell officials on the idea that Adrian committed suicide. Apparently, she has forgotten (and Whannell is hoping that the viewers will also forget) that there are cameras in all the other rooms, too—cameras that will clearly show her suiting up to kill Adrian—or, at the very least, will show her shutting all cameras down prior to his “suicide.” Either way, she’s going to have a fuck of a lot of explaining to do when the cops pick her up.
Let’s be honest: in the real world, the issue of vigilante justice can be fraught with peril. Most of the time I read about someone taking the law into their own hands it turns out to be some self-appointed watchdog blowing away a “suspicious” black man. So it’s nice that, at least in the fictional and cinematic worlds, we sometimes get the pleasure of seeing a deserving villain get what he had coming. Adrian is a liar, a sadistic bully, and a murderer who deserves what happens to him. That said, Whannell should have taken time and care to deliver the coup de grâce more convincingly. Shoddy plotting is neither frightening nor satisfying.
The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
**** Spoilers Ahead ****
It’s terrifying to watch the things you have worked for being torn apart, to see your life and the lives of those you love being demolished by forces you cannot control. The horror of your impotence is further amplified if you realize, at the same time, that you helped set those destructive forces in motion.
That’s the situation Lewis faces in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. One day he is living a seemingly normal, unremarkable life—happy enough, it seems, with a wife and a motorcycle and a job at the post office. Then his past metastasizes, grows claws and teeth—or at least a set of sturdy hooves to kick the shit out of him. For Lewis, it starts as a momentary glimpse into another reality from the top of a step ladder, a bewildering glimpse of a past he thought he left behind when he left the reservation. It quickly turns into an unnerving descent into fear, uncertainty—who are the agents of the past, how will the growing danger he senses manifest itself?—and violence. What Jones unveils is the dreadful power of the past, how horror can grow out of a single moment and come shrieking at you across the years to devour, without winnowing, everything in its path.
The terror of this is magnified by the fact that it is not simply Lewis who is destroyed. Rage and blood lust yield plenty of collateral damage. And after Lewis dies midway through the book, the carnage only intensifies. This is not, of course, wholly unexpected: Jones has already cast the book as the story of four friends and has shared Ricky’s bloody end before turning his attention to Lewis. But, read from a particular perspective, Lewis’s demise seems premature. In the European tradition, the novel’s roots are associated with the rise of individualism: the long-fiction form evolved as the examination of the life and adventures of a single figure (think Don Quixote and Gulliver) and the intricacies of the individual consciousness (think Tristam Shandy and, ultimately, Leopold Bloom). Here, as the latter part of the book unfolds, Jones forces us to see that the stories of Cass and Gabe are not secondary to Lewis's. While Lewis fired the specific bullet that set the wheels of vengeance in motion, all four of them fired that fateful day. Wrongdoing, guilt, and retribution are all shared.
This idea is not entirely unprecedented in horror fiction, of course. The idea that collective sin earns collective wages is not new. Still, Jones’s strong foregrounding of Lewis in the earlier sections of the book had the effect, for me, of emphasizing how his story differs from the traditional notion of the novel as one man’s story. It shifted my focus as a reader onto the ways that events are greater than one person and how our actions can have brutal, terrifying long-term consequences beyond our individual lives.
This isn’t to say that Jones presents a world of unmitigated doom. In the end, he graces us with Denorah, whose persistence and courage yield insight and, finally, mercy. Her No! is born despite fear and blood, in the face of danger and vengeance, and it opens the door to new possibilities. In the end, Jones’s narration pulls back to give us a wide-angle shot that casts this final scene against the backdrop of the universe itself and ties past, present, and future into a single knot of hope. It’s an upbeat, unexpected end to a dark, disturbing book—but one that is convincing and well-executed.
The Vampire of Mons
Mass Market Paperback, Avon Books, 1977
*** As always, spoilers ahead ***
The Vampire of Mons is ill-served by its title and packaging, which appear to have been designed to capitalize on the “gothic suspense” boom of the late sixties and early seventies. The bloody skies and the grim visage of the Barnabas-Collinsesque “villain” on the cover are well done but are certain to frustrate many horror fans who read only to discover a vampire-free tale about the dissolution of a British boy’s school at the outset of World War II. It’s difficult to blame misled readers for being disappointed. The real shame here, though, is that disappointment will cause some readers to overlook the fact that The Vampire of Mons, while most assuredly not a story about a blood-thirsty monster, is an effectively chilling book about the power of fear.
There’s no doubt from the very beginning that Clive Swinburne, the book’s narrator-turned-killer, is afraid. Having been expelled from one school, he now faces the daunting challenge of fitting in, mid-year, at a new one. He is convinced that his failure to cultivate proper friendships at his previous school was largely to blame for his expulsion and is determined not to make the same mistake at his new school, Malthus. It seems quite natural he should be drawn most to the two other boys—Darwin and Struges—who also arrive in Malthus mid-year and are assigned, like him, to live in Mons house. What does not seem as natural is the way Swinburne becomes focused on the figure of music teacher Heinrich Vitaly. It’s true that Vitaly sets in motion events that drive a wedge between Swinburne and his two classmates, but in reality the fateful decisions are made by Swinburne, not Vitaly. This hardly seems to matter, however, as Swinburne becomes fixated on the idea that Vitaly is a dark, malignant force that needs to be stopped.
The fact is that Vitaly is different—a free-thinking stranger from the continent with and even stranger, “exotic” wife. He is the “other” upon whom Swinburne, in his fear and frustration, projects his darkest fears and uncertainties. Indeed, Vitaly is dangerous: he encourages kids like Darwin and Sturges to think for themselves, and self-directed thought always has the potential to disrupt the social order. As the text illustrates, it can seem especially perilous on the eve of war, when the pressures of nationalism and conformity are greatest. As dangerous other, Vitaly must perish. The real horror of the book has, of course, nothing to do with the dangers of marauding vampires or illicit pedophiles. The terror lies in the ease with which a schoolboy’s fears can turn deadly and in the fate of Vitaly, who fled to England to escape fascism only to die at the hands of a callous, dangerously-conformist proto-fascist in Swinburne.
Catching Hell (2010)
Greg F. Gifune
*** As always: here there be spoilers. ***
Toward the end of Greg F. Gifune’s excellent novella Catching Hell (2010), Alex and Stefan think, momentarily, that they have escaped the damned who have been hunting them through the night. They look to the sky, knowing that if they make it to sunrise then they are free. What happens next is worth quoting at length:
The treetops were just visible against the sparse beginnings of daylight.
“They’re above us,” [Alex] heard herself say.
They’re human, but the deeper into the ritual they go . . .
The forest exploded into deafening cracks as tree branches split and snapped in one sudden wave, sounding as if the woods themselves were collapsing, coming down around them.
. . . the more powerful they get . . . the less human they become . . .
And from the trees came blurs—dark forms in period clothing—dropping from the sky, smashing tree limbs as they went, groans and growls mixed the thudding impact as they hit the ground, falling all about them.
With a horrific scream, Alex was gone, snatched away and dragged back through the woods.
As the others crept closer, Stefan bowed his head and began to weep.
I find this passage eerie and disturbing, and I think it helps illustrate Gifune’s way of writing about the uncanny. Fundamental to the passage’s power is that he does not attempt to wall his readers up in words. Language is by its nature suggestive and incomplete (no matter how much we might sometimes wish it to be otherwise). This remains true no matter how much of it we use. Rather than piling up words and details to try to show us the full horror of the damned, Gifune is sparing with language here. He chooses to work with its suggestive and incomplete nature rather than battle against it. We see nothing more specific here than “blurs—dark forms,” and our own imaginations are free to fill in the verbal blanks. It’s the kind of stuff that leaves me staring into the shadows behind the words trying to make out what’s there and has me peeking around the corners of sentences. Or maybe I should say straining my ears for low whispers, since most of the details Gifune presents here are aural rather than visual--which helps capture the disorienting and awful experience of an unexpected attack from above in the faint pre-dawn light. The description of the events is punctuated with fragments of earlier conversation (italicized in the original) that function like a cinematic voice-over, guiding us through without straight-jacketing our imaginations.
Having read a good bit of Gifune’s work over the years, I’d say that all this is a matter of conscious craft on his part. He’s a careful, deliberate writer. There is, furthermore, a rough logic to all this: because language shapes and is shaped by our experience of the world, it stands to reason that one of the qualities of the otherworldly is that language struggles—and, perhaps necessarily, fails—to capture it. One of the key attributes of the supernatural is that it is that of which we do not know how to speak. In this passage (among many others), Gifune finds ways to sketch the murky fears that stand beyond. He has long been, and remains, one of the most effectively suggestive writers in dark fiction on the contemporary scene.
I was just about to make some sweeping generalization about how this suggestive use of language is essential to evoking fear on the page, but I was stopped short of such grand abstractions by the ghost of Jack Ketchum chuckling in my ear. Sometimes he comes in the night and whispers the most horrible things to me. A little Off Season goes a long way to reminding readers that the explicit and detailed ravaging of flesh can be pretty damned frightening. The best authors, Gifune among them, understand the terrifying power of blood just as they understand the power of suggestion, and they use both to construct their nightmares.
The Victorian Chaise Longue
1973. Trippy-covered mass-market paperback reprint. Originally published in 1953.
This is another one of those paperbacks from my great-aunt Cat’s closet.
*** As always, here there be spoilers ***
I’ve always found something fundamentally frightening about the idea of being changed into something other than yourself. The “Other,” we’re told, is alien and threatening. To become someone or something other than yourself is especially horrifying, an invasion at the most intimate kind: think about Gregor Samsa becoming a giant bug or the ordeal or poor little Regan MacNeil. Think about body snatchers or the horrible things the Count does to poor Renfield. The disruption and displacement of the self is a terrifying thing to contemplate.
In The Victorian Chaise Longue, Margharita Laski takes this idea and works it into a cold and disturbing novella. If consciousness is understood as a dialogue between situation and subject, Laski successfully constructs for readers the bewildered experience of a woman who has had an unexplained change in situation that brings into question the very nature of her own subjectivity.
Her protagonist, Melanie, awakens from a nap not only in someone else’s room, but in someone else’s body. Laski has an almost Jamesian focus on the workings of the individual consciousness as Melanie attempts to understand what has happened to her and, more to the point, how to undo it. Laski most effectively conveys Melanie’s divided subjectivity when the character speaks about facts or ideas that clearly come from her Victorian-era “host” Milly, and have not become conscious to Melanie before she speaks. Milly’s uncanny utterances show that there is more here than a simple transplanting of Melanie’s mind into Milly’s body—there is an uneasy and inexplicable union.
The story is claustrophobic and unnerving. At first, it seems that the only thread that binds Melanie to Milly is the chair on which they both recline. As Melanie’s experience as Milly unfurls, however, we begin to see more points of contact: both women suffer from tuberculosis and both of them have recently given birth to children. The tension mounts. At first, the greatest danger facing Melanie seems to be the uncanny gap separating her from her own life, or perhaps Milly’s precarious health. As the story proceeds, however, it becomes clear that there is an even greater hazard: while Melanie is happily married to the father of her child, Milly is an unmarried invalid who has not revealed the identity of her lover. This is, of course, a serious breach of Victorian sexual mores, and Melanie’s failure to understand Milly’s precarious situation ultimately has fatal consequences.
The horror here is just as politically charged as in Levin’s Stepford Wives. In both stories, the female protagonist meets her doom because she runs afoul of patriarchy’s prescribed notion of proper womanly behavior. Curiously, in both instances the fatal blow is struck by a woman (Joanna Eberhart is presumably knifed—off screen, as it were—by Bobbie; Milly is beaten to death by her enraged sister, Adelade). It’s obvious, however, that neither of these killers are the true authors of these fates. Bobbie is an automaton controlled by those insidious Stepford husbands, and Adelade’s rage is engendered by a Victorian social order that she is complicit in but did not create. Read alongside The Stepford Wives, Laski’s book reinforces the sense that for women, horror is often a function of home and family. And like Rosemary’s Baby, it reminds us how much female sexuality and reproduction are subject to manipulation, violence, and body-terror.
Paul G. Tremblay
Harper Collins, 2020
*** As always, here there be spoilers ***
Survivor Song is a novel about a viral outbreak that had the fate to be published during this, our pandemic summer. It should go without saying that the novel is not about the COVID-19 virus. It’s not even about a pandemic, dealing as it does with a localized and contained outbreak. While the story certainly presents some interesting similarities to current events, they are largely coincidental and tangential.
Compared to some of the works I’ve been reading lately, Survivor Song could be pigeon-holed as conservative, insofar as the family and the home are presented as the locus of safety and security. (Queue that “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Stepford anymore” sound bite.) Such a response would, however, be too simplistic. It sidesteps the point by ignoring the book’s real focus: when the crap hits the fan and the fragility of that allegedly-stable center of your life is shattered, what will you do? The novel launches precisely from that moment of destabilization: the destruction of domestic tranquility created by the bloody (and brilliantly crafted) home-invasion of the infected that sets Natalie on her way across town.
Homes disintegrate all the time, of course, usually from more prosaic causes—poverty, ignorance, layoffs, neglect, infidelity, boredom, et . al. Tremblay’s novel resonates not only because a killer virus seems especially timely, but because shattered homes are an unmistakable feature of our contemporary American landscape. Asking yourself what the fuck you’re going to do next is woven into the fabric of a lot of twenty-first century lives.
What you can do--power--depends on circumstance. As time tightens like a noose, Natalie’s options narrow due to the strained resources of the healthcare system. The narrative presents a kaleidoscope of responses to the characters’ growing sense of powerlessness. We get doctors—Ramola included—trying to plot a humane, sane course through a landscape of desperately-ill people, bad options, and shifting directives. We get an incompetent squad of self-appointed guardians out to eliminate “vectors” and raining havoc as they go. And we get Josh and Luis, roaring through their zombie-movie-fantasy landscape and finding, almost despite themselves, an opportunity for real heroism.
Through all these intersecting lives, the novel lays bare the terrifying fact that violence and terror are often just a step or two off the beaten path, embarrassingly close to the cozy world we've tried to construct for ourselves. I suppose that’s hardly news, but it seems to bear repeating these days. And it's welcome when the telling is as compelling as this. Overall, Survivor Song acts as a fierce cautionary tale for thinkers of the when the cities burn down we’ll be warm school of social criticism.
Survivor Song is a grim mix, but not unremittingly so. Luis, for instance, finds a final grace by exercising what power he has left to die on his own terms. The real victory, however, belongs to Ramola. As most readers will discern early on, Nats is screwed from the outset, and the real game is to see if Rams can manage, somehow, to deliver her dying friend’s child in the midst of the maelstrom. That she pulls it off is impressive, though not a tremendous surprise. What is more surprising is the ending, where Tremblay reminds us of the importance of storytelling to maintaining our humanity. There is a restoration of domestic tranquility here. It’s telling, however, that the family we are introduced to in the end is neither a traditional nuclear family nor one planted in an American landscape. It’s as though Tremblay has had to look elsewhere for a renewed sense of stability in the aftermath of so much pain.