In his recent string of hit horror novels (A Head Full of Ghosts; Disappearance at Devil’s Rock), Paul Tremblay has made a name for himself as someone who can cleverly rework well-worn genre conventions. The author’s latest effort, The Cabin at the End of the World, operates in a similar manner, adopting and adapting the elements of the home-invasion narrative. At the start of the novel, a quartet of intruders wielding homemade, quasi-medieval weapons force their way inside the New Hampshire vacation cabin of a gay couple (Andrew and Eric) and their seven-year-old adopted daughter (the Chinese orphan Wen). These aren’t your typical invaders, though; the mysterious foursome aren’t mute sadists, mere thrill-killing Strangers in masks (actually, the masks aren’t donned until after the break-in, and for a most unexpected reason). Rather than forming stock villains, the intruders act from allegedly heroic impulses: these ultimate humanitarians have specifically sought out Andrew, Eric, and Wen to help stave off an impending global apocalypse.
Tremblay has also established himself as a master of ambiguous horror, and Cabin proves a darkly shining example of unsettling uncertainty. Are the intruders the acting hand of a higher power or just touched in the head? The divine-inspiration-vs.-devastating-delusion debate rages throughout, fueling the book’s narrative drive. Tremblay deftly blurs the line between causation and coincidence, and further heightens the ambiguity by playing with viewpoint (e.g. the reliability of one character’s observations is called into question after he suffers a serious concussion).
Written in the present tense, Cabin is marked by an incredible sense of immediacy and urgency (Tremblay brings readers up-close-and-personal with his protagonists, to the point of practically sharing the disorientation of head trauma or the pain of a knee-wrecking bludgeoning). The novel’s unity of setting (much of the action unfolds in a single room, a la Wait Until Dark) gives it the feel of a stage play. Like a work of drama, the novel is heavy on dialogue; this is only realistic, though, since the terrible decision that the intruders ask the protagonists to make necessitates considerable convincing. The verbal back-and-forth never grows tedious, thanks in large measure to Tremblay’s ability to build believable characters.
I don’t think it’s much of a plot spoiler to write that Cabin‘s plot doesn’t resolve with an overt revelation or deliver definitive answers. End matters here can be interpreted in multiple ways, which only renders the situation more disconcerting. This also enables Tremblay to avoid a somewhat trite twist, a climactic redux of the similarly-themed film Take Shelter. My one real complaint with Cabin‘s conclusion is that its resort to third-person-plural viewpoint in its final section is a bit jarring, creating a syntax that can distract the reader from the situation presented.
In any event, Cabin is best appreciated not for its plot but for its prose: Tremblay crafts exquisite sentences,evincing both a clarity of vision and profundity of thought (e.g. “Bullets, those shiny brass threats, are seeds spilled and spread over the black-as-spotting soil trunk interior. Andrew ghosts over the evidence of his earlier struggle with Sabrina and those leavings now read like tea leaves, a forecasting of the events in the cabin that followed.”). As the author of the World’s Longest Dissertation on Cyberpunk, I can’t help but love a book that includes a line like “The gray sky is a smear, a Neuromancer sky, dead and anachronistic.”
Tremblay no doubt aims big in this novel, which deals with the fate of the world and humanity’s relation to the deity (not necessarily Judeo-Christian). While not quite the pulse-pounding instant classic of psychological/supernatural horror it has been hailed as (I would classify the book as more disturbing than outright terrifying), the novel is nothing less than impressive. A binge-read that resonates, The Cabin at the End of the World is the perfect place to start for those who have yet to encounter this abundantly gifted writer.