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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay (reviewed by Will Byrnes)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Cabin At The End Of The World

"We all know the big bad is coming, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it, yet still we go to our jobs and we chitchat about nothing important with coworkers and we go to dinner and we go to the mall and we go to our dentist appointments and we buy groceries and we make plans with friends and family and we walk and love our pets and we watch TV or read or sit in the glow of our smartphones, and all we’re doing is going through the motions because we can’t stop and think and accept that the pit of dread in our stomach is a pit of knowing. The big bad is coming."
Growing Things is my second exposure to Paul Tremblay’s writing. The first was his outstanding, award-winning 2018 novel, The Cabin at the End of the World. I have not read his earlier horror novels, A Head Full of Ghosts or Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The reason this matters is that there are a few stories in this collection that use characters from A Head Full of Ghosts. It would certainly enhance one’s appreciation of those to have read the novel. And there is one story among these nineteen that serves as a prequel to Disappearance. Impact officially lost on me.

If you do not mind such things, or have read the requisite novels, then no problem. There really should be few reasons not to thoroughly enjoy Tremblay’s dark tales. Some may be familiar to frequent readers of the genre. Turns out that seventeen of the nineteen have been previously published in anthologies or magazines. But now, together for the first time!...

The approach to the stories varies, from third-person omniscient to first-person narrator to addled first-person narrator. From a story told largely through photographs to a tale told through journal entries. From a choose-your-own-adventure offering to a tripartite querying of a circus seer laid out in a very unusual physical format. There is a story within a story, and one that qualifies as a novella. Sometimes Tremblay will get you close to a character, enough to care, while in other stories the characters are held at a distance, in favor of concept. Be prepared for ambiguity. He even makes fun of himself for this impulse in one of the stories. Monstrous things might be extreme manifestations of fraught emotional/behavioral states, and sometimes the horrors be real.

There are several things that turn up more than once. One is most certainly a fondness for Lovecraftian beasties. There will be tentacles! Teachers recur (Tremblay’s day job is cramming math into high school brains. Maybe using tentacles?) Students get a corresponding degree of attention. Childhood is indeed a powerful source of so much horror. And let’s not forget writers. They are kept busy scribbling away, or being referenced.

Growing Things  Marjorie (14) and Merry (8) are in a tough spot. Recently their father stopped eating, because of the shortage of food, giving his share to his daughters. The lack of food has made him squrirelly, a word their mother—who ran away more than four years ago—used liberally when describing their father. Maybe squirrels were faring better than people, as a mysterious plant has been taking over and destroying everything, everywhere. Marjorie entertains Merry with stories that give us the history of the Growing Thing, while pop is out trying to forage enough to keep them alive, leaving them with a warning, Don’t open the door for anyone! Don’t answer it! Knocking means the world is over! Managing to leave offHave a nice day.”

This story was written in 2010, the girls being brought back for Tremblay’s novel Head Full of Ghosts
I knew very early on in the process [of writing that 2013 novel] that I wanted it to be from the maybe-possessed younger sibling’s point of view. Merry and Marjorie both have literary antecedents (Merry is named after Shirley Jackson’s Merricat and Marjorie is named after Stewart O’Nan’s Marjorie from his brilliant novel The Speed Queen.), but I also found myself returning to two sisters I wrote about in…“Growing Things.” - from More2Read interview 
The notion for the story came from a friend reporting weeds in North Carolina growing ridiculously fast. Apocalyptic scenarios will pop up again in the collection

Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad as Swim Thinks – SWIM is sometimes taken over by an intense chick. Apparently her behavior when under that influence is not the best. Everyone in town hates her. Might, just maybe, have something to do with drug addiction, as she refers to a ball of meth she had swallowed. She has lost custody of her daughter, but aims to get her back, and does something desperate. Giant smokestacks are heading her way as she tries to figure a way out.

Something About Birds – This is a send-up of the horror writer community, as a fan who just interviewed a famous horror writer gets an invite from said writer in the form of a dead bird head, his ticket to a small gathering in three days. It gets seriously weirder from there. Do you really want to get to know that reclusive writer better? See his inspirations? His dark thoughts? Sure you don’t want to reconsider?

The Getaway – Worcester, MA does not get a lot of attention in fiction, but
that was sort of a story for hire at the time. There was an anthology, it was going to be called “Supernatural Noir.” So they wanted a supernatural element mixed with a crime story, and at the time I'd written a few crime novels, so that was kind of where I was approached. But I think with most of my New England stories, I like the idea that there is this history so you can use it and add to it — or more often than not, I like to tweak it a little bit, or maybe subvert some of the expectations of what a New England story would look like, or in the case of Worcester, a place that really isn't written about very often, and show that side of New England as well.” – From WGBH News interview 
A team of lowlife sorts pulls a robbery, but then begin to vanish one by one. Nice local color, a taste of Tremblay’s noir skills, and a hefty dose of comeuppance.

Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport – Sometimes we see events we cannot deal with, particularly if what we have seen is horrifying, and if we are at a tender age. And perhaps we are able to see only with the perspective of time. Nothing supernatural in this one, but the events certainly contain plenty of horror. It was inspired by the short story 23 Snapshots of San Francisco by Seth Lindberg.
I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history. - from the Slant interview 
Where We All Will Be – Years after being finally diagnosed and treated for a behavior issue as a kid, Zane is back at his parents house at a time when strangeness is in the world. Moths have emerged en masse, on an abnormally warm winter day. But more is going on as dad drags him to a place that he hopes will be safe.
…the story grew out of anxieties related to the early academic struggles of one of my children. That, and an abnormally warm day in the middle of one of our New England winters that resulted in thousands of moths hatching/waking (I’ll admit ignorance to the moth lifecycle here) and then surely dying a day or two later when the temperatures plummeted. – from More2Read interview 
The apocalyptic urge that Tremblay clearly feels is given another outing here. The story was another one written on request for a collection.

The Teacher Mr. Sorent is not the usual high school teacher sort, but is seen as a cool one, long hair, ear-ring, plays guitar. He shows his students increasingly disturbing videos. Counterpointed with Kate, a student, going through the terrors of that age. Again, not really a spectral tale, but one containing real-world horrors, nonetheless.
This story represents some of my anxieties as they relate to school (both as being a student and a teacher) and how any of us get through those adolescent years and into our scary futures. - from Notes in the book
Notes for “The Barn in the Wild” – Told through notes and journal entries of one Nick Brach on the trail of a missing young man. Fun for the methodology, reminds me a little, in feel if not direct correlation, of The Blair Witch Project. Features a very creepy house. There are elements in here of tribute to Laird Barron, a writer and friend of the author. (The Black Guide and Old Leech are taken from Laird’s work)

[“_____”] – Tremblay returns his setting to a beach that is familiar from family trips.
[This] story was actually written for a specific anthology that came out a few years ago. And the idea is that you were supposed to write a story in reaction to one of H.P. Lovecraft's essays on horror. There was a line in the essay where he said that the horror story really was all about atmosphere. It has to have a weird atmosphere from the beginning or it won't work. And being the contrarian that I can be, I was like, no, first, there's no one way for a horror story to work. So many of my favorite horror stories are grounded in realism. And then when the rug is pulled out from under you, to me, that's like woah. - from the GQ interview
A father is with his two children at the beach when a strange woman plants herself in the middle of their outing, flirts with him and acts as if she is the man’s wife and the kids’ mother. How long would you go along with such strangeness, just to keep from causing a possible scene? Fun payoff.

Our Town’s Monster – Tiller’s Swamp. Lovely town. A very objectified couple, Brent and Hannah, are looking at a house abutting the actual swamp. The realtor positively chirps about the humanoid monster that lives in the swamp. Takes the odd pet now and again, she says, but has not gone after people in rather a while. Reminded me of a Monty Python sketch, maybe with a dose of The League of Gentlemen. Dark native force vs modern humanity? Or a charming local eccentricity? With a moral? Taking on the notion of who writes history and what might be left out as inconvenient.

Perhaps if we were to tell the real monster story and fully confront all the tragedies…we might glimpse an awful and beautiful and most elusive wisdom: of how to love and live with each other and with the terrible knowledge of the unknowable, uncaring, and undiscriminating monster.

A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken – A sweet choose-your-own-adventure story in which a woman visits the house in which she had grown up, trying to cope with ancient regret over having not stayed in her sick mother’s room until she died.
I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. -from Slant interview 
It Won’t Go Away – An author has a dark idea, and it will not go away. Stalked by this idea, he has been taking photos of himself, posting some on line, and sending some to his friend the narrator, a fellow horror writer. There is something decidedly eldritch about the shots, with shadowy areas that cannot be resolved. Were they a sign of something bad to come? We get the story from the narrator, looking back to events leading up to the dramatic moment, then continuing on from there. Really dark, really creepy.
I have attended and participated in many readings hosted by my friends at Lovecraft Arts and Sciences (bookstore and curio/oddities shop in Providence’s Arcade Mall)…After reading Steven Millhauser’s “The Knife Thrower” I thought about writing a story where a mysterious writer comes to town for a reading and does something over-the-top weird…Icky and morbid…
Notes From the Dog Walkers – In this longest piece in the collection, a novella, a high school math teacher and horror writer (now, where have I seen that before?) engages the services of HappyDogServices to do some dog-walking for his 7-year-old pooch, Holly. Several walkers share the task, each providing reports whenever they walk her. The daily reports soon move way past one line “Peed” or Pooped” updates to extended essays on their careers and his. One of the walkers gets both weird and LOL funny in her reports

"I trained Holly to shiver and whine when she hears the phrase 'intellectual property'.”
"I trained her to huff air out of her snout whenever she feels ennui.”

The subject matter is very much about the world of writing and publishing, including Tremblay tweaking himself about his penchant for ambiguity, and wondering why he opted for horror writing. This is a wild ride, with much meta in its mutt DNA, a sort of pop-up video on the world of horror writing.

Further Questions for the Somnambulist – A woman, a man, and a child all seek answers from a circus seer. The Somnambulist of the title. The story consists of each if the three asking questions in a column of the pages, white space used to keep them in the planned, staggered alignment.

This odd little story could rightly be described as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fan fiction. If you haven’t seen the silent movie, you should do so. Everyone has a little German Expressionism in them somewhere. Also, I’m intrigued by the idea of writers using the presentation of text and blank page space to augment the story’s atmosphere or mood. - from Notes

Not my favorite of the group, but a nice closing. 

The Ice Tower – Out of nowhere a seven-hundred-foot ice tower appears in Antarctica. A group is assembled to climb this thing and see if an explanation for its presence can be found. This is not your father’s seven-hundred-foot ice tower, although if your father was a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, maybe named your puppy Cthulhu, well, then it might be. Great fun! In the book Notes Tremblay say he wanted to do a winter/ice horror story, admiring as he does reps of the subgenre such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, the novel and film of Let the right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Stranded by Bracken McLeon, and others.

The Society of Monsterhood – Four scholarship students at a private school endure the slings and arrows of outrageous outsiderhood, until the school bully dents the van that takes them to school. They challenge him to meet them after school at an alley entrance, claiming that a monster lives there. When the bully enters the alley to check out the yeah-sure-I-believe-that monster, he is in for a surprise. When more who challenge the Society of Monsterhood inexplicably vanish, one must wonder if they have somehow conjured a beast. Or did they just grow in maturity, strength and size, and can now fend off mindless attacks?

Her Red Right Hand – Tremblay was asked to contribute a story for an upcoming collection of Hell Boy stories. Has the feel of a fable. An outsider girl, A darkly enchanted well, a need to save a dying parent, and a talent for drawing things that step off the page. Creations coming to life is a common ploy. Perfectly fine story, but felt a bit of an outsider in this collection.

It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks – We see the apocalypse by reference only. A family drives far from home to a familiar country place. That night young Danny hears thunder and lightning or a plane or a bunch of planes or a bunch of thunder and lightning…. ATMs and electronic commerce begin to fail. This has an “On the Beach” feel, and a poignant finale.
It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written." – from the Slant interview
The Thirteenth Temple – Merry of A Head Full of Ghosts and, in an early iteration, of the first story in this collection, is twenty years older, now under the pseudonym Karen Brissette, (a name that should be familiar to GR veterans, and eerily seems to relate back to the unhinged KB of Notes From the Dogwalkers from this collection) is on a book tour, having written a tell-all of her experiences. A crazed fan of a narrator breaks into her room and she calms him down by telling him a story, so a frame for a Merry/Marjorie tale. Had an M. Night Shyamalan feel to me.
"I’d never write a sequel novel to A Head Full of Ghosts, but I liked that there could be one more, short Merry/Marjorie story to tell."
It had been swirling about in Tremblay’s head for a long time. He knew he wanted it to be the last story of this collection and wrote (or gathered up) the other eighteen tales before settling in to write this one.

CONCLUSION: Best of all, there are many fun reads in Growing Things, which should only secure Tremblay’s rep as one of the best horror writers working today. You probably don’t want to let any grass grow under you waiting to pick this one up.
"Some fears can only be explored by story. Some emotions can only be communicated by story. Some truths can only be revealed by story."
NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will’s goodreads page. Paul Tremblay author pic courtesy of Allan Amato &



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