The Cabin at the End of the World
Apocalyptic or End of World narratives have always been a staple of fantasy and science fiction, going all the way back to Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man. They include such notable examples as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Ballard’s series of eco-disaster novels, The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. It may be indicative of the current global anxiety regarding the failure of political leaders to get to grips with the pace of devastating environmental changes caused by global warming, or it may stem from concerns about the rise of reckless nationalist demagogues across the world, or perhaps it’s our collective fear of both Christian and Islamic inspired fundamentalist adherents of apocalypse that prompts our ongoing appetite for end of the world narratives. It may simply be be nothing more than a desire for spectacle, a kind of mass schadenfreude at seeing humanity wiped from the face of the earth. Whatever the source of our fascination, it would seem that apocalypse is the gift that keeps on giving, for, since the turn of the century we’ve had such widely varying—in terms of quality—offerings as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Justin Cronin’s The Passage series, Sarah Lotz’s The Three, Joe Hill’s The Fireman, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts.
And now we have Paul Tremblay’s first, tentative venture into the genre, one that eschews the more familiar and large-scale preoccupations with disease, nuclear war, alien invasion or natural disaster, in favour of a more personalised and intimate storyline that attempts to show how the members of one family react—not so much to the apocalypse itself—as to its real or threatened imminence. Tremblay’s not alone in choosing to focus a story with universal themes on the plight of a handful of characters, but whereas works like The Stand share the narrative perspective among a bunch of disparate representatives of the ‘end days’, some of them little more than poorly sketched portraits of virtue and innocence, or stereotypical ‘flawed heroes’, or opportunistic antagonists exploiting the radically changed circumstances in which the apocalypse has placed them, but what makes this novel unique is that it never strays beyond the viewpoint of its three protagonists, apart from one chapter, written in first person, from the viewpoint of one of the antagonists, that attempts to justify their actions. More importantly, and more crucial to the slow accretion of tension and disbelieving dread, is the narrative’s tight temporal focus, refusing to move beyond the timeframe covered by the child Wen’s first meeting with Leonard, the assumed leader of the would-be harbingers of doom, and the book’s harrowing but not hopeless climax a couple of days later. This concentrated focus lends itself to an intimacy that could so easily have slid toward cloying sentimentality, but Tremblay avoids such pitfalls by exposing the fault-lines that threaten to rupture the family relationship that lies at the heart of the novel.
I have to admit to a certain trepidation on discovering early on (the second page in fact) that Wen is the adopted daughter of a gay male couple, Andrew and Eric, and on learning that Wen herself is a Chinese orphan who had been born with a cleft lip. I was afraid that Tremblay’s eagerness to establish his socially liberal credentials would make for some kind of politically correct polemic that would overwhelm the narrative. On that score, I’m happy to say I was wrong, for although Andrew and Eric’s sexuality remains central to the narrative, with Tremblay skilfully ‘normalising’ their relationship—they share the same petty squabbles and insecurities as most heterosexual parents—not only with each other but with their daughter, the tone is never didactic or morally superior. I use the word ‘normalise’ not to suggest anything abnormal about their relationship, but to draw attention to how unfamiliar it is in the context of a mainstream horror/fantasy novel, especially one concerned with the end of the world. You’ll find strong and positive representations of female and black characters in, for example, Swan Song, but I can’t think of a similar genre work in which the central characters are gay. There’s Samuel Delany’s post-apocalypse Dhalgren, but that was back in the 1970s, and one could argue that Delany compromised by making the Kid bisexual in order to render him less alien to a mainstream SF audience. I don’t want to dwell on this because Tremblay himself doesn’t. He lays it out there at the start and gradually, through their interactions with each other and with Wen, in the face of the inexplicable but real threat from four outsiders, we come to accept them as three people who love and care deeply for each other. Their ordinariness is simply illustrated at one point before things descend into utter madness, when Andrew, after being told by Leonard that he and his family are, in an inversion of societal (and genre) norms, “regular, everyday people,” can barely contain his rage. Of course Andrew recognises and accepts that they are regular folks, but he recognises too that “there are others”, the irony being, of course, that once upon a time, it was he and Eric, rather than Leonard and his companions, who were these others.
The story is simple and devoid of extraneous baggage. Eight-year-old Wen and her two dads have rented a remote lakeside cabin in the woods for their vacation. Wen is out collecting grasshoppers in a jar when she meets Leonard, a man she perceives as “taller than anyone she has ever met, and … wide as a couple of tree trunks pushed together.” Although we, as adult readers, immediately view this hulking stranger with suspicion, Wen’s initial concerns about Leonard are soon put aside when he offers to help her. And watching the way in which these two interact with each other, our hostility becomes muted. There’s something about Leonard—a kind of childlike curiosity, a willingness at engage with Wen on her own terms—that makes us warm to him, right up to the moment that his three similarly dressed companions appear, each of them carrying long handled, menacing looking tools, and he tells her that they need their help to save the world.
What follows is an intimate and harrowing dissection of the human response to an extraordinary situation. After forcefully invading Wen’s home, Leonard and his companions—Sabrina, Adriane and Redmond—restrain Eric and Andrew and present them—and Wen—with a terrible choice, one that if they refuse, will bring about, Leonard insists, the end of the world. Both Eric and Andrew see the intruders initially as having homophobic motivations, something that’s given credence when Andrew recognises Redmond, the most aggressive and overtly menacing of the four, as the same man who, some years before, attacked and assaulted him in a bar. By the time Andrew recognises him though, the question of Redmond’s real identity has become moot, because, with the two dads refusing to co-operate in making an impossible choice, Leonard and the two women have enacted a bizarre and sickeningly violent ritual upon him.
Despite the atrocities that Leonard and his companions reluctantly commit, Eric and Andrew hold firm to reason and to their love for each other and for Wen. They refuse to yield even when presented with evidence—through television news reports—of the seemingly apocalyptic events—earthquakes, tsunamis and plagues—that Leonard assures them are the direct consequence of their refusal. He had previously described these events to them in biblical terms: “The ocean will swell and rise up into a great fist and pound all the buildings and people … a terrible plague will descend … the skies will fall and crash to the earth like pieces of glass”; language that had, for Andrew at least, confirmed them as a bunch of psycho Christian fundamentalists. For Eric though, a reluctant churchgoing catholic, the motivations of their assailants are not so easily dismissed. Might it not be possible, no matter how ludicrous it sounds, that God has in fact shown the same vision to Leonard and the others, and charged them with seeking out himself and Andrew and presenting them with this terrible choice? The more horrors they are forced to witness on television, the greater Eric’s dilemma becomes. As much as he tries to work through the implications and consequences of Leonard’s actions and their refusal to choose, Eric’s reasoning leads to stasis. In contrast, his more volatile partner resorts to actions that have more immediate and personal consequences.
The book has a tremendous emotional impact made all the more devastating through its confined setting—the action takes place almost entirely within the confines of the cabin and its yard—its brief duration—two or three days—and the tight focus on these three ‘regular people’. Unlike for example, Joe Hill’s execrable The Fireman—a flaccid, sprawling, would-be epic whose the author is at pains to explain the nature of his apocalypse but ends up caught between supernatural and pseudo-scientific agency, and in which we quickly lose empathy for a poorly drawn protagonist who becomes lost in a cast of countless stereotypical characters—the intimacy of The Cabin at the End of the World means that not only do we get to know and care about Andrew, Eric and Wen, but we feel and empathise with the awful nature of the choice that confronts them. The book presents us with no impossible heroics, no extraordinary feats of courage, but with three ordinary people trying to comprehend and overcome an extraordinary and deadly dilemma.
It’s not without its flaws, of course, and at certain moments Tremblay can’t resist the opportunity to display his own influences or particular favourites—Andrew’s father reads “Tom Robbins, Daphne du Maurier, and Walter Mosley,” which is just about as counter-intuitive a reading list as one can imagine for a man described as “generally conservative”. Elsewhere, a gray sky is described as “a smear, a Neuromancer sky, dead and anachronistic,” a metaphor I found both jarring and pretentious. And while Eric, Andrew, Wen and Leonard are all clearly individuated, there is something of the stock villain about Redmond, while there seems little to distinguish between Adriane and Sabrina. These are minor quibbles though, in a novel that captures and delineates our current preoccupations with the nature of family in a rapidly changing social landscape; reason and the challenge of fake news; homophobia; gun control; a sense of inertia and hopelessness in the face of events seemingly beyond our control; and most of all with questions of religion and blind faith. Tremblay’s climax offers no neat resolution, no trite answers, only reason, and a small but significant act of defiance and hope.
This review was originally published in Black Static #65 in September 2018