Horror bestseller Paul Tremblay appears Nov. 17 at Waterford Public Library
It's probably a sign of the times that the students of Paul Tremblay, who teaches at a high school outside Boston, get most of their knowledge about the horror genre from movies — as opposed to novels or short stories. But wait! Tremblay doesn't teach English. He's in the math department.
So why does someone whose job is to instruct our children on the intricacies of trigonometry or calculus know so much about his undergrads' taste in the macabre? Well, it seems Tremblay moonlights at another gig. He writes horror fiction. And it's not in the context of a hobbyist who sends out the occasional vampire story to online 'zines.
In fact, since 2015, Tremblay has published three novels of dark fiction: "A Head Full of Ghosts," "Disappearance at Devil's Rock" and June's "Cabin at the End of the World." In that time, he scored massively positive reviews, won the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Massachusetts Book Award; hears from his agents on in-the-works film deals; and essentially has became a genuine superstar in the horror genre. Along with a rising tide of younger writers such as Nick Cutter, Joe Hill, Sarah Langan, Ania Ahlborn and John Langan, Tremblay is being mentioned alongside established icons like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz.
King, somewhat famously, surprised Tremblay when "Ghosts" came out with a Tweet that said, "(This book) scared the hell out of me, and I'm not easy to scare." For "The Cabin at the End of the World," King echoed with a blurb that said, "A tremendous book, thought provoking and terrifying, with tension that winds like a chain. (It's) Tremblay's best. It's that good."
Speaking of "The Cabin at the End of the World," Tremblay appears Nov. 17 at the Waterford Public Library to discuss and sign copies of that book. It is indeed a stunning novel about a vacationing family — Eric and Andrew and their adopted 7-year-old daughter Wen — who are spending the summer in a drowsy and pastoral New Hampshire hideaway. Out of nowhere, four disconcertingly normal-seeming people show up, take the family captive and demand a horrific sacrifice in order, they insist, to save humanity.
To Andrew and Eric, the situation reeks of cultish lunacy. But that's one of the great things about Tremblay's writing. He knows the premise seems ludicrous and uses his substantial skills to melt the will of even the strongest skeptics. Blending elements of the home-invasion trope with apocalyptic fiction, and carefully capturing the evolving reactions and character traits against a series of increasingly violent developments and what may or may not be disturbing coincidences, the tension slow-boils to maddening levels.
Last week, the mild-mannered and dryly witted Tremblay, himself a married father of two, discussed "Cabin," his career(s), and the subjective idea of "fame." Comments have been edited for space.
On whether his students in fact know about his books:
My students are aware of my other career. My classroom is festooned with Stephen King posters, and now some of my own posters from readings and other events. But most of the students couldn't name another horror writer beyond King, and I had one ask who Stephen King was. For most, their image of horror is solely based on Hollywood flicks. (As for my books), they're interested in the process and ask about movie potential. So, I think I'm more oddity than (someone) cool.
To varying degrees, "A Headful of Ghosts," "Disappearance at Devil's Rock" and "The Cabin at the End of the World" all involve families in trauma. On whether this is a coincidence or possibly a reflection of the author's own anxieties as a husband and father in the modern world:
There's definitely an element of me confronting some of my own fears. That's part of it. While these three books are not in any way a series, they do fit together in a thematic way. Sometimes the stress (in each) comes from within and sometimes without. And utilizing the ambigious supernatural elements allows me to explore these fears and push the stakes as far as I can.
There are elements in "Cabin" that reflect real world cultural situations and paranoias. On whether, as with a lot of writers and musicians, his work has been affected by the 2016 election and subsequent events:
I wrote the first 50 pages and a summary of "Cabin" prior to the election because my book deal was up and my editor needed to see something about where we might go. So I knew the general idea before the election. But most of the writing happened after that, and I have to say this was one of the only times I wrote with the hopes it would work as allegory to reflect the anxiety of our current sociopolitical situation.
On writing particularly wrenching or brutal scenes and whether he can step back from his own emotional attachment to characters and proceed for the sake of the story:
Usually, when I'm working in the moment and the gears are turning, it doesn't affect me emotionally. I'm busy looking for flaws. After the fact, I might reread a scene and get affected. I'll usually know if one of those scenes is coming up, and I'm ready. I get called a monster quite often, and I have to tell people, "I didn't do this in rubbernecking fashion. It's there for a reason."
On the reality that he's become a bonafide big deal in horror fiction and whether he can call Stephen King any time he wants to:
Uh, I guess it's happened in a very small micro-fashion. It's very exciting. At the same time, if I'm not getting the writing done or it's not going well and I get frustrated, I have to remind myself that, if I'd known 15 years ago this was going to happen, I'd have been running up and down the streets with joy. And I do have an email correspondence with many writers in the field, including King, who is supremely gracious and generous.
On whether he perceives a rising tide of popularity and even critical respect in horror fiction:
I do think it's getting better, but I'm not sure whether there'll be an upper limit to how much better it gets. There's a huge stigma that's been associated with horror fiction for decades, and it's frustrating because there's nothing objecting a literary scholar could say about a work that is inherently inferior because it has elements of horror. I can be at a general book festival, and I'll tell another writer what I do, and they'll be so dismissive: "Oh, I won't read that ..." I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, but I guess with wider exposure comes a bit of everything in terms of response.
On what's next and whether he'll continue a trend of ambiguous endings:
In terms of books, a collection called "Growing Pains and Other Stories" will be out next July, and another novel is due in 2020. Osgood Perkins is directing a film of "A Head Full of Ghosts" for Focus Features, produced by Team Downey and the Allegiance Theater. And "The Cabin at the End of the World" has been optioned by FilmNation, and Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman are hard at work on the screenplay. As for the endings, well, I can't do ambiguities forever. I can't do that anymore. I know: maybe fake ambiguity!
If you go
Who: Paul Tremblay
When 2 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Waterford Public Library, 49 Rope Ferry Road, Waterford
Cost: Free, books available for purchase
Call: (860) 444-5805