Over the last couple of years, Paul Tremblay has consistently written some of the scariest stories that I’ve picked up. In A Head Full of Ghosts, a blue-collar Boston family contends with the abnormal behavior of their teenage daughter, who may or may not be possessed by a demon. In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, a boy goes missing, and his mother begins to think that she’s seeing his ghost. In his latest novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, Tremblay spins out another terrifying story, turning the standard home invasion horror plot on its head.
The Cabin at the End of the World plays out at a break-neck pace, with its events taking place over the course of one frightening day. We’re introduced to a seven-year-old girl named Wen, adopted from China by a gay couple (Daddy Eric and Daddy Andrew). Wen is an inquisitive kid who takes the family’s vacation to off-the-grid New Hampshire seriously, studying grasshoppers and having fun being away from school. While she’s out collecting bugs, she’s approached by a large man named Leonard, who tells her that he wants to be her friend, and that he and his friends need to have a chat with the family. She flees to the house, and her parents try unsuccessfully to keep the four people — Leonard, Redmond, Sabrina, and Adriane — out.
Once the four invaders are inside, they tell the frightened family that they don’t want to hurt them, but they have an important mission: one member of the family must be voluntarily sacrificed. If they don’t, the apocalypse will come.
Like Tremblay’s other books, The Cabin at the End of the World never really spells out whether or not the novel really has supernatural overtones to it, or if it’s just people doing horrifying things to others. The invaders claim to have come together after having visions of the cabin, meeting on an internet forum before uniting to carry out their God-given task. When their victims don’t believe them, Leonard shows television footage of a tsunami, saying that the disaster is proof that their story — implausible as it is — is true. The family is appalled at the idea of sacrificing one of its members, but the horror is accompanied by some doubt: what if something terrible does happen if they refuse?
Tremblay’s ambiguity about the novel’s terrifying premise hints at a commentary about the nature of misinformation and the lengths that people will go to believe outlandish things. These four invaders aren’t necessarily die-hard conspiracy theorists, but they do put together bits of news from around the world, that aren’t otherwise connected, into a story of a coming apocalypse, and seek out a way that they can potentially control the fate of the world around them.
Viewed from outside their bubble, the story is ridiculous. But it’s got plenty of real-world analogues — from sensational conspiracies like Pizzagate and the supposed Jade Helm military takeover to the more superficially respectable rejection of climate change science. Aided by bellowing online commentators pushing their own agenda and warped worldview, people put together disparate pieces of information into semi-plausible stories.
The Cabin at the End of the World would be scary enough as a supernatural story about four people proclaiming to be the messengers of the apocalypse. But seeing four well-intentioned people led astray by a collective, warped worldview is even more frightening in 2018. It’s frightening because it’s so plausible — and as a father of a kid around Wen’s age, this book depicts a scenario that’s literally kept me up at night and been the fuel for nightmares. A group of vastly different people meeting through the internet and going off to force a family to go through an unthinkable experience isn’t the stuff of horror fiction; it’s something that could happen now.
Good horror stories look at the world around us to draw inspiration as to what could go wrong, and with this book, Tremblay has penned a story that’s not only a nightmare as it plays out on the page, but one that’s grimly reflective of the times that we live in. It’s a gripping story, one that I really hope stays on the page.