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review 2020-07-14 11:33
It masterfully blurs the line between dystopia and reality
Survivor Song - Paul Tremblay

Thanks to NetGalley and to Titan Books for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I have read a number of glowing reviews of Tremblay’s novels and being a horror fan, I was eager to read one of his books. When I found this one was available for request and read the description, I requested it although wondering if, in the current situation, I’d dare to read it. Then I read a review of it by one of the reviewers of horror I trust and decided to take the plunge. I’m pleased to report it was the right decision.

The description does justice to the plot. This is one of those novels that seem to start with a big “What If” , and we have a clock ticking to ramp up the tension. The fact that the situation has become familiar and requires far less suspension of disbelief than it might have when it was written adds nuance to the story and also increases the chill factor. Yes, the details are different (there is a virus, but it is a variety of the rabies virus rather than a coronavirus, and therefore the illnesses are very different, thankfully), but the background situation and the consequences of the health emergency are eerily similar (lack of resources, lack of PPE, confusion, hospitals overwhelmed, lack of coordination, fake news, conspiracy theories, nay-sayers, heads of governments ignoring scientific advice…). Rather than going large, the author bring the crisis to a personal level, focusing on the story of two women, one British who emigrated and studied Medicine in the US, Ramola, or Rams, and the other, her best friend, Natalie, Nats, married and in the late stages of pregnancy. They shared an apartment while they were students, and although their lives have changed, they’ve kept in touch. Things go wrong very quickly, and Ramola is soon forced to make decisions that place her professional duty in the balance against her friendship. Would you put your duty to society before your friendship or your love for your family? This is a question many of us have probably wondered about, and many have been force to face for real in recent times.

The story turns into a nightmarish road trip where almost everything is against the protagonists. There are infected animals (and people) on their way, roadblocks and rogue patrols wondering the streets, and every time they seem to get a break, a new obstacle or delay makes survival more and more difficult. And, of course, we have the illness itself, which turns humans (and animals) into raging wild beasts.

 I have mentioned some of the themes, and although this is a dystopian story that feels like reality at the moment (unfortunately, reality is looking grimmer than this novel’s scenario), and it does have much in common with zombie stories (no matter how insistent Rams is that the infected are not zombies, and, of course, they are not dead but ill, their behaviour is quite similar), it is also a story about friendship and the families we create. We have not only Ramola and Nathalie, who are like sisters, but also other characters (especially a couple of teenage boys, Luis and Josh, who are like brothers, share a dark secret, and whose story is given space as well). There is no lack of social commentary either:  there is a strong indictment of the lack of training, of PPE, and of resources in general that hospitals and health providers have to contend with, and also support for the usefulness (indeed need) of vaccines and vaccination campaigns. (Tremblay explains at the end that his sister works at a small hospital and she gave him a lot of information.  They make a great team). Although none of it is original, it does work well, and the focus on only a few characters makes it very compelling.

The story is written in the present tense (for the most part), in the third person, although the chapters alternate between the points of view of Natalie and Remola in the three main parts of the novel. There are also a prelude, and interlude, and a postlude, which are told from a seemingly omniscient viewpoint, where the narrator provides a frame and a commentary on the story itself (we are told this is not a fairy tale, it is a song, and we are also given information about the larger scale of things, and even told about the future). My experience with present tense narration has not always been good, but I felt it worked well here, as it makes readers feel as if the story was taking place right now, and as the main narrative develops over a few hours, it does bring home the relativity of time, how two minutes can feel like two hours, or vice versa. The book has some lyrical passages, and it’s particularly strong when reflecting the way our minds can wander even at the most inconvenient moments, and how we all have our own protective mechanisms (telling ourselves stories, taking refuge on events from the past, fairy tales…). The author writes fluidly and he makes good use of the alternating points of view, and of other devices, like Facebook chat pages, the video diary Natalie is keeping for her child… This also provides variety and a bit of a break from the tension of the story.

I’ve read some reviews where people didn’t like the book because they didn’t like the main characters. It is true that because of the way the story is told, if you don’t connect with the two protagonists, I don’t think the story will work. We don’t know everything about the two characters straight away, as much is revealed through the novel, as they think about the past, about shared experiences, and also about the future. For me, the relationship between the two characters felt real. They often knew what the other person was thinking, they cared for each other and it was like reading or witnessing the interaction between two close friends, where not everything needs to be said, and there is a lot of background to the relationship that will not be evident to strangers. Being a doctor, I probably felt closer to Ramola and her difficult situation, but I enjoyed the story and I also got to like Luis and Josh (and some of the minor characters as well).

The ending… Well, if there wasn’t a postlude, the ending would be ambiguous but the postlude makes up for it, and we get a satisfying ending (if not particularly surprising). I confess I’m not a fan of happy endings for horror novels (or films), but this is not standard horror, and despite the warnings about this not being a fairy tale, I do think it reads like a fairy tale for adults (or a scary tale). And perhaps the ending is right for the times we are living. Let’s hope…

So, yes, I recommend this novel to fans of Tremblay, and to readers of horror or dystopian fiction in general. I’d advise readers to check a sample, in case the present tense narration doesn’t work for them, and if you prefer your stories big and your disasters of world proportions, this is not that kind of story. Although the focus is on a couple of characters (mostly), there is plenty of violence, blood and guts, so I wouldn’t recommend it to those who prefer their thrills to be subtle and understated. Also, if you are concerned about reading this story right in the middle of a pandemic and are very anxious about the news, I’d recommend waiting for a while before reading it, because it does hit very close to home. I look forward to reading more novels by this author.

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review 2020-06-11 21:22
Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay
Growing Things and Other Stories - Paul Tremblay

Tremblay is an author that I'd really like to like, but I can't put my finger on why. He writes about his style as "ambiguous horror" which sounds unremarkable.


Many of these stories are remarkable, but they don't often go anywhere. Tremblay doesn't flinch at hard-hitting emotional trauma in his characters and certainly the children aren't safe, but there's a distance to the narration that keeps me from really caring at all about their fates. There's only so much ambiguity you can throw in a story and still have it mean anything. His novel 'Cabin in the Woods', on the other hand, was so much unrelenting darkness that it was hard to get through by the end. The imagery is good though. There was a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' style story that was interesting, too, but felt like that game where you try to write a sad limerick. The author's intention was clear, but it didn't quite succeed. I don't know. 


In any case, I'll probably pick up one of his books again. I was interested by what he had to say regarding characters from his novel 'Head Full of Ghosts'. Two stories used them: the title story of this collection was especially good; 'The Thirteenth Temple', on the other hand, felt like a waste of time. I'm pulled in two directions. Thanks, ambiguity.

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review 2020-01-28 12:20
Brillant und revolutionär
A Head Full of Ghosts: A Novel - Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay bricht eine Lanze für modernen Horror. Im Essay „The H Word: The Politics of Horror” argumentiert er, dass Horror nicht reaktionär und konservativ sein muss, um erfolgreich zu sein. Er hält das Ende von „Der Exorzist“ für einen Fehlschlag, weil Regan und ihre Mutter nach dem schrecklichen Erlebnis der Besessenheit zu den konservativen Werten der Ausgangssituation zurückkehren – die beiden leben glücklich weiter, als wäre nie etwas geschehen. Tremblay diskutiert, dass diese Wiederherstellung des Status quo der Grund dafür ist, dass sich die wenigsten an die letzten Szenen erinnern, während sie Erbsensuppe mit völlig neuen Augen betrachten. Der horrende Charakter einer Geschichte sollte nicht allein durch singuläre Ereignisse entstehen, sondern durch das Wissen, dass nichts mehr so ist wie vorher. Auf dieser Theorie fußt Tremblays Roman „A Head Full of Ghosts“.


Zuerst waren es nur Kleinigkeiten. Marjorie verhielt sich merkwürdig. Nachts schlich sie in das Zimmer ihrer jüngeren Schwester Merry. Sie stahl ihre Kinderbücher. Sie malte unheimliche Bilder. Sie erzählte Merry gruselige Geschichten. Dann wurde es schlimmer. Ihre Eltern schickten Marjorie zu einem Arzt. Nachts schrie sie. Sie erzählte von Geistern in ihrem Kopf, die sie nicht schlafen ließen. Es wurde noch schlimmer. Zwei Wochen verbrachte Marjorie in einem Krankenhaus. Ihr Vater suchte Trost bei der Kirche und traf Vater Wanderly. Als Marjorie zurückkehrte und noch immer nicht sie selbst war, nahmen ihre verzweifelten Eltern die Hilfe des Priesters an. Wenig später zog ein Kamerateam in ihr Haus. Doch auch sie konnten Marjorie nicht helfen.
15 Jahre später erinnert sich Merry an die furchtbaren Monate, die ihre Familie zerstörten. Unterstützt von einer Autorin kehrt sie in das Haus ihrer Kindheit zurück, um herauszufinden, was sie als 8-Jährige nicht verstand: Was ist damals wirklich geschehen? War ihre Schwester besessen?


Hände hoch: wie viele haben abgeschaltet, als sie das Wort „Horror“ im ersten Satz dieser Rezension lasen? Wie viele, als „Besessenheit“ dazukam? Schämt euch. Ich würde doch niemals eine abgedroschene, überholte Geschichte von Besessenheit mit fünf Sternen bewerten. Zugegeben, das Horrorgenre ist mit vielen Klischees belastet und Paul Tremblay berichtet selbst, dass er darum kämpft, als Horrorautor ernstgenommen zu werden. Aber der kleine Exkurs in der Einleitung sollte euch versichern, dass er sich dieser Klischees bewusst ist und „A Head Full of Ghosts“ deshalb kein herkömmlicher Vertreter des Genres ist. Dieses Buch interpretiert jedes Motiv, das normalerweise mit Besessenheit verbunden ist, neu. Es dreht ikonische Szenen auf den Kopf und stellt äußerst unangenehme Fragen, indem es die natürliche Distanz zwischen Geschichte und Publikum aufbricht und die Leser_innen zwingt, sich in die Figuren hineinzuversetzen, statt gierig und voyeuristisch Bilder von Blut, Gewalt und Terror aufzusaugen. Es verschiebt den Fokus des Horrors von billiger Effekthascherei zum Erleben der Charaktere, wodurch Physisches völlig in den Hintergrund rückt. Es ist sensibel, einfühlsam und intensiv. Kurz: Es ist brillant. „A Head Full of Ghosts“ schildert die tragische Geschichte der Familie Barrett aus der Perspektive der jüngsten Tochter Merry, die acht Jahre alt war, als ihre große Schwester Marjorie verrückt wurde. Ihren konsequent kindlichen Blickwinkel, der sich sowohl in ihren Erinnerungen als auch in der Gegenwart manifestiert, halte ich für den Geniestreich, der dafür sorgt, dass dieser Roman außergewöhnlich ist. Durch ihre Jugend ist Merry eine äußerst unzuverlässige Erzählerin, die zwar massenweise Informationen bereitstellt, in ihrer Interpretation jedoch eingeschränkt ist. Als Nesthäkchen der Familie war sie selbstverständlich tief in die Ereignisse involviert, wurde allerdings bewusst auf Distanz gehalten. Vieles wurde ihr nicht erklärt, die Entscheidungen ihrer Eltern blieben ihr verschlossen und ihre Beziehung zu ihrer Schwester wurde von einer idealisierenden Note geprägt, die mich an ein Märchen denken ließ. Sie sah durch einen Filter, war halb drinnen, halb draußen, was zu einer einzigartigen Wahrnehmungschronik führt und die Aufmerksamkeit der Leser_innen nicht auf Marjories Zustand lenkt, sondern auf all das, was erst ihre Anfälle und später die TV-Show der gesamten Familie antaten, was ihnen genommen wurde. Ich empfand Merry als das Opfer der Situation, weil sie am wenigsten in der Lage war, zu verstehen und ihr darüber hinaus am meisten gestohlen wurde, von der Fürsorge ihrer Eltern bis zur Sicherheit ihres Heims. Paul Tremblays Anliegen, die Auswirkungen horrender Erlebnisse zu proträtieren und die Figuren durch diese nachhaltig zu verändern, ist ihm zweifellos geglückt. Niemand kann „A Head Full of Ghosts“ lesen und glauben, nach den Geschehnissen sei wieder alles wie vorher. Es ist nie mehr wie vorher, das kann ich euch garantieren.


Ich hoffe sehr, dass ich euch vermitteln konnte, wie großartig „A Head Full of Ghosts“ ist. Beim Schreiben dieser Rezension hatte ich die ganze Zeit das Gefühl, meine Begeisterung nicht ausreichend artikulieren zu können, weil ich über viele Details, die mich beeindruckten, einfach nicht sprechen kann, ohne zu spoilern. Es ist nämlich nicht nur eine exzellente psychologische Analyse von Horror, es ist auch ein Buch, das mit zahlreichen, oft versteckten Erkenntnissen aufwartet, die ich keinesfalls vorwegnehmen möchte. Ich muss darauf vertrauen, dass ihr herauslesen könnt, wie bewegend ich die Geschichte fand, die Paul Tremblay erzählt und wie revolutionär diese für das Genre ist. Ich bete, dass ihr „A Head Full of Ghosts“ eine Chance gebt, sogar wenn ihr sonst nicht viel mit Horror anfangen könnt. Dieses Buch ist anders, darauf gebe ich euch Brief und Siegel. Wahrer Horror entsteht nicht durch Brutalität oder Schock – er entsteht durch die Infragestellung unserer Glaubensgrundsätze.

Source: wortmagieblog.wordpress.com/2020/01/28/paul-tremblay-a-head-full-of-ghosts
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review 2019-12-19 09:16
Extraordinary and truly original horror
A Head Full of Ghosts - Paul Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts is a clever and layered novel. The Barrett family's tragic story is told by the youngest daughter, Merry, in interviews with a writer and as flashbacks. The same story is dissected and deconstructed by a blogger who reviews, considers and discusses the reality TV show filmed in the family's home. In this way Tremblay both constructs and deconstructs his narrative, looking at horror tropes, misogyny and mental distress as entertainment.


Describing the novel like this might make it sound too intellectual, too meta, but it delves deep into the darkness and is full of tense moments and unexpected scares. It works well as both a horror novel and a thesis on the horror genre. It may be my favourite book of this decade.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-11-18 03:47
Disappearance at Devils Rock
Disappearance at Devil's Rock: A Novel - Paul Tremblay

Tremblay has an incredible way of creating absolutely gut and heart wrenching stories. Cabin at the End of the World broke my heart and Disappearance at Devil's Rock did too.


Tremblay did an amazing job of creating dynamics that felt realistic with his characters, especially among the members of the family. They felt like real people and that made the turn of events all the more horrible and heartbreaking. It also made the story all the more realistic and felt like something that could plausibly happen.


The character of Rooney was a fascinating one. I actually read his voice in the last couple chapters as like how a recent podcast on the Manson family imitated Manson himself (Last Podcast on the Left, if you're wondering). That made him an altogether eery and frightening character. 


Overall, the eeriest and most frightening part of this work is that there were two possibilities that were both equally terrifying. Either something paranormal was going on or it was all human-made madness. Cabin played with similar possibilities and Tremblay pulls off both incredibly.


Final thought: 

Tremblay must have a deep-seeded fear of a child dying because this is the second of his books I've read where that's happened.

(spoiler show)


Final rating: 5/5

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