Following three well-received novels of literary horror (check out our reviews for A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL’S ROCK, and THE CABIN AT THE END OF THE WORLD), Paul Tremblay’s newest release showcases his shorter side with GROWING THINGS a collection of stories and novellas that continue to explore his literate and creepy terrain.
In this book we meet up again with his characters from A HEADFUL OF GHOSTS in the bookend stories. The opening piece predates that novel, and factors in as the story Marjorie told her young sister about creepy plant horrors that threatened to destroy the world. It’s a fun chrysalis for the novel that emerged. The last story is a new piece offering thirteen impressions of a New England village. As with the novel, it owes quite a bit to Shirley Jackson’s storytelling, style and themes; however, as with A HEADFUL OF GHOSTS it has a few nasty surprises of its own. Between these, we find crimes gone horrifying, a story for an authorized Hellboy anthology, dog walkers gone nuts, and a creepy nighttime ride through my old stomping grounds of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Tremblay’s writing style is subtle. Readers of his novels will recognize the cadences and narratives that offer up some fine images, some considered psychology, and some slow burn plotting. The short form might not give the author room to indulge quite the way a novel does, but several of these stories show off how well Tremblay’s fiction melds playfulness along with its darker elements.
Take, for example, his contribution to a Laird Barron tribute anthology, “Notes from ‘The Barn in the Wild’,” which finds a doomed protagonist investigating a haunted local called Klein’s Farm where spooky things they are a’happening. On the surface, it’s a serviceable scare story with the sorts of events one would like to find in a tale about a haunted locale and someone’s examination of both the place and its effects on an old pal. The plotting includes some investigatory aspects as well as some confessional ones. There’s little that’s playful on that surface level. Dig deeper, however, and you find the characters take names of fellow scribes, some of them well known and others not as well known. I know this sort of name checking can drive some readers up the wall, while tickling others. Of course, YMMV, but that’s not the deepest gag Tremblay has up his sleeve. On a sentence by sentence level, the story reads like an attempt to mimic Nick Mamatas’ style and attitude while paying homage (and perhaps rewriting?) TED Klein’s classic short story “The Events at Poroth Farm” (itself the genesis for that author’s masterful novel THE CEREMONIES). It’s a layered piece, which shows an author who is infatuated with his genre, having fun at his job.
Take also “Notes From The Dog Walkers,” in which a busy teacher/author named Paul T____ hires the services of a professional dog walking group to care for his seven-year-old “red mini pin mix” (191) Holly. The story is an epistolary tale, all told through the notes that three dog walkers leave as progress reports for wee Holly’s day with them. They start out brief and to the point, and then grow lengthier and odder as time passes. The story is a lengthy one, one of the longest in the book, and it covers a lot of ground. The walkers are alternately charming, trying too hard, and creepy. The notes include check marks for Pee or Poop (including one instance where Poop gets multiples since it was apparently a big day for the wee dog) as well as insights into each of the writers’ insecurities, complex minds, and relationships to each other and the world itself. The book’s cover copy calls this a metafictional account, and there is that. The notes touch on each of Tremblay’s literary horror novels (and possibly his crime work, though I have not read enough to say), providing possible story notes for a follow up with one of the characters from THE DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL’S ROCK. They are critical of the author’s works the way Peter Straub’s persona Putney T. Rudge was critical of Straub’s backlist—I think the only book of Peter’s Rudge liked was his ghost story JULIA, and though the Dog Walker KB (whose initials might be a joking reference to one of the author’s works as well) is not as mean-spirited as Rudge, they are certainly happy to offer up opinion after opinion about the author’s own works as well as his book collection. Dog walkers, you see, get to enter the house for the animals they are caring for, and that’s an open invitation to snoop and to judge. As with “Note from ‘The Barn in the Wild'” the story works on several levels. On the surface it is an eerie story about privacy invasion, but at times it is also an ars poetica (a piece of writing about the art of writing) as well as a rant about the genre. There are some funny moments, some earthy touches (you too might find yourself concerned for a fictionalized dog’s irregular BMs at one point), and some shocks to the spirit.
Then, consider his story “A Haunted House is the Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” which presents several ghost stories tied to a woman’s tragic past. The house in question is haunted more by Fiona’s memory than anything supernatural; the specters she dreads may be little more than recollections. It’s a sad tale, and yet it is presented in the form of one of those classic Choose Your Own Adventure stories, allowing the reader to let the protagonist pull out of the story if it gets to be too much for her by turning to page 170. However, can anyone escape the haunting past? There is one proper ending to the story, and that involves visiting most of the rooms in the house, hearing the ghost stories there (many of which end with a variation on “of all the ghosts this one scared her Fiona most”).
Finally, take note of “Our Town’s Monster,” in which a married couple moves into a new house in a small New England town on the edge of a swamp the locals claim is home to a bog monster. Well, the stories hide a terrible truth that will come to visit the town. This piece is one about the usefulness of horror stories for dealing both with the day-to-day grind—numerous tales get their chance in the sun during the tale’s relatively short page count—as well as a means for covering over guilt, grief, and facts. It’s a quirky tale, one with a savant child, a mean older brother, a couple of marrieds in their salad days, a realtor, and other locals. This is akin to one of J.G. Ballard’s compressed novels, overflowing with the kind of characterization and events that could easily fill a novel (probably one that would have been home in the big bad horror boom of the 1980s, with a black cover and title dripping blood). Tremblay’s talent is in isolating the meat and leaving the fat aside, delivering a streamlined experience that is at once giggle-worthy, gruesome, cynical as hell, and tragic in the mold of the best Universal monster movies.
As with many story collections, there are tales that work for the reader and those that do not. Alas, several of the pieces were just not my cup of tea.
Some of the contents show too much of an infatuation with other writers works (e.g., for all the anxieties it grapples with, “The Teacher” reads a bit too much like Richard Matheson’s masterful “The Distributor” transposed to a YA arena to keep me invested). I found this cuteness to be more easily overlooked with some stories than others. Take “Something About Birds,” which offers a chilling exercise wherein a blog writer has the chance to meet his literary hero and discovers a dark side to the man. There are some shades of Etchison’s “Talking in the Dark” at work here. However, the story also seems to be nudging author Stephen Gregory about his bird-themed fiction (e.g., THE CORMORANT, PLAGUE OF GULLS, etc.) while trying its hand at incorporating some of Gregory’s own writing style. The story builds to an ambiguous end with a couple of chilling implications depending on your interpretation. The story has enough of a puzzle factor to let me slide through the literary tips of the hat. A few of the tales cannot escape me seeing the man behind the curtain, pulling the levers.
All told, about half of the contents worked for me as complete tales. However, each story held at least one moment or image that was startling and/or intriguing enough to consider even if that particular piece was not to my taste.
To be honest, I feel a tad sorry for Tremblay’s book, since I picked it up so soon after reading two of Dennis Etchison’s collections (check out reviews for his first collection, THE DARK COUNTRY, as well as a career retrospective, TALKING IN THE DARK). The stories in Etchison’s oeuvre are exquisite gems of fiction writing. Tremblay’s works are good, and a couple of them are great works, but overall the collection suffers from its proximity in my reading list to Etchison’s works.
When it is at its best, GROWING THINGS melds a macabre sense of humor with touches of punk rock rebelliousness and a child’s wide eyed expectations that the world will be better than it actually is. This blend of cynicism and optimism, of despair and hope is a difficult thing to maintain for the best fiction writers. It will probably come as no surprise to readers of his novels that he excels at writing children characters even in the short form. Plenty of well-drawn kids find their way into these pages, and the best of them walk that line between seeing the world as it ought to be and how it is. No matter their ages, Tremblay’s characters are clever, essentially decent folks (though a couple of memorable shits show up to keep us on our toes).
Some folks such as Harlan Ellison can write brilliant short stories, who can’t translate their talent into compelling novels. Some folks can write compelling novels, but the shorter form is not their thing (looking at Donald E. Westlake). Few authors can do both with equal levels of mastery. At present, I would say Paul Tremblay’s strengths lie in the longer form instead of the shorter. His stories are well written from a purely craft perspective, but they did not hold my attention the way his novels do. This book is a little too easy to put down. However, there are a few stories that do grab in the reading and, even better, a few tales that linger after the last sentence is read. This last batch takes root in the mind and blossoms in the memory. These are the stories that achieve a strange, eerie resonance in the garden of recollection. What tastier fruit could a reader really wish for than that?
Next week, we check in with Seanan McGuire’s horror nom d’ plume for the newest novella, IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE. Grab a limited edition hardcover while they last! Or grab an eBook. The choice is yours.
Tremblay, Paul. GROWING THINGS AND OTHER STORIES. William Morrow: 2019.
“That Darkness Hunged in my Sky: Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things and Other Stories” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image taken from the William Morrow hardcover edition. This piece’s taken from Karen Elson’s “Stolen Roses”, copyright © 2010.