Any Lost Object Is Cursed: On Paul Tremblay’s “Horror Movie”

Jim Coby reviews Paul Tremblay’s “Horror Movie.”

By Jim CobyJune 15, 2024

Any Lost Object Is Cursed: On Paul Tremblay’s “Horror Movie”

Horror Movie by Paul Tremblay. William Morrow. 288 pages.

STOP ME IF you’ve heard this one before: In your dream, you find yourself returning to your high school for unclear reasons. Or maybe it’s not your high school, but worse—a high school. Any high school will do, really, because they’re all emblematic of the same cliques and anxieties and hopes and regrets. As you navigate the darkened hallways of maybe-your-but-maybe-not-your high school, the second portion of the nightmare comes into focus. You’re naked. Or, if not naked, clothed only in your underwear. Not underwear that you’d be proud to show anyone, of course. Not underwear that makes you feel sexy or confident, but instead the most worn, generic, and ragged underwear you own. Soon you find yourself in front of your peers, nearly nude, thoroughly confused, and deeply uncomfortable. Let’s take it a step further—not only is your humiliation visible to all around you, but it’s also being recorded for inclusion in a feature-length film. This nightmare is the scenario in which, early in Paul Tremblay’s excellent new novel, Horror Movie, we find his protagonist. But given all of the other terrors lurking about Tremblay’s world, this dream is the least distressing.

It’s 1993, or “Then” in the language of Tremblay’s novel. Kurt Cobain is still alive. Bill Clinton isn’t yet impeached. And a group of young filmmakers have an idea for a terrifying low-budget film. One morning in early June, the protagonist receives a phone call from an old townie acquaintance, Valentina. Like Cormac McCarthy’s “the Kid” or Denis Johnson’s “Fuckhead,” the protagonist of Tremblay’s novel is known only through nicknames bestowed upon him. When Valentina first contacts him, he’s “Weird Guy,” a tall, lanky young man “who occasionally entered her orbit,” and that’s a position that he’s happy to occupy. Valentina, however, has bigger plans for him. He won’t be Weird Guy for long. Valentina, a fledgling director, and her screenwriter best friend Cleo desire Weird Guy for a role they’ve created in their screenplay—the “Thin Kid.” Weird Guy is incredulous; he’s never acted in anything outside of a classroom exercise in college. “That’s not a problem,” Valentina assures him, “We’ll get the performance we need out of you.” Although we initially know him as “Weird Guy,” the protagonist of Tremblay’s novel slowly sheds that honorific, adopting instead the name of his character in the film. As the movie increasingly begins to occupy segments of his life, Weird Guy slowly morphs into the Thin Kid, the sobriquet by which we will know him for the rest of the novel.

The script for their film project, also titled Horror Movie, is presented in interstitial chapters, and begins with the Thin Kid’s professed friends, the characters and actors sharing the same names—Valentina, Cleo, and Karson—leading the Thin Kid through the woods to an abandoned school. The trio of friends laugh and talk, while the Thin Kid “lags, languishes behind their line.” The physical distance between the three friends and the Thin Kid is amplified by his obscurity in the picture itself. “We do not, cannot, and will not clearly see the Thin Kid’s face,” Cleo’s script directs. In a dusty and midden-littered classroom, the group strips him to his underwear and places upon the whimpering Thin Kid’s head a mask. “[G]ray-green, covered in scales, reptilian, alien, demonic,” the mask remains on the Thin Kid’s skull for the remainder of shooting, and, we later learn, during his time off-screen as well. To fully embody his character, the Thin Kid doesn’t speak when wearing the mask and slithers back into the abandoned school each evening to sleep in the same classroom supply closet that his character is forced to inhabit. As the film’s narrative progresses, the trio of friends perform ritualistic and increasingly cruel actions toward the Thin Kid, blurring the lines between their characters and their true selves. Likewise, the Thin Kid begins to possess more in common with his character, and as the green scales of the mask seem to be moving southward, slowly colonizing the Thin Kid’s shoulders and chest, we suspect that some evil lurking within the mask might well be worming its way into his mind as well.

It’s the present day—“Now.” Valentina’s film Horror Movie has been shot, released, and is a bona fide sensation. Sort of. Three short scenes from the film and a leaked script have found their way online and have garnered a tremendous amount of speculation and interest. Valentina and the Thin Kid have, years earlier, surreptitiously launched a guerrilla marketing campaign not dissimilar from the Web 1.0 assault launched by the marketing team of The Blair Witch Project in 1998, a campaign that went viral before going viral was even a thing. Like the subjects of The Blair Witch Project’s marketing, the Thin Kid becomes a star. It isn’t long before the convention circuit and then Hollywood come calling for the Thin Kid, the last living member of the initial film crew. This leads to the third of Tremblay’s interwoven plotlines, revolving around the Thin Kid’s involvement in a reboot of Horror Movie. While the present-day story is the least compelling narrative of the three, it’s far and away the funniest. Comic relief is an essential ingredient of horror; there’s only so much pressure that you can build before a release valve must be initiated. If Tremblay doesn’t outright despise the machinations of Hollywood and film production, you’d never know it reading the Thin Kid’s vitriolic assessment of his interactions with Tinseltown’s denizens.

Oscillating between three timelines and two modalities, the novel and the film script, Tremblay’s work intentionally disorients readers. Like the best found-footage horror, Tremblay gives us glimpses, crumbs of something larger and more comprehensive, but the full picture never quite comes into view. This is intentional. As Marlee, the director of Horror Movie’s reboot, explains in a conversation with the Thin Kid, the obscurity of horror “taps into something terrible burgeoning within the zeitgeist, which makes the not-seeing-the violence more powerful in a way.”

So much of the power of this novel, like the power of the best found-footage films, emerges from the belief that we’re experiencing something we were never meant to. As the tertiary characters in the novel celebrate the potential of rebooting the lost film into a new cinematic enterprise, they do so, at least in part, because they’ll finally be able to connect the words on the script with concrete images, instead of letting the script stand alone and allowing the reader’s worst impulses to guide their filmic vision. Of course, we, Tremblay’s readers, don’t see—can’t see—the film. And that’s precisely why this novel works so well. There are certain scenes, one of the deaths, in particular, that would be difficult, if not impossible, to shoot in a way that didn’t rely on either CGI or overly obvious practical effects. Without visuals, however, with just the worst demons of our nature to guide our mental portrait of these events, the scenes retain their power. What in lesser hands might seem silly is absolutely unnerving in Tremblay’s.

Horror Movie exists in comfortable, familiar territory for fans of Tremblay’s work. This is not to say that the story itself is comfortable—quite the opposite: it’s wildly upsetting. Nor does the familiarity lend itself to predictability or any sort of comfort. Again, Tremblay doesn’t provide such allowances. But like the best of his longer fictions (The Cabin at the End of the World, A Head Full of Ghosts) and his short stories (“Growing Things,” “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks”), Horror Movie takes place in a reality in which several, frequently contradictory, things can be equally and forcefully true all at once. In Horror Movie, this duality concerns the precise events that take place within the movie and with the lore surrounding it versus the reality that other characters involved know to be true. The inherent tension in these contradictions ratchets up over the course of the novel as the events spiral toward their inevitable, gut-wrenching conclusions. Tremblay’s juggling of three narratives—the Thin Kid’s past, his present, and the script—is equally intense. Landing the climax of a horror plot is one of the most challenging literary feats, and Tremblay has to stick the landing three times over. Somehow, remarkably, he manages.

Tremblay regularly receives praise for his compelling characters and labyrinthine plots, but rarely does he receive as much credit for his atmospheric settings. On this latter point, Tremblay provides his most disorienting series of locales yet. While the woods surrounding the school, the schoolroom itself, and the lamplit midnight streets that the characters stalk are all creepy in their own right, it’s the home of Karson—the character, not the actor—that is most significantly frightening. Consider the description from Cleo’s script: “We begin to recognize some of the rooms we pass through [in Karson’s house] are the same as the ones he passed through earlier, but the order in which these rooms appear and reappear doesn’t make spatial sense.” In this scene and others, Tremblay upends the familiar to make it supremely strange and foreign. As if it were a metonym for the objective of the novel itself, Tremblay’s insistence on upending expectations and discombobulating the reader’s sense of order beckons us to examine our own obsession with the recent past.

What is it about the analog aesthetics of the early to mid-1990s that so holds hostage the imaginations of our most interesting horror producers at this moment? Why is it that Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s outstanding Silver Nitrate (2023) and Emily Ruth Verona’s Midnight on Beacon Street (2024) both find purchase in locating their plots in 1993? Why are Kiersten White in her novel Mister Magic (2024) and Jane Schoenbrun in their film I Saw the TV Glow (2024) considering the applications of rumors surrounding lost television programs? Or why did Kyle Edward Ball and Mark Jenkin overlay the visuals of their polarizing 2022 films Skinamarink and Enys Men, respectively, with the pops and static of an obsessively watched VHS tape? And why does Tremblay amalgamate these tropes and more into his own novel?

We all know that fashion is cyclical, and so witnessing the renewed interest in comfortable, ripped jeans, in oversized shirts, and in nouveau grunge aesthetics probably shouldn’t surprise us, but how does this interest in the ’90s so cogently underscore the anxieties at place in a rash of recent horror? Perhaps it’s that the early to mid-1990s were the last years in which things could be forgotten. With the internet in its infancy, the allure of found media—Faces of Death (1978) tapes hidden in bedrooms, waterlogged porno magazines in a suitcase in the woods, pure speculative lore and hearsay from friends who can definitely show you that scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) where a munchkin hangs himself in the background—was nothing less than a major cultural force. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s easier to conceive of horror plotlines existing in the early 1990s. There’s no need to manufacture excuses for dropped calls, lack of service, or the inability to reach someone for help if the plot takes place in a time before the ubiquity of the cell phone.

Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. Maybe all of this analog horror simply seeks to cast a pall on the rose-tinted hue of nostalgia. To lust too deeply for a time gone by is to miss the opportunity to exist in the present; in doing so, you inadvertently allow your mind to be poisoned by dreams and promises that likely never existed. And failing to be observant of the world around you in favor of that long gone time is what so frequently leads to disaster and ruin. Just ask the Thin Kid.

LARB Contributor

Jim Coby is an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Kokomo, where he teaches classes on American realism and naturalism, Southern literature, environmental literature and ecocriticism, horror, and science fiction. He is a regular reviewer for the North Carolina Literary Review, and his scholarship has appeared in numerous academic and popular forums. His edited collection, BOOM! SPLAT! Comics and Violence, was published in 2024 by the University Press of Mississippi.


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