There Are a Lot of Hells: A Conversation with Paul Tremblay

Anna Marie Cain interviews Paul Tremblay about horror movies and his novel “Horror Movie.”

By Anna Marie CainJune 22, 2024

There Are a Lot of Hells: A Conversation with Paul Tremblay

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

PAUL TREMBLAY IS a scaredy-cat—his words, not mine. The ultimate horror nerd is afraid of the dark and sharks. He’s also not a fan of gore. For most people, fears like these would drive them in the opposite direction of horror. Tremblay, on the other hand, leans into the skid. Throughout some 10 popular and critically acclaimed novels, discomfort and dread have been the author’s primary fount of inspiration. Where others panic, Tremblay dissects—unapologetically, with fascination, self-awareness, and unflagging wit.

Many people don’t consider horror “literary.” Often, they denigrate the genre’s characteristics and qualities, ripping at the bones of dark tales—because what use could a ghost story or a slasher movie possibly give back to its audience besides cheap thrills? During my time at Sarah Lawrence College, speculative fiction—and, by extension, horror—was a track taught by well-respected teachers and writers. Even so, debates about the genre’s merits (if any), abounded. “I don’t really do horror or spec fic,” announced my fellow writers, making it perfectly clear what they did do—and, therefore, what they valued on intellectual and artistic levels.

Writers and readers of all stripes feel increasingly compelled to insert the word “literary” in front of a given project. This pressure to defend creativity and craft is arguably at its greatest with respect to horror. Understandably so—belittling mainstream or hypervisible horror icons like Stephen King is a long-running critical sport. In 2012, Stanford English professor Dwight Allen wrote a diatribe for LARB about why he didn’t consider King to be literary, suggesting (generally speaking) that books that don’t get read much are good, while those that are read by millions aren’t. As Allen put it: “My son, George, who is now twenty-four, read a little King in high school, but he hasn’t gone back to him since then. After you’ve read Roberto Bolaño and Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, as my son has, why would you return to Stephen King?”

Why, indeed? Clearly, according to Allen, there are sides to pick, and King’s books are bad enough. One can only imagine what compels a person to watch horror movies, which are presumably even less worthy. When we spoke, Tremblay himself admitted to being turned off by slasher films. It wasn’t until his brother Dan—per Tremblay, the “real sick gore hound”—convinced him to watch Evil Dead 2 (1987) that he realized there was more depth to the genre than he had previously thought.

Today, Tremblay’s work represents a vivid and humanistic testament to just how rich the landscape of horror can be. His novel A Head Full of Ghosts (2015), for instance, considers the personal repercussions of publicly broadcast mental illness and demonstrates a striking amount of care; for its part, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018) confronts homophobia and the sacrifices humans are and aren’t willing to make. Then there’s Tremblay’s latest volume of short stories, The Beast You Are (2023). My favorite from the collection, “The Last Conversation,” offers a heartbreaking examination of scientific morality and the lengths we’ll go to in order to get the answers we want. And yet, at face value, these narratives are about a possession, an apocalypse, and a pandemic, respectively. Is horror like Tremblay’s not the ultimate subversion? At its best, the genre plays with the dichotomy between escapism and confrontation, at once whisking us away into supernatural worlds and illuminating some of the darkest, most discomfiting aspects of human reality.

Tremblay’s newest novel, Horror Movie, feels like a reclamation not only of the genre but also of its various forms—books, movies, even audio (it doesn’t feel like much of a reach to connect this novel’s metanarrative audiobook with the rising popularity of “true crime” podcasts). Here, many of the author’s own personal fears germinate through the memories of the book’s narrator, known only by his horror film character name, “Thin Kid.” The story toggles between the transcript of an audiobook written by our now 50-year-old protagonist and the movie script penned by one of his high school classmates, Cleo. Through these two records, we encounter versions of everyone who was part of that film, witnessing the extremities to which some will go in the creation of art and mythos. By nature of its very form, Tremblay’s latest book engages with questions of authenticity and the moral responsibilities associated with storytelling. Because the Thin Kid’s former castmates can’t speak for themselves—at the time of the narrator’s recollection, they’re all dead.

In late May, Tremblay and I met over lunch in Needham, Massachusetts, to discuss horror movies and Horror Movie, reckoning with childhood fears and embracing disquiet. After all, it exists for a reason.


ANNA MARIE CAIN: For a writer so well known for your ambiguity, there’s a striking amount of clarity within Horror Movie’s narrative. Between the audiobook recording the Thin Kid is making and the sections with the script that give us insight into Cleo’s mindset—I feel like there’s a really good chance to dig into multiple characters. And then, on page 72, you write: “We can’t know what anyone else is thinking, even when they tell us.” Which, having read through to the end, now feels like foreshadowing. Did you approach this project with that specifically in mind? Like some sort of literary trolling—to erode a sense of certainty?

PAUL TREMBLAY: That’s a great question. Like, when I got into it, it was initially more like, “Hey, I really want to explore the lengths people will go to create a piece of art.” Whether or not it’s great art, that doesn’t really matter—they’re committed to making this thing. Especially on a movie set, how much are they willing to put themselves into it? The lengths people will go to do that.

So, I think a lot of us, like the Thin Kid—he’s narrating now as a 50-year-old man, whereas earlier, he’s describing the movie parts, he’s describing himself as a vulnerable 23-year-old. The other part of it—my favorite types of horror stories are the ones that are sort of ineffable. You can’t describe why they affect you a certain way, but they do. They get at something that’s really sort of lizard brain–level … I think whether a piece of art is horror or not, it communicates on this emotional level, and the only way you can describe those feelings is to point at that movie, or hand someone that book like, “This. This is how it made me feel. This is how to describe it.” So, I think the Thin Kid is being—you know, he’s being purposefully winky and undercutting stuff, because he knows he’s performing a little bit with this audiobook. But it doesn’t mean something he said isn’t true. Even if you say, “I don’t know what that person’s thinking”—that’s still a truth, I think.

Speaking of the Thin Kid doing the audiobook—you get to a point where you forget he’s telling you this story, his story, in his book. And I remember how you poked fun at yourself in The Beast You Are about how you don’t tie a little bow on your endings. It was a great tongue-in-cheek nod to your readers. And with Horror Movie—I swear I won’t spoil this—we do reach a point that feels like we’re being given a clear dictation of what’s happening, falling into this rhythm … But wait, no, this is his audiobook, and he’s telling us wild shit—dammit, he did it again!

I try not to think about other readers, but at this point I can sometimes think about the people I consider my readers. The people that have stuck with it, and don’t shit on my stuff. It’s kind of fun to be like, “Oh, I’ve done all these ambiguous things. At this point, if I come to anything ambiguous, people are going to assume it’s ambiguous, even if it’s not.” I’m not saying this book is not ambiguous, but it is, for a certain very small portion of readers, a fun thing to have there.

I think it’s great that, you know, you have little aspects in your work specifically for your longtime fans. “Enjoy this fist bump, nerds.”

That also just satisfies my own edge. Like, “Hey, I’ve read all these books, I think that’d be cool.” I mean, honestly, that’s where it starts from, and then I think—I don’t know if all writers think this way—but at some point, you kind of have to just get to this level of trust like, “Oh, there are enough weirdos out there like me, that are adjacent to me, that will like this.” Because otherwise it’s impossible. I hear people give advice sometimes like, “You should definitely be thinking about the reader.” I’m like, “No.”

There’s the same idea in comedy: if you think it’s funny, if you think it’s good, then other people will think it’s good or funny. I think we’re all trying our hardest to maintain that trust with ourselves. I really liked what you said about stories that have that ineffable quality. I reread the LARB conversation between you and Brian Evenson recently.

Oh, how fun.

It was fun to read. The word “ineffable” takes me back to one of Brian’s stories in Altmann’s Tongue (1994)—“Bodies of Light,” which is just a man coming into his baby’s room, realizing the child is dead, and how he says nothing and leaves them for his wife to discover. It’s such a small, without any extraneous language—

Oh, his stories, I mean, they all live in that weird, ineffable space.

I’ve always had an affinity for him, since we’re both ex-Mormons obsessed with horror.

And obsessed with amputations.

And obsessed with amputations!

Or maybe that’s just him, I don’t know.

I was fascinated by the voyeuristic aspects of your book, the responsibility of the silent spectator.


We observe the Thin Kid as a character in Cleo’s script, and as a person in his audiobook. In both, really, he’s devolving into this monster. Can you speak about the relationship between those who read or watch and those who actively act—or at least project—the world’s horrors?

That’s usually the line people ask of horror, right? Especially people who don’t understand or don’t like it.

The responsibility of art.

Yeah. I don’t know, it’s probably a reflection of my age. But me, I’ll defend art to the death. Someone else’s death.


I’m just kidding.

Sure, sure.

But that doesn’t abdicate responsibility in any way. I think that’s just a hard question to ask … and why not ask it? A lot of horror—I do like when they sort of implicate the reader in what’s going on. I think that it makes for really, you know, dread-fueled and interesting reading.

The parts where Cleo considers sharing her fears—or, I guess, theories—about the situation she and her friends put themselves in with the Thin Kid, and how she thought they might be in hell, really evoked Sartre for me. You know, the famous quote—“Hell is […] other people.”

There are a lot of lines about making demons.

I love that the book explicitly provokes discussions about humanizing the monsters—that makes them even more unsettling, I think. Is hell other people?

It can be. I mean, it’s a type of hell, you know; there are a lot of hells. Right?

A nine-hour flight to Albuquerque between two people arguing.


And they won’t switch with you.


That’s a type of hell.

I mean, I think anything that’s eternal is hell. I don’t get the religious fervor, the embracing of eternity. It just sounds—


Unhealthy, yeah.

You made a comment about familiar monsters. Which do you think are scarier, the monsters we know or the monsters we don’t?

Hm. I would kind of say both … but I’d say the monsters we think we know. Because you think you know them, or you think you’re safe. But you’re not.

It’s a fear of the unknown, like being afraid the dark.

Correct. So many books have a scene where someone’s alone in the dark. Obviously, this book has a very long one. So many stories and novels I love end up there because, to me, that’s where the horror thing started—being afraid of the dark.

And all of the things that you can imagine within that dark space.


Your love of classics and other influential writers working in horror seems pretty obvious. It’s like your work leaves a road map to your own favorite parts of the genre.

If you’re gonna write something in horror—I mean, there are a million different ways to do it. There’s no one way to write a horror story. But for me … if you’re going to work in horror, you’ve got this, jeez, coming up on a two-century history discourse on it, and it’s like, why not? Read into it, play with it, recognize it, maybe undercut something or use it and twist it. It’s the idea of joining in this long genre conversation. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do that if you’re writing a horror story.

It’s like Easter eggs.

Put that other stuff to work for you!


I’m still a fan at heart, so, almost all my ideas come from a fan’s perspective: “Oh, I just want to brush up against this really cool thing or get a little spark from it in some way.”

In the acknowledgments, you mention that the idea for this book came from a YouTube rabbit hole, from a video that Stephen Graham Jones sent you.

So, the fun thing about Horror Movie: I wasn’t planning on writing this. It was one of those moments of unexpected inspiration. I’ve known Steve for a while. His friend Walter Chaw is this brilliant film critic for Film Freak Central. Steve’s like, “My friend Walter is doing this”—this was during the pandemic—“he’s been posting these weekend matinees on YouTube where you watch a movie through the Denver Public Library and then you have this incredible conversation with the director or an actor or the screenwriter.” This was the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) episode, so it was him and John Darnielle, just two really smart, talented people talking about Texas Chain Saw and it was just—it was so much fun and inspiring. And Walter actually held up and referenced Chain Saw Confidential (2013), a book that Gunnar Hansen wrote. Gunnar played Leatherface. They couldn’t find it in print, it was absurdly expensive, but I got it on Audible for really cheap. I was listening to the audiobook and all that sent me into a chain saw wormhole. The audiobook was so much fun. And Hansen’s a really good writer; I had no idea. I guess he was a poet before he played Leatherface. So, the first idea was, “What would happen if the chain saw slips?” Then it was, “Okay, let’s write about a horror movie that was made in the ’90s and go from there.”

I was excited about it because I didn’t become a reader until late, especially compared to other writers. I really wasn’t reading for pleasure until my early-to-mid-twenties. I was a math major in college and went to math graduate school. At graduate school, that’s when I—weirdly—started reading Stephen King, all the Stephen King. I feel like I’ve always been playing catch-up. I mention that because for the first 20 years of my life, that first chunk of my formative life, what I knew of story structure was film. And then I transitioned into reading all these books. So, it’s kind of fun to look for and try to take apart and play with what watching movies does to me, means to me, etc. Mixed in with the popular culture monster.

What specifically made you fall in love with horror?

Horror movies first. Even though, again, I was such a scaredy-cat, so I had this love-terrified relationship with horror and nightmares all the time. Watching between my fingers. Even something like Poltergeist (1932), which I saw a million times because I was a teenager in the 1980s. I feel like our town was one of the first to get cable, and in those days HBO showed the same things over and over, and Poltergeist was one of them. So, for me it was movies. I’d just come home and watch movies or TV. I didn’t have a ton of friends.

After college I started to fall in love with reading. In college I was also more into music, punk stuff. That sort of took over my life. But once I got out … I’m still a huge music fan, but watching Evil Dead 2, I was like, “Oh, this is so cool.” It’s just so kinetic and so chaotic and so strange. I thought it was just this stupid horror thing … Yeah, I mean, it’s stupid. But like, it’s a great stupid. That was definitely an eye-opener. In addition to the things I was reading.

I feel like a lot of people who are into horror are scaredy-cats.


It does feel like the horror community splits into two sides: people who are really into the gore aspect and people who are absolute weenies. Do you think it’s our way of poking the bear? Of trying to be unafraid, maybe even compulsively?

As much as I can’t stand it a lot of the time, I feel like it does make me feel more alive. Like, at my worst mental health times, when I just feel dead inside—and I think that’s probably the case for most people when they’re depressed—I don’t know, it keeps me engaged. I think it’s a sign I still care. Not only what happens to me, but also what happens to other people. I guess that’s a deeper way of thinking about it.

You’ve said before that a lot of your books wrestle with your fears and belief systems, your nightmares. How do you see Horror Movie within that lens of tackling some of your own youthful fears?

I mean, for me … I don’t know how spoilery we’re gonna get, but I think the part that’s the most me thinking about my relationship with horror movies and the fear is the five-minute extended scene of the hallway, waiting for the Thin Kid to show up. I mean, it was like, I’m gonna talk about how horror movies work on me, and maybe other people might recognize how they work on them as well. And again, just more exploration of what I think I understand, but don’t fully understand.

What are some horror movies that you think are essential to watch? That are core to you and you have to revisit?

That’s so hard to do because every horror viewer is different. I mean, The Thing (1982). Night of the Living Dead (1968), Jaws (1975), Alien (1979)—pick any Jordan Peele movie, that should be on the list. And I love Nope (2022). I mean, a lot of people don’t like Nope, but I think it’s great.

I love how Jordan Peele uses comedy in his horror. There’s such an intrinsic relationship between comedy and horror.

Oh, absolutely.

Horror nerds are very funny and vice versa.

Two sides of a coin. I mean, the rhythm and timing of humor and horror are almost the same. They both can be reactions to life’s absurdities. Like, you react in horror, or you react with humor.

I feel like both—and it kind of comes back to the responsibility of art, the way that horror and comedy, horror even more so sometimes—tend to be commentaries on whatever we’re going through, or whatever needs to be discussed. Horror specifically has a long history of examining the margins of society and those who live there.

That’s certainly there, and it’s hard not to have that seep in. I mean, I don’t know if that’s horror’s sole role.

Sure, sometimes we just want to make some shit bleed.

Yeah. So, some of the genre can be seen as a release, but the idea that horror is prodding at the margins of mainstream culture is, to me—that’s horror’s job. Whether that encompasses a sociopolitical aspect, which it’s often going to do … It’s funny that horror is, you know, certainly super popular right now, but it’s still … If you go to like, average people, whatever those are—or, I shouldn’t say “average people”—if you go elsewhere, there’s plenty of nonhorror people.

I mean, there’s still the argument that horror isn’t something that can be considered literary, as if they’ve never read Frankenstein (1818).

Yeah, like any horror or horror elements somehow cancel out literary use of character, of theme, of symbols. It’s ridiculous.

Take a story like The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): that was Wilde’s way of talking about being homosexual and not being able to be out about it, and it was a really beautiful metaphor.

Absolutely. So, I think your question is dead-on. Some of the best horror we’re seeing right now is being produced by traditionally marginalized people because they’re at those margins already. And they can bring their personal experience to poking at those boundaries. However popular horror gets, I hope that it will always be outsider art. I want it to do well, I want people to read and watch it, but I still want it to make people uncomfortable. I still want it to push boundaries. I think that’s what horror should do, or what it’s supposed to do. And it can still have cool monsters.

I think it’s important to push into a level of discomfort. A lot of people are beginning to put in trigger warnings. During my MFA program, there was a statement that said something like, “No one is required to have trigger warnings, but if you start to feel uncomfortable at any point, we ask that you try to sit in that discomfort. If that discomfort turns into distress, feel free to quietly excuse yourself.”

Hmm, that’s a good way of … Yeah, I certainly don’t know what the answer is. Like, when does the line of discomfort become something that’s harmful? I don’t know, it’s impossible to answer. And obviously it’s person-by-person. You know, as someone who’s lived a pretty privileged life, it’s easy for me to say whether I need trigger warnings or not. In my case, I don’t write about sexual violence. I don’t think it’s my place to because I don’t have experience with it. If I ever were to, I would certainly put trigger warnings on that, but for other stuff, I don’t know. It’s a reflection of my experience. I don’t like revenge horror stories, but I don’t really need them in my life. Comparatively speaking, you know, obviously, marginalized people, women … I get that part of it.

I grew up with Tipper Gore fighting to have parental guidance on music. It’s hard not have that younger part of me say, “No, art is art, even if it’s bad.” I don’t want people regulating it. If it’s bad, very few people are probably going to watch it. I don’t think it causes harm in the way the right wing thinks it causes harm. The triggering aspect, that’s, again, a case-by-case basis. But the idea that heavy metal music is gonna create a bunch of devil-worshipping psychos …

I bartended all throughout school, and you know who the nicest crowds were?

The metal?

Punk and metal. Always the nicest, sweetest people you could possibly meet. Tipped very well. Then went out and thrashed their faces off. I love punk music. I love metal music. If all it took was me hearing music to want to go out and kill somebody, then human consciousness is a lie and we’re all run by weird alien monsters.

That’s my next book, actually.


Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the nationally best-selling author of The Beast You Are (2023), The Pallbearers Club (2022), Survivor Song (2020), Growing Things and Other Stories (2019), Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2016), A Head Full of Ghosts (2015), and the crime novels The Little Sleep (2009) and No Sleep till Wonderland (2010). His novel The Cabin at the End of the World (2018) was adapted into the Universal Pictures film Knock at the Cabin (2023). He lives outside Boston with his family.


Featured image: Paul Tremblay (Photograph by Cheryl Murphy, courtesy of Paul Tremblay)

LARB Contributor

Anna Marie Cain received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is currently at work on her first novel.


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