OCTOBER 14, 2020
ONLY A FEW HORROR WRITERS manage to produce enough work, and self-referential work at that, to enter the realm of authors who have created their own mythos. H. P. Lovecraft is usually the first name that comes to mind when talking about this group, but others like Robert W. Chambers and contemporary masters of the genre like Brian Keene and Laird Barron have also produced enough interconnected fiction to have their own universe. Growing Things, Paul Tremblay’s Bram Stoker Award–winning short story collection, pushes him into this select group. Packed with smart, engrossing stories, Growing Things shows Tremblay is as adept at short fiction as he is at writing novels and proves he’s one of the best, most innovative writers in contemporary horror.
There are no throwaways in this collection, but the first clear indication that we are in the presence of something special comes with “Something About Birds,” the third story in the book. The tale is made up of fragments of an interview with a famous author conducted by an aspiring writer. Neither of the characters are Tremblay, but both of them clearly are … or are they? We think we know, but we are invited to rethink that knowledge because in fiction there is “so much ambiguity and potential for different meanings.” The interviewer dissects the author’s work, asks smart questions, and eventually receives a decapitated bird’s head as an invitation to a party. This story is a deconstruction of contemporary horror fiction and a look at the way in which an author’s persona tends to bleed into real life and vice versa.
“Something About Birds” is only one of many stories in which horror, real-life commentary, and Tremblay himself mix together in various ways to create truly unique horror. Tremblay is a math teacher, and in “The Teacher” he again writes about himself obliquely, this time exploring not only his anxieties as an educator, but also those that stuck with him from his time as a student, and he does so with a healthy dose of horror that ranges from existential dread to gory videos intended to teach young drivers about the dangers of not being careful on the road:
There is a collage of clips and images — nothing in focus for more than a second or two — of car accidents. The kind of stuff some of us saw in driver’s ed. The images of crushed and limbless and decapitated bodies are intercut with scenes from funerals, and there are red-eyed family members, the ones who never saw any of it coming, wailing and crying and breaking apart. Then the video ends with a teenage boy, alone in his room. There’s no sound. His head is shaved to black stubble and he wears a sleeveless white T-shirt. The room is dark, and he scowls. There’s no warning and he puts a handgun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
If an interview for a blog and a story that includes memories of horrible experiences at school seem strange, then some of the rest of the stories in Growing Things are downright bizarre, especially in terms of format. For example, “A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken” is a choose-your-own-adventure story that allows readers to select where they want the narrative to go next. And then there’s “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport,” which is told through a narrator as he explains a series of photos.
Tremblay’s oeuvre shares a number of cohesive elements that make his work some of the best in contemporary horror. Chief among them are uncertainty and tension. In Tremblay’s novels and short stories, the reader is always placed on shaky ground and nothing is what it seems. Those elements are abundantly present here. Scaring someone is an art form, and Tremblay has mastered it by understanding that not everyone will react equally to monsters and ghosts, but no one will be unaffected by a sense of discomfort and ambiguity brought forth by the realization that they don’t know what’s going on. We fear the unknown, and in these stories, we don’t know anything.
There are many ways in which uncertainty comes to occupy center stage in this collection. For example, in “It Won’t Go Away,” a relatively simple narrative about a writer shooting himself during a reading, time, memory, and information are all fragmented, and that gives way to confusion: “I can tell this only in pieces. It’s all in pieces. Each piece seems worse than it did the day before or the hour before, as though remembering is a conspiratorial act of further implication, of making more worseness.” The brilliant use of memory as a muddying device and the economy of language make “It Won’t Go Away” a perfect example of how effective Tremblay is with the short form.
One of the crowning jewels of this collection, and a master class in building discomfort and escalating it all the way to horror, is “Notes From the Dog Walkers.” There’s nothing weird or creepy about someone walking your dog in the real world, but this story doesn’t take place in the real world; it takes place in the Tremblay universe. The story is a collection of notes dog walkers working for a company called Happy Dog Services leave for the unnamed owner of the dog, who is an author (we do know that his name starts with P). Everything revolves around the dog at the beginning, but things eventually turn to personal comments, deconstructions of various horror tropes, veiled threats, explorations and critiques of the way he’s organized his bookshelves, and other deeply strange rants. Near the end, once readers are convinced this is a fictionalization of a strange event Tremblay experienced, the writing turns to his own career. The thinly veiled metafiction is a treat and shows just how aware the author is of everything he puts on the page:
I suppose this has gone on long enough. All things (good, bad, indifferent) must come to an end. And this is going to end like you expect it to, like you want it to. This ending isn’t so much predictable as it is inevitable. You know the difference. I do worry the ending will not be ambiguous enough for your tastes. I do want you to be — happy isn’t the right word, but satisfied? I’ll even settle for placated. I’m not calling you a one-trick pony as a writer, but your agent and editor playfully call you “Mr. Ambiguous Horror” and it’s a nickname you adore even though it scares the crap out of you because you know there’s no possible way to keep doing the ambiguity thing in each book ad infinitum and have it not get stale or predictable (ah, that word again).
The great stories keep coming, but I won’t discuss them all here. There is a lot of weirdness and outstanding atmosphere in each one. Tremblay is, always indirectly, a part of each narrative, and he is aware of how his work now sustains a conversation with what he’s already written. For example, Merry and Marjorie, from his novel A Head Full of Ghosts, appear in two stories: “Growing Things,” which is a surreal story about kudzu devouring the world, and “The Thirteenth Temple,” which closes the collection.
Taken together, it’s easy to see why this masterful book, which Stephen King called one of the “best collections of the 21st century,” was a New York Times Notable Book and a winner of the Bram Stoker Award. Tremblay is at the forefront of his generation, taking horror into uncharted territory via unique formats, groundbreaking storytelling, and smart experimentation, and this collection shows he’s still improving. The depth and interconnectedness of these short stories to each other, to the author, and to previous work make it easy for fans of horror to start discussing the Tremblay mythos without batting an eye.