The horror genre often works at its best when the characters are not only people that are believable but also fictional beings that cause readers to care, to develop concern about their fates.
In Paul Tremblay’s latest offering The Cabin at the End of the World, he manages the best of those developments: he constructs characters with both realism and sympathy. In only a few short pages, readers not only know Wen, the seven-year-old adopted daughter of Daddy Andrew and Daddy Eric, but also feel an investment in her and her parents. Slightly (but frequently enough to avoid stagnation) shifting the point of view helps to live with each of them without being invasive or becoming overbearing with the omniscience. Instead, the changes create glimpses into the psyche of the family that piece together. It also helps to build the dread.
The thrill, though — and it is a suspenseful and thrilling novel — is from the simple plot and confined setting. The basics of the plot (which are discovered in the opening few pages, so no spoilers here) are that Wen, Andrew, and Eric are taking a break from the bustle of city life by vacationing in a remote cabin in New Hampshire. On a beautiful day while playing in the front of the cabin, Wen hears the footsteps of a stranger coming down the long, dirt road. He’s not alone. Soon, there are four of them, and they claim that they want to do no harm. To say more could be ruinous. Just know that the tension and horror grow exponentially.
Tremblay fills each page with more dire and by doing so, though the novel clocks at two-hundred pages, it reads like a novella. From the moment the strangers arrive to the very end of the book, it’s as if it is all recited in one long breath. Tremblay has a definite feel for how long any scene should last.
The novel does seem as if it could’ve been much more. The religious overtones on the fringe that eventually overtake the narrative only briefly clash with the the gay couple and their adopted daughter at the center of the text; only alluding, it never gets any deeper than that. If it had, this would be a horror fully realized.
Luckily, The Cabin at the End of the World gets by just fine without dwelling on societal complexities. It does so by being a great piece of plot-driven fiction. And you care about Wen, Andrew, and Eric. That’s as important as any blatant commentary on the today’s world.