"The Beast You Are" by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay is a beast of a writer. From his novels, including A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World — recently made into a film by M. Night Shyamalan — to his shorter works, one is hard-pressed to find a dud in his rich bibliography. This remains true with Tremblay’s most recent publication, the story collection The Beast You Are, which, although compiled from both older and newer works, continues the writer’s exploration into the more uncanny territories set forth in his most recent novel, The Pallbearer’s Club. Even though the stories contained in Beast are a bit weirder than his usual fare, it serves as an excellent entry point for anyone unfamiliar with his work, as well as another knockout read for diehard fans.
The collection begins with a bang and doesn’t slow down until the end. The opener, “
Ice Cold Lemonade 25¢ Haunted House Tour: 1 Per Person,” sets the tone for the literary oddness to come, with its unconventional strikethrough title, blend of autobiographical and supernatural elements, and use of illustration to further creep out the reader. “ Lemonade” also deals with childhood terrors, which Tremblay further explores in “The Dead Thing.” But while the former features an adult looking back at a particularly scary (and embarrassing and shameful) experience in his youth, the latter situates itself squarely from the viewpoint of a young narrator, complete with present-tense prose and run-on sentences to spectacularly evoke an early teenager’s voice — one belonging to a girl in the midst of a home-life horror story made all the more horrific by a mysterious box unearthed by her little brother in the backyard.
More idiosyncratic approaches to writing abound with “The Blog at the End of the World,” not directly but perhaps spiritually connected to the aforementioned, similarly-titled novel, with its emphasis on “information, how it was and would come to be consumed and verified,” as Tremblay states in his story notes at the end of the collection. And with “The Postal Zone: The Possession Edition,” the author not only fictionalizes a famous section from Fangoria magazine, he also returns to the characters and infamous TV event populating A Head Full of Ghosts (Marjorie and Merry, the sisters from that novel, also appear directly in “Red Eyes” and indirectly in the title story, a “free verse anthropomorphic animal novella” that is as audacious as it sounds).
Audaciousness in its most basic definition — to make bold choices — also crops up thematically in several of Beast’s stories, particularly “The Large Man” and the long-titled “Howard Sturgis and the Letters and the Van and What He Found When He Went Back to His House.” Both narratives involve somewhat timid, erudite men tempted out of their quiet existences by larger-than-life forces. “Large Man” focuses on a pencil-pusher in a futuristic/supernatural setting who is all too willing to escape the mundaneness of his life and play detective, despite the literal pain inflicted on him whenever he dares to use his imagination. The titular Howard Sturgis, on the other hand, seems perfectly comfortable with the mundane, until he begins receiving odd correspondence from a company that believes he’s invented a kind of miracle goo that will change the world as we know it. (Sturgis of course has never heard of this company, and certainly didn’t send them a package containing a mysterious substance.) In both stories, audacity ends up being a double-edged sword, just in the way the word itself has negative connotations beyond its core meaning.
Thematic wordplay is certainly a strength, but Tremblay’s greatest gift as a writer may be to both unnerve his reader and break their heart at the same time. This ability is on full display in “I Know You’re There” — about a man who can’t stop reliving, and in some ways rewriting (or re-remembering) the discovery of his husband’s dead body — and “The Last Conversation,” a second-person exploration of identity, loss, and the lengths one will go to unburden themselves of grief. In fact, a sense of grief (and sometimes even an absence of it in the face of dubious acts) permeates every story in The Beast You Are. Appropriate, given that societally we are just now beginning to reckon with the last several years, what we’ve gone through, what we’ve lost, and how this global pandemic has changed us. As Tremblay himself writes in the story notes for “I Know You’re There,” “...you can’t fight change. Change is constant and so is grief. Grief is the ghost of who we were and who we loved.” Truer, more haunting words may never have been spoken.
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