Review originally published at The Nervous Breakdown DOT com.
When you enter the world of Paul Tremblay most anything can happen, and usually does. His recent collection, In The Mean Time (ChiZine Publications) defies expectations, the cover art a soft purple hue all filled with glittery type. It shows the faces of two sweet girls, which at first glance (pay attention, readers, the show starts here) could be two sisters sitting very close together, twins maybe. But no, it's a two-headed girl, the first of many things that are not what then seem to be, the first of many times where Tremblay takes you by the hand and whispers sweet nothings in your ear, all the while the world falling apart around you, infrastructures crumbling, supplies running out, strange diseases wiping out the populace. But beyond all of that is the emotion, the humanity of what it must be like to exist in such end days, and it is here that he ratchets up the stories to more than just post-apocalyptic terror, dwelling in the individuals and families that are struggling to survive, to connect, to have a normal conversation, a memory that doesn't send it all fracturing into shards of a former existence. It's here between the floors where there's no light, and yet, a sprinkling of hope.
The first story in this collection pulls no punches, and certainly Tremblay started off with this unnerving tale for this reason. One of my favorite stories of the collection, "The Teacher" takes a normal group of high school overachievers, and turns their AP History class upside down (What's the saying? Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it?), showing them that the world out there isn't all puppies and Facebook and Algebra. Sometimes in the most banal of settings life is horrific, and the responsibility of it all starts with the individual:
"We loved him before we walked into the room. We loved him when we saw his name on our schedules. Mr. Sorent says, `All right, this is going to be a special class.' We love him because of the music and movie posters on his walls, the black stud earring in his left ear, his shoulder-length hair. We love him because of those black horn-rimmed glasses; the same glasses we see people wearing on TV and in movies. We love him because he looks like us."
The key to this passage is in the final sentence, "We love him because he looks like us." But no, he is not like them, he has witnessed atrocities, and they have shaped him. The students have no idea what is coming next, they have not experienced life, felt the pain or seen the horror that he has, that most adults have, out in the "real world".
So, he shows it to them. He shows them car accidents and war and autopsies, but the very first video is the one that sticks with them, destroys them, so they can be rebuilt (most of them, anyway), pausing the tape, advancing the video a single frame per day, slowly revealing the inevitable:
"The teacher is a young woman. She wears white, unflattering khakis and a collared shirt with the school's logo above the breast. Her hair is tied up tight behind her head, a fistful of piano wire. She breaks up the fight on the chairs, and then another child runs into her leg and falls to the ground. She picks up the squirming child, grabbing one arm and leg. She spins, giving a brief airplane ride, but then she lets go. Mr. Sorent pauses the video, and we know the teacher did not simply let go.
Mr. Sorent doesn't say anything until we're all looking at him. He says, `I don't want to say too much about this.' He edges the video ahead by one frame. The airborne child is a boy with straight blond hair. We can't see his face, and he's horizontal, trapped in the black-and-white ether three feet above the carpeted floor. `Your individual reactions will be your guide, your teacher.' The video goes ahead another frame. The boy's classmates haven't had time to react. The teacher still has her arms extended out. If someone were to walk in now and see this, I imagine they'd want to believe she was readying to catch the child. Not the opposite, not what really happened. Mr. Sorent moves the video ahead another frame and a wall comes into view, stage right. Class ends, and none of us will go see Mr. Sorent after school."
Every day, this class has to digest this information, left to come to their own conclusions. It is a horrible thing to watch, the way that they deal with this new information, the way that they now hate their teacher for bursting their bubble, for making them pay attention. And yet, there is a sense of epiphany, of something changing, hopefully for the better. There is something that cannot be forgotten in this lesson, this history, something that hopefully won't be repeated.
There are several tales of the apocalypse in this collection, and each story deals with it in a different way. For some, it is "The Blog at the End of the World," complete with a forum of responses, riddled with typos, trolls and bigotry, but accurate nonetheless. For others, in "We Will Never Live in the Castle" it is about youth, and second chances, and territory. But the most powerful tale, in my opinion, is the quietly devastating "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks".
A small family heads off to the woods to go camping. A father and mother watch over their son Danny, and their infant Beth. It's just like any other family vacation, any other story where you pile in the old station wagon, or SUV, and head off into nature to bond with the elements, finding a sanctity and peace that is often missed in the monotonous daily grind.
A chorus that repeats throughout this story, Danny's constant request to pretend, it deals with illusion and hope, shifting over time from sweetness to devastation:
"Dotted lines and bleached pavement give way to a dirt path that roughly invades the woods. Danny watches his infant sister Beth sleep, all tucked into herself and looking like a new punctuation mark. Danny strains against his twisted shoulder harness. He needs to go pee but he holds it, remembering how Daddy didn't say any mad words but sighed and breathed all heavy the last time he asked to stop for a pee break.
Danny says, `Mommy, pretend you didn't know I was going to be five in September.'
Ellen holds a finger to her chin and looks at the car's ceiling for answers. `Are you going to be ten years old tomorrow?'
`No. I will be five in September.'
`Oh, wow. I didn't know that, honey.'"
Pretend that you're older. Pretend we still have rules. Pretend that the truth has been revealed. Pretend it's a beautiful day. Pretend we're in a spaceship. None of it matters, and yet, all of it matters.
Over time, we see the world around them change. There is one evening around the television set where the parents go quiet, sending Danny to the other room, his mother staring at the screen, hand over her mouth, quiet. The beaches become empty, that much more room for them to go and play, the children still unaware of what has happened. Danny's father gets supplies, negotiating with the girl at the grocery story, unsure if credit cards still work, allowing themselves a moment of laughter as they ride across the parking lot on a shopping cart, wind in their hair, the deserted pavement a constant reminder.
As we reach the end of the story, the parents still carrying the weight of their knowledge, their secret, we are back at the beach, looking to feed the ducks:
"The ducks waddle over. They don't know the law. Tom pulls out a bag of Cheerios, Beth's snack, and tosses a few on the sand. The ducks converge and are greedy.
Ellen pushes the stroller deeper into the shade away from the ducks and says, `Are you sure we can spare those, Mr. Keeper-of-the-Supplies?' It walks like a joke and talks like a joke but it isn't a joke.
Danny says, `Daddy! Don't you remember the sign? It's against the law to feed the ducks.' Danny looks around, making sure the people who aren't there still aren't there.
`It's okay now, buddy. I don't think anyone will care anymore. Here, kiddo.'
He takes the Cheerio bag from Daddy. Daddy pats his head. Danny digs a hand deep into the bag, pulls it out, and throws Cheerios onto the sand. The ducks flinch and scatter toward the water, but they come back and feed."
It's so touching, and so sad. The way that the parents keep their dignity, and allow their children to enjoy what is left of this world, for as long as they can. The strength it must have taken, the quiet pain they must have swallowed.
If I haven't sold you on Paul Tremblay yet, just take a quick gander at the people willing to blurb this collection, a list of extremely talented authors, many of whom deal with the same dark, layered stories: Kevin Brockmeier, Laird Barron, Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Ann Vandermeer, and Kevin Wilson. They speak of the beauty, the emotion, and the wisdom in the same breath that they call these tales disquieting, traumatic and shocking. One word we all seem to agree on is unforgettable. Paul Tremblay has put together an original, haunting, and timeless collection, the echoes of which still reverberate between my heart and my head, unwilling to let me go.