It was supposed to be a vacation in New Hampshire. A small family, getting away from it all. No work, no phones, and no one else within two miles in any direction. Wen has been through so much in her seven years, but now everything is perfect. Her two fathers, Eric and Andrew, have worked hard to give Wen the best life possible; they’ve been through a lot themselves. With the vacation underway, Wen is busy catching grasshoppers in the front yard at the cabin. She is naming them, providing for them, hoping they will stay alive under her careful watch. A man approaches her, coming from the driveway. Wen knows she needs to be careful, but Leonard is so nice and friendly. He helps her catch grasshoppers. He is funny and genuinely interested in everything Wen is doing. Then she notices three other strangers coming out of the woods. They all seem to be carrying things. Wen doesn’t know what these people are holding in their hands, but something tells her things aren’t right. Leonard urges Wen to go inside and get her parents. There’s work to be done, and her parents are the only ones that can help.
The Cabin at the End of the World, the latest by Paul Tremblay (A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock) turns the home-invasion theme inside out with a story of relentless terror. The first chapter is described above, and to say much more of the actual story in detail would certainly spoil it. It’s safe to say that if you put the book down after the first chapter, there’s probably something wrong with you. Tremblay pulls out all the stops here, skillfully exploding each scene to the maximum potential. Pulled from our headlines, Tremblay’s take on the home-invasion sub-genre is ambitious and, dare we say, somewhat original, with unforgettable characters and pulse-pounding tension. While using the home-invasion motif, Tremblay offers a completely different perspective of the end-of-the-world scenario, with a heavy spoonful of paranoia to ease it all down.
Shifting perspectives throughout the story, we get a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of madness. Tremblay masterfully builds his story with a small cast, with subtle foreshadowing and strategic plotting. The story is straight-forward enough, never satisfied with being on cruise-control. Each revelation ramps up the tension to a fever pitch. The strength of the story is not the actual plotting but the fully-developed cast of characters we follow through these few days in the cabin. We come to care about these characters, even the strangers who have invaded this family’s lives. By focusing on the family unit, giving them all unique and interesting voices, we come to care about these characters because they care about one another so much. Even the strangers, Leonard, Redman, Adriane, and Sabrina, are fleshed out, each with personal motives and individual goals, though they pretty much work as one unit for much of the story. A careful balance of skepticism and obsession ground each character, as Andrew and Eric are presented with possible evidence that forces them to second-guess every decision.
Tremblay’s handle on ambiguity is in high order here, as the premise forces the reader to suspend belief in ways that only add to the suspense. Our heroes are shown increasingly frightening pieces of evidence that reinforce the invader’s claims yet leave them confused and extremely unprepared for the task they’ve been asked to do. Restrained, without a weapon, Eric and Andrew refuse to assist the strangers, leading to more harrowing stakes as the story goes on. Are we to believe these pieces of evidence will lead to the end of the world? Happenstance turns to circumstance, skewering skepticism with each scene. This is all the more chilling in that the scenario is something that could happen, and Tremblay pulls it off effortlessly, with subtle hints of something otherworldly occurring, or was it all just … coincidence?
Tremblay doesn’t provide us with any answers here, which is fine as we’re too invested in what will happen next. That’s the best thing about this book; we fall in love with the characters so hard that we have to keep reading to see how it’s all going to turn out. No book is perfect, and there were a few scenes that seemed a little more surreal than expected but considering the character’s state-of-mind during these events, it’s not completely unrealistic that anyone wouldn’t react that way, and Tremblay manages to keep those episodes brief. Tightly executed, expertly paced, with characters you’ll never forget and a pulse-pounding, heartbreaking story that you’ll be thinking about long after the last page is turned, Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World is the scariest book we’ve read this year. This is one book you don’t want to miss.
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