A Very Massachusetts Apocalypse: On Paul Tremblay’s “Survivor Song”

"Survivor Song" cover

Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song is a prescient novel that is being published at the perfect time. In fact, it so timely that I almost feel like every reviewer should remind readers that writing a novel, editing it, sending it to an agent, selling it, and then editing it again is a long process, so when they read this and think “Wow, this is ridiculously prophetic!” they need to remember that Tremblay wrote it way before the current pandemic. 

Massachusetts is in chaos, and things are getting worse. For the last few weeks, a vicious rabies-like virus that spreads via saliva has more or less shut down the world and kept people indoors. The government is trying to get the situation under control, but unfortunately the virus has an exceptionally short incubation period, and those affected become extremely violent and tend to attack and bite whoever they come in contact with. The speed and brutality of the virus have caused society to break down. Stores are closed, hospitals are full, and the streets have morphed into dangerous places. In the midst of this pandemonium Natalie, a young woman, suddenly finds herself eight months pregnant, looking at the corpse of her husband, running away from the infected man who attacked them both, and with a bite on her arm. Needing help, she turns to Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman, a long-time friend and pediatrician. Rams knows Natalie’s only chance of survival is to get her to a hospital as quickly as possible and give her the rabies vaccine. Unfortunately, getting to a hospital in the middle of a full-blown pandemic, with infected animals and crazy armed men patrolling the streets, will not be easy…and the clock is ticking. 

Survivor Song is fast-paced, engaging, and full of explosions of violence that constantly remind readers that Tremblay is one of the most talented voices in contemporary horror. It’s also unexpectedly tender. Natalie feels the fever start and sense the changes that are coming. She understands what every symptom means, so she uses an app on her phone to record messages for her unborn child. Even with the chaos around her, these messages are full of love, grief, and even jokes. Tremblay also manages to make them feel real and very personal, which amplifies their emotional impact:  

I hope to at least hold you before I’m gone. But I don’t know it’s starting to feel like  I’m never getting to a hospital or if I do get there, it’ll be overrun like the others or it’ll be too late for me to still be me by the time they yank you out and plop you into the middle of this hopeless, hellish existence.

The elephant in the room, and something that will undoubtedly come up in a plethora of reviews and discussions of this novel, is the similarities between what happens in its pages and what’s currently happening not only in our country but across the globe. About that, I will only say this: there are passages in Survivor Song that are as critical and political as anything Tremblay has ever written, and they get to the core of what the U.S. is experiencing right now:    

The virus doesn’t herald the end of the world, or of the United States, or even of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the coming days, conditions will continue to deteriorate. Emergency services and other public safety nets will be stretched to their breaking points, exacerbated by the wily antagonists of fear, panic, misinformation; a myopic, sluggish federal bureaucracy further hamstrung by a president unwilling and woefully unequipped to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary; and exacerbated, of course, by plain old individual everyday evil.

While there is a lot to like here, fans of Tremblay’s work will probably be surprised by this narrative because it marks a move in a different direction for the author. While his previous novels A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World relied heavily on uncertainty and crafted situations in which readers were perennially on shaky ground in terms of know what was real and what wasn’t, that ambiguity is gone here, replaced by a straightforward style that pummels readers with one horrific event after the other. While the stylistic change will catch many by surprise while also reinforcing the fact that Tremblay is a superb storyteller who can switch things up constantly, careful readers should have seen this coming. In fact, in his most recent collection, Growing Things, which won the Bram Stoker Award, Tremblay has an outstanding piece of metafiction titled “Notes From the Dog Walkers” in which he pokes fun at himself through one of the notes a dog walker leaves for the own of the dog, who is a writer: 

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…

More than a novel, Survivor Song is a statement: Tremblay can do it all, and if he’s a pony, he’s one with more tricks than a magician’s convention. 

Violence is often horror fiction’s favorite vehicle to deliver entertainment as well as commentary, and the violence here, the one coming from jerky animals as well as from all humans regardless of whether they’re infected or not, delivers plenty of both without sounding preachy. However, despite the horror in its pages, Survivor Song is both a declaration and an invitation that reminds us we can always do better despite the circumstances around us: “Everyone has the worst inside of them but some of us try to make something beautiful out of it anyway.” 

Survivor Song is a horror novel with a lot of heart; an engaging, immersive, touching, fast read that’s incredibly timely and packed with sharp observations. I would say it’s one of Tremblay’s best, but that is something most reviews say, so instead I’ll say this: Maine has its horror guy, and now Massachusetts has its guy.  


Survivor Song
by Paul Tremblay
William Morrow; 320 p.

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