Pushing against nostalgia

Paul Tremblay on his next horror novel, The Pallbearer's Club

Pushing against nostalgia

Paul Tremblay has a habit of putting me on edge. Not in person: he's a delightful person when we've crossed paths in person, even though he towers over my 6-foot frame. It's his books that scare the shit out of me.

Rather, it's his approach to horror that keeps me up at night: his books are about people doing horrific things that seem entirely plausible in the world we inhabit, with only a slight hint that maybe there's something supernatural taking place. In his book A Head Full of Ghosts, a family in New England contends with the possibility that their daughter might be possessed by a demon — or it might be signs of a serious illness — all while a TV crew documents the breakdown. In Disappearance at Devil's Rock, a boy goes missing and may or may not be haunting his house. The Cabin at the End of the World represent my worst nightmare as a parent: a violent home invasion with apocalyptic overtones, while Survivor Song was a story of a deadly pandemic that dropped in the midst of a ... deadly pandemic.

His next novel is The Pallbearer's Club: A Novel: about a teenager named Art Barbara who decides in the late 1980s to start up a club at his school called the "Pallbearers’ Club," a group of volunteers who attend poorly-attended funerals. The group attracts the attention of a young woman who joins them who seems a little too into it, and who has a particular fascination with a bit of New England folklore involving the dead. Over the course of the decades that follow, Art works to make sense of that moment in time, and as he does so, his friend interjects with her own recollection of events.

Here's the full cover:

Image: William Morrow Books

I spoke with Tremblay by phone yesterday about what to expect with the book when it comes out in July 2022. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you set up what The Pallbearer's Club is about?

Sure: So, I'm terrible at the Hollywood elevator pitch, but The Pallbearers Club I would start by saying that it's presented as a memoir of a character who named himself Art Barbara. It sort of spans four decades of his life, starting in late high school. This character was sort of a self-identifying unpopular, sort of stereotypical high school loser from 80s movies.

Art is unpopular and he's desperate to leave town and go to college, and he realizes he really doesn't have sort of extracurricular activities. He's desperate for one and starts what's called the pallbearers club. So in the pallbearers club, its members will volunteer at a local funeral home to serve elderly and homeless people who don't have any or many living relatives. Which is a sort of nice, sweet social service to do, but also, you know, a little strange, because, dead people.

So, he doesn't get very many students to join the club, but eventually, a strange older woman — he's not sure how much older she is: she identifies as a community college student — joins the club, and becomes this strange sort of friend/enemy figure throughout the next four decades of his life. She may or may not be a supernatural figure from some obscure New England folklore. I think the fun part about this character (who I'm hesitating to name) is that she actually gets her say in the book as well, which I hope is fun for the reader. At the end of every chapter that Art writes, she basically writes like a commentary or rebuttal, and the deeper you go to the book, you'll find that she's actually writing notes in the margins.

I think I know a bit about this obscure New England history, but can you shed a bit of light on how that figures into it?

Well, I don't want to spoil it, but it's something related to vampirism, and if you go to Amazon, you'll see that it's listed in Vampire Fiction.

Aha. This is your take on the vampire novel or trope?

We could say that, sure. Sort of a twist on the vampire story.

Image: Allan Amato

You feature New England quite a bit in your prior books: what's the appeal of the region for you, aside from it being, you know, part of where you live? What is it about the area that's so conducive of horror stories?

Well, for one, I wouldn't count out the first. [laughs] I'm a life-long New Englander, so I know the area really well.

But even it terms of the history of American fiction, New England has a reputation or reader expectations of Gothic fiction, and as a horror writer, to me, that's just a deep well to go to and use. You can lean into the Gothic expectations, or try and subvert them, and I find it endlessly fascinating, and I can play with reader expectations in one way or another.

Growing up in New England, we're just surrounded — especially where I grew up in Beverly, next to Salem — we grew up with just hearing about all this sort of folk tales and folklore, and reading about or taking trips to Salem to hear about the witch trials, you're surrounded by the history of Puritan New England. It's hard not to have that sort of impression to be ingrained upon you.

In particular in The Pallbearer's Club, I really leaned into the autobiographical aspects of this book. I laugh because the idea for the book started with me finding out about someone at a school I taught at thinking about starting a club called the Pallbearer's Club, and was like 'Oh, my goodness, that's amazing!" As a writer, that's a cool thing. It's a really nice thing that the kid's doing, but instantly, I was like "I can do something with this."

The first thing I thought of was it was a high school kid, and thought about what i was like in high school, and how I feel like in the last three to four years, I've sort of made the self-discovery that I feel like my high school experience was not a very positive one at all, which plays a big part in what drives me to write.

So I had the club, and I said "okay, I'm going to make Art essentially me in like an alternate universe and it ended up as a way to write about the high school experience and beyond. So, it became this very autobiographical story, but you know, why not sort of dig even deeper into into the history of New England? I wanted that aspect to be there, too.

Looking back at some of your other books, you've taken a light touch when it comes to the supernatural and it sounds like you're sort of continuing that. I'm curious what it looks like looking back on that run of books, how have you seen your writing change, or your take on horror change?

Thats's a really great question. I don't know if my view on horror has changed...

Or maybe stylistically how you approach writing?

So typically what I find myself doing with novels, I always feel like the one I finished, I try and to springboard to the next one and so I have some sort of connection to it. I would describe The Pallbearer's Club as very much a departure from the last two novels, Cabin and Survivor Song, which both took place in very compressed timelines, almost like they have thriller elements to them, in terms of the suspense.

This book is going to span four decades, so there's a lot more room for breathing, for character, and for rumination. I'm purposely trying to write it in a style that was that would be similar to a memoir, and my hope is that this book has much more has a much more humor to it than the previous books. I wouldn't call it a horror comedy, because typically a horror comedy, the horror is the source of the comedy, whereas my hope is that the funny parts are funny, and that the horror parts are creepy and scary.

So anyway, the connection to Survivors is that it's really focused on friendship: these friends in the book [explore] the potential pratfalls of a friendship or a friendship that's toxic. Like, these people aren't good for each other, even though they're weirdly so much like the other that the friendship isn't a positive thing, which was part of what this book ended up being about.

Even through I've written a slew of books, it's only been like five years since Head Full of Ghosts, and then this book, I still feel new, which you know, is definitely not the case. I don't think I answered your original question.

Let me flip the question around a little bit, then: How do you think you've changed as far as your worldview goes? From thinking back from that first breakout book to this one?

Oh, boy, I feel — so it's hard to separate what's been a progression of five, six years of writing.

I certainly feel less hopeful than I once did. More cynical, or — I take that back a little bit. It's like our country: I feel like [I'm] slipping into extremes, there are the times I feel really hopeful. Because I do feel like kids my daughter's age — late high school and my son in early college — I'm really proud of what they do and what they believe in and what they're fighting for politically.

At the same time, I'm just so disappointed people my age, and in the older generation, too. It's almost like this weird whiplash effect. This book is in some ways is a little bit of a meditation being a GenXer. I would call it an anti-nostalgia book, because I think nostalgia is dangerous. I think it's is part of the reason why we're in so much trouble.

But I think in terms of me as a writer, I feel like I've recently made the discovery of what I think motivates me as a writer, and I've sort of wrestled with that with this book. Some of the stuff is like, what I think the book is about doesn't mean that someone else is going to read it and think it's there. But this book for me, was wrestling with my relationship with writing, the anxiety and depression and how that's all sort of rolled together while writing it during the teeth of the pandemic.

It's interesting what you're saying about nostalgia because there's so much horror out there right now that leans into it: I want to say Stephen King's It, and Stranger Things come to mind.

Yeah. I think the danger with nostalgia is the very reactionary idea to think, "oh, things were so much better in the good old days." To me, that's just a lie. There's no such thing as the good old days; things were very bad in the '80s. Talk to someone from the LGBTQ community about how well the 80s went for them, or talk about Reagan's politics and what that did.

I think what you're seeing now with the GOP is what we started with in the Reagan administration. So when I mentioned the idea of nostalgia being sort of dangerous or poisonous, it's that idea of thinking that things are so much better before, we have to find a way to go backwards, where you can't: it's impossible to go backwards.

To go back to your question about it, my view on horror, I think if anything, it's more entrenched: my view on horror represents change. [It's] not there to restore the status quo: I feel more strongly about horror sort of representing the truth of change.

Do you think the broader horror community is doing that?

I do, definitely. I mean, we're certainly seeing many more, own voices being published and being represented. Unattached to that, there's a part of me that's wary if something gets too popular, like "mainstream" popular.

Let me say it this way: I think horror should always be on the fringe. It should always be poking at the mainstream, at the edges and asking the hardest questions. I'm not into Scooby Doo horror. [That type of horror] is fine, but I still want it to make people uncomfortable. Like, that's how you grow, and especially the older that I get, I want to ask the difficult questions, I want to be confronted with ideas that I necessarily haven't considered. I think horror can do that in really interesting ways.

I hope that publishers that don't like normally publish horror just try and cash in on — like, Stranger Things is fun, but at the same time, Stranger Things is more fantasy than horror.

How do you see The Pallbearers Club is pushing against things and making things uncomfortable for the reader?

Good question. Well, I think there's the question about who you're gonna identify/ root for — Art, or the woman who joins his club. In some ways, it's a very personal thing, but as potential supernatural elements are revealed  Art has to deal with some really sticky questions and he has to decide what he's going to do. So to me, that's the part that that'll hopefully, make people feel a little bit uncomfortable.