The number 13 is supposed to be bad luck, right? Our superstitions around the number are so strong that hotels often avoid having a 13th floor and we typically view Friday the 13th among the unluckiest days of the year. With Halloween around the corner, we had the opportunity to chat with Paul Tremblay, critically acclaimed author of A Head Full of Ghosts (my personal favourite horror novel of all time), Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World, Growing Things, and, most recently, Survivor Song and, naturally, we asked him 13 horror-themed questions. Read on for the full interview… if you dare!
SR: Let’s say you’re in charge of organizing a horror-themed film festival. What films make the cut?
PT: I’ll pretend it’s an all-nighter and open at 7pm with cannibals and Wendigos in the 1860s with Ravenous (1999). 9pm is Jordan Peele’s mind-bender Us. 11pm the slow, sad burn of Lake Mungo (I’m kind of obsessed with that movie). 1am, to mess with everyone’s bleary heads, I’ll make everyone watch the utterly terrifying Terrified (Aterrado). At 3am, the waking nightmare of It Follows, and 5am we’ll close it out with Carpenter’s The Thing.
SR: What is one horror novel or author you wish more readers knew about?
PT: You get both! The novel is Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer. Written in the mid-70s, it’s strange and unsettling and feels out of time, while being so relevant to our today.
SR: Who are your top 3 horror villains and why?
PT: Does the alien replicator in The Thing count? How about the alien in Alien? And the shark in Jaws? If I have to pick humans, I’ll go with Session 9‘s Gordon because you don’t know he’s the villain until it’s too late, Jack Nicholson’s Jack in The Shining (yes it’s over the top, but it’s still effective and menacing), and, even though she’s only in the movie towards the end, Tristana in REC is so freakin’ scary. Honorable mention to the iconic Annie Wilkes.
SR: What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
PT: I’m going to interpret scary in a less visceral way and go with House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. That novel took over my life, twice. The level of obsession and irreality that book engenders is truly unsettling.
SR: Your stories deal with some horrific premises – an exorcism, missing children, home invasions, and, fittingly enough, pandemics, and that’s not even touching on the short stories. How do you go about conducting the necessary research to write your novels?
PT: Research is my least favorite part of writing, to be honest. Am I a monster if I admit that? (Too late…) Depending on the story, it’s obviously a necessary thing I don’t enjoy. I guess what I’m saying is I’m not the I-write-because-I-love-to-research kind of writer. Otherwise, my process, particularly for my novels, is to begrudgingly attend to the largest research questions before I write the novel. With Survivor Song, I read up on rabies and met with my sister (who is a nurse) to learn about what a local hospital’s emergency plans would look like. Smaller or unexpected research topics always come up during the writing of the book; something like, what would a middle-class home in northern England look like, or what surgeries might a pediatrician observe while in medical school. In those instances, a quick internet search or fired off email usually does the trick. (Apologies for the gruesome what-ifs email I sent to my children’s pediatrician. His answers were quite helpful.)
SR: Speaking of short stories, even though I hate asking this question, I have to ask it because of the reaction I had when I finished reading it: How on earth did you come up with the idea for “Something About Birds”?
PT: Everyone’s favorite short fiction horror editor, Ellen Datlow, asked if I’d write her a bird horror story for an anthology (eventually titled Black Feathers). While doodling and scratching out ideas in my notebook, I drew a disembodied bird’s head. It came out surprisingly well-drawn for someone who can’t draw a lick. Then I had the unbidden image of someone giving another person a little bird head as some sort of gift, and the story spooled out from there.
SR: Like the ’80s and early-mid ’90s, there seems to be a very exciting horror resurgence happening right now. If you had to choose three cultural texts – films, TV series, books, video games, etc. – from the last, say, 5 years that you think spearheaded this resurgence, what would they be?
PT: Jordan Peele’s brilliant film Get Out (2017) is an obvious one. Based on its popularity and reach, it’d be difficult to deny the impact of the comics and AMC’s The Walking Dead. And third (though not in a particular order) I have to mention a book… or do I? Because I don’t think there was a single book. Instead, we have a generation of horror writers who’ve hit at the same time, each individual wave combining into a rising sea (work with me on that one); writers including Victor LaValle, Mariana Enriquez, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Stephen Graham Jones, Silvia Moreno Garcia, Alma Katsu, Laird Barron, Kelly Link, and so many more, and their work informs and pushes at the boundaries of horror and what it can be.
SR: Horror is a genre filled with time-tested clichés and tropes that we can’t help but love. You know, the cell phone that the main character “forgot” to put on silent or the killer’s victim choosing to go back to the house instead of making a dash for the car. Do you have a favourite trope and has it made an appearance in any of your novels?
PT: Well, I’m definitely not one for characters doing dumb things. I don’t view that as a trope so much as I view it as lazy writing. I tend to think about the larger tropes or subgenres like possession stories and zombies and vampires and home invasions. Most of my novels are a twist or a response to those tropes or subgenres. I would love to write a giant monster novel someday, but I haven’t come up with a good idea.
SR: As horror readers, we like to think that the authors are impervious to being scared since they’re the ones that come up with these twisted tales, so I want to ask: What is the one thing that scares you the most? Have you ever come up with a story that was so twisted it actually made you shiver while writing it?
PT: Everything but my own writing scares me. I’m too close to it and I can see all the gears (hopefully) turning. The closest I’ve come to scaring myself with a story was when I was writing a ghost story for an anthology, and in the middle of a (hopefully) scary scene in which the narrator heard a loud noise upstairs, I heard a loud noise upstairs. I was home alone. And I wanted to run away screaming. I investigated eventually (bringing a baseball bat with me as I crept upstairs) and found a bottle of shampoo had fallen off the soap shelf in one of the showers. So, yeah, I’m not afraid of my writing, but I’m afraid of falling shampoo?
SR: Horror is a genre that lends itself particularly well to the short story. I’m thinking here, in particular, of Stephen King’s Night Shift, Joe Hill’s Full Throttle, and your tremendous collection Growing Things. Do you have a preference between writing novels or writing short stories, or does the form depend on the story?
PT: Thank you, that’s very kind to say. I don’t have a preference, per se. Although! My favourite part of writing is being done with a story and then showing it to people, so maybe I like short stories better because they take much less time for me to write. That’s a lame answer, I know. Both forms have their appeal. I do enjoy being with my novel characters for so many pages and for so much time (on average, it takes me 12-15 months to write a novel). For me, it’s a totally different mindset writing a novel vs. short fiction. My short stories typically focus on one moment, whereas the novel might have a central moment, but then more fully explores the ripples of the aftermath.
SR: I know the answer is likely no and that you’ve probably heard this one a few times, but I have to try… Any chance you’ll let me in on what actually happened at the end of A Head Full of Ghosts? Was she possessed or no?
PT: Haha. I’ll never tell. Seriously. The ambiguity of the novel is the horror to me. That we’ll never know the answer, just like we’ll never know the nature of existence (what the hell is this we’re stuck in?) and we’ll never know (at least not when we’re living) what happens when we die.
SR: Haunted houses, monsters, or slashers. You can only keep one horror subgenre. Which would it be?
PT: In a toss-up between haunted houses and monsters, it’s monsters. Monsters are cool.
SR: What’s next for you?
In 2021, William Morrow is re-releasing my two weird detective novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. I’m hard at work on my next horror novel called The Pallbearers’ Club, which will likely be published summer of 2022. The gist of the new novel: It’s being written as a faux memoir of a person who, as a lonely teenager, started a club in which the members volunteered at a funeral home to attend services for deceased homeless and elderly.
In my opinion, Paul Tremblay is one of the best horror writers in the business today. If you haven’t had the pleasure of having your mind melted by the ending(s?) of A Head Full of Ghosts, or if you want to relive the terror that was seeing 28 Days Later for the first time by trying out his rabies-infected novel Survivor Song, or if you simply want an appropriately spooky read for this time of the year, pick up a novel (or short story collection) by Paul Tremblay. Any of them. I promise you will not be disappointed.
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read, Savvy Readers? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @SavvyReader!
Happy Spooky reading,