Growing Things by Paul Tremblay
Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene
Short stories are a funny thing for me and I can be fickle about the format. I mean, when done right, it’s one of my favorite forms for horror fiction. But when I say “done right,” what I mean to say is I’m a picky motherfucker and I want them to be done perfectly. What do I mean by perfect in this context? Well, think of works by the likes of Shirley Jackson and Lucius Shepard, Ambrose Bierce and Clive Barker. Or Joe Hill, not so much with Full Throttle–which I’m currently working through–but 21st Century Ghosts. That collection is about as close to irreproachable as a book gets for me and indicative of the type of story I’m talking about. And sure, that sets a pretty fucking high bar for other authors to live up to, but I think it’s a fair one, and I think there are currently a lot of authors living up to and exceeding it. Damien Angelica Walters is one, as are Brian Evenson, Roxanne Gay, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and on and on ad infinitum. Horror fiction is experiencing a heydey right now and the trove of uncanny talent abounds with fresh bounty, with some of the best authors of my generation producing top-notch fiction of all lengths. Which, of course, leads me to the book I’m talking about today.
In 2015, Paul Tremblay made horror novelists’ jobs a lot more difficult when he forever upped the ante on the form with the breakout horror novel, A Head Full of Ghosts. That book was a game-changer for the industry and one that showed that an author can do anything they want and get away with it, no matter how experimental, if they do it well. In Tremblay’s case that was to embrace ambiguity as a theme. We didn’t realize then that’s what he was doing, but with the follow-up entries of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World it became clear that literary obfuscation was a thing with him, and one he had complete mastery over. Now, with this new collection, he applies his uncanny talent to the short story, in the process proving he has just as much prowess with the short form as he does everything else he touches.
Growing Pains is a collection of nineteen tales and it’s a demonstration of what happens when you put a true master to the task of telling a good story, one who can make you believe in the monsters beyond the campfire light. These are works of extreme inspiration, ones that spark the reader’s imagination, sending it wandering and wondering what happens beyond the last sentence. What are the fates of these places and people? In largely realistic settings, Paul Tremblay takes us on fanciful journeys that make the world seem like someplace we’ve never been but are pretty sure we don’t want to visit other than through these words. The titular story revisits some old favorites in the form of Kerry and Mallory who most of you will remember from A Head Full of Ghosts. That said, let that build no expectations in you for a revisitation of the events in that book. The characters are there, but the story is another thing entirely, apocalyptic, surreal, and breathtaking.
And if that first story is a sign of things to come–hint: it is–then you know from the first few turns of the page that you’re in for something ultra-special and the collection delivers on that promise in spades. My usual tendency with a book like this is to want to share something about every story in it with you, but that would be both impractical and time consuming to say the least. I could write volumes about every remarkable tale here and still not have praised it enough. So let me just do what I do and draw your attention to some personal favorites in this book of cover to cover favorites. Following closely on the heels of the title story comes “Swim Wants To Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks,” a bleeding tale of addiction and despair that presents us with what is either the end of the entire world, or the apocalypse of a single soul. This is the first one to really give you a taste of the common thread that runs through most of the stories here: ambiguity. As with his novels, Tremblay specializes in literary obfuscation and, while all the stories are memorable, enjoyable, and complete, they also have the tendency to leave you thinking and wondering about them long after the last page is turned. This next piece I want to mention brings another common aspect of Tremblay’s ability to the forefront, as does the first one in the book, and that is Tremblay’s incredible alacrity with character development, a superpower of his. “Thirteen Snapshots of Dennisport” cuts to the heart of terror and loss in a series of thirteen vignettes leading to a homicide and one young man’s attempt to make sense of the events therein. We fall in love with this character and are completely invested in the outcome of the work, knowing bad things are coming but hoping for the best all the same.
Another tale that plays out in a series of vignettes, like many in the book do, is “Our Town’s Monster,” a trippy tale that presents monstrousness in its many forms and begins at the same time sort of setting us up for the kind of subtle mayhem of the rest of the book, a sort of controlled chaos that seems as if it would be cumbersome, yet one Tremblay handles as he does everything here with remarkable ability. Followed closely by the experimental brilliance that is “The Ice Tower,” another prime sampling of Tremblay’s intentional use of the strange and ambiguous, this is possibly the most cosmic piece in the book and damn near the darkest. But that honor goes to one that I had previously read in Christopher Golden’s Dark Cities anthology and one of my favorite Tremblay shorts bar none, a story called “The Society of the Monsterhood.” I wasted no time reading this story for both a second and third time in succession as soon as I came across it, so deep is my love of it.
Finishing out the collection and serving as both anchor and bookend to the title story, “The Thirteenth Temple” once again leaves us in the hands of our delightfully broken A Head Full of Ghosts narrator, Merry and served to finally and ultimately cement my belief in the following truth: Stephen King called Growing Things one of the best collections of the 21st century so far. I would go so far as to say it is the best of the century so far, I’ll stand my reputation behind that. Paul Tremblay is an author that quickly etched his name on the hearts of horror fans everywhere in a very short span of time and this amazing collection of dark literary gems is a prime indicator of why that’s true. Growing Things is poised at this point in time to be the first short story collection ever to land in the number one slot on my year’s best list and, at this late date, I don’t foresee anyone changing my mind about that.