Eight-year-old Wen and her dads, Eric and Andrew, are vacationing in a remote cabin in the woods in New Hampshire. Eric and Andrew are lounging on the back deck, overlooking a lake, trying hard to give Wen some space to play on her own. That almost immediately appears to be the wrong decision, as a large man named Leonard unexpectedly arrives while Wen is catching grasshoppers in the front yard. Wen knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers, but Leonard is disarmingly nice, and he’s very helpful with the grasshoppers.
The tension posed by this scenario is already ratcheted up to 11 on a 10 point scale, but it’s only the beginning; three more people show up with strange and menacing weapons. Wen runs inside and she and her dads attempt to keep the strangers out. They fail. The strangers, however, do not immediately slaughter the family. Instead, after immobilizing the men, injuring Eric severely in the process, they declare that Wen, Eric, and Andrew have a chance to prevent the apocalypse if they will make an unimaginable sacrifice.
From there, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018) becomes a tense, brutal, and twisty psychological horror story which has won the 2019 Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, and has been nominated for a Locus Award as well. These awards are the latest in a long string of nominations and awards, really a remarkable record for someone who only published his first novel in 2009. In fact, Paul Tremblay first won the Stoker for his 2015 novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, and two of his earlier four novels were nominated for the same award — quite a record.
As you can tell by our ratings, we had very different reactions to The Cabin at the End of the World. Here are our personal thoughts:
Terry: The Cabin at the End of the World is brilliantly plotted and beautifully written. Tremblay puts his readers in the place of Eric and Andrew, forced to try to figure out exactly what these strangers want and whether they are actually threatening or engaged in group delusion so weird that it’s difficult to pull them back into the real world. It is strange and disorienting to watch Eric and Andrew’s thoughts as the occupation continues, and particularly as the four strangers claim proof of their prediction of complete apocalypse if the two men do not commit an unspeakable act of violence.
There are religious echoes in everything the group does, from the immediately obvious analogy to the four horsemen of the apocalypse to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac to Jesus’s presentation of his wounds to Thomas, the Unbeliever. It is, perhaps, his religious background that causes Eric to start to wonder if the invading strangers might have a point.
Tremblay slowly and carefully leads us to a conclusion that is mysterious and frightening. I finished the book wanting very badly to know what happened next, but that ambiguity is what the book is really about. It is, in the final analysis, a book about faith, its nature, its hold on us, its inability to move those who do not possess it. Tremblay raises many questions, but doesn’t give his readers pat answers for any of them, ratcheting up the tension at every turn. I absolutely get why this book won the Stoker this year. It’s an amazing piece of work.
Kat: I don’t read much horror, especially if it’s bloody, which is a large part of the reason I didn’t enjoy The Cabin at the End of the World as well as Terry did. The story is very stressful and definitely bloody, so that was a problem for me which is just a matter of personal taste.
I agree with Terry about the head-spinning, disorientating feel that started on the first page and never let up. This was beautifully accomplished and I admired this aspect of the novel, particularly the way that Eric had to confront his personal beliefs and try to determine the truth of the situation while dealing with a concussion.
However, there was a plot problem that I couldn’t get past — once it popped up, it niggled at me until the end, greatly diminishing my ability to suspend disbelief: There were times when Andrew, a Boston University professor, should have done a bit more fact-checking or asked more questions. For example, when the strangers tuned the TV to a news broadcast that provided evidence for the strangers’ apocalypse claim, they only turned it to a specific channel at a specific time of day (the leader kept looking at his watch until it was time to turn on the TV). I kept wanting Andrew to ask them to turn it to a different station or to turn it on at a different time of day as more proof. (Plus, if the apocalypse was happening, wouldn’t you want to be watching the news?) Andrew’s skipping of these obvious fact-checking steps didn’t seem in line with his skeptical nature or with his profession as an academic. Similarly, the strangers did not provide good evidence for why Wen, Andrew, and Eric were their targets and Andrew did not press them enough on this. Again, it seemed out of character for a skeptic.
If the story had ended differently than it did, I might have had a better reaction to The Cabin at the End of the World. But I think Paul Tremblay wanted me to think it was going a certain way, and then he pulled the rug out from under me, terrorizing me quite considerably. The Cabin at the End of the World was surprising, depressing and devastating. In this way, it works very well as a horror story — just one that I had trouble believing in.
I listened to Harper Audio’s edition of The Cabin at the End of the World. The narrator, Amy Landon, gave a flat and lifeless performance that did not do the novel any service. I was disappointed in the audiobook and don’t recommend it.