Reading a short story collection is sort of like having a series of chats with a relative stranger, maybe your mailperson or the guy you buy your coffee from each morning. While the individual conversations are different in their minor details, together they paint a singular picture, rich with undercurrents and nuance, of deeper preoccupations, joys, fears, and hauntings—the things that make a person tick, and also the things that keep him up at night. The best collections leave you with the feeling that you've explored a large, unnamable territory from a variety of different vantage points. And like the best of collections, each subsequent piece of the strange and wonderful In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay produces an extra level of association, a subconscious drawing of lines connecting the material and creating something even greater than the sum of its parts. Tremblay offers readers a look into the dark corners of that mysterious space between childhood and adulthood—not quite adolescence, but rather a space of not-knowingness, the impression of a whole wide world out there offered at first only in stolen glimpses. In the Mean Time is a book full of these glimpses, and the effect is startling and heartbreaking as we feel, again and again, the seductive allure of growing up and the very real heartbreak of finding out that the world isn’t necessarily all that we had imagined.
The collection begins with "The Teacher," a creepy story about a group of students under the tutelage of someone who they at first think is hip and cool—"We love him because he looks like us" (p. 13)—whose lessons seem uniquely relevant and who appears to actually occupy a place of importance in the real world, at least within their limited frame of reference. The narrator, Kate, spends her time trying to decide whether this impression is accurate, and the story investigates the idea of willful ignorance, the choice to simply not know in situations in which knowing requires abandoning the way we once looked at the world. The next story, "The Two-Headed Girl," mines similar territory, introducing us to Veronica, a girl with a second head which adopts the countenance of a rotating crop of influential historical women—Anne Frank, Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, and many others. Veronica's over-protective mother shelters her from the world by keeping her out of school and forcing her to operate a mysterious electricity-generating swing, a device supposedly invented by her father, whose identity and whereabouts also remain a mystery, at least to Veronica. The world of the story is engrossing, and the payoff in the form of Veronica's revelations about the acquisition of knowledge—mirroring that of Kate in "The Teacher"—is poignant and sharply felt. The effect of these two stories together is unnerving, as we are forced to confront the things that we might also be choosing not to know. Despite the differences in their tone—the first contains no fantastic elements, while the second is much more strange and surreal—these stories mine the same territory, showing us two protagonists at the same stage in the process of growing up, the true nature of their world finally revealing itself to them.
"The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas: An Excerpt from a History of the Longesian Library" takes the form of notes kept by a librarian in a strange city which is attacked (or at least visited) by balloons every nineteen years. Tremblay reveals his City and its history in glimpses and excerpts, a seemingly patchwork worldbuilding that ultimately proves meticulous and immersive. We hear about the balloons, those “symbols … of the irrational and capricious nature of our City-lives” (p. 45), through an intricate layering of texts—Nicholas's own notes, plus a pamphlet apparently written by his (apparently) dead mother. And we hear about Annotte, the mysterious place where the balloons choose to descend, filled with "column-like buildings pointing to the sky, like skinny fingers" (p. 57), through rare glimpses into Nicholas's childhood.
Nicholas is obsessed with the balloons for very personal reasons: the balloons destroyed his family, turning him into a reclusive scholar whose personal life is relegated mostly to between-the-lines references in his notes documenting the lead-up to the next balloon appearance, which he plans to observe first hand from the Library's rooftop. Summary does this story little justice, but what inevitably comes through is the narrator's search for secret truths locked away in the past. Nicholas has lived most of the last two decades in a state of limbo, grieving for what he lost and preparing for his chance at redemption: "In the end, all we have are the big questions: Why Balloons? What connection do they have to Annotte? Why the violence? Why the disappearances? What does it all mean?" (p. 56-57). And what he encounters by the end are more of those Big Revelations from which there is no going back. The metafictional narrative technique owes itself to antecedents like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), but I was also reminded of Jeff VanderMeer’s more recent Shriek: An Afterword (2006), the story of another scholar (in another fantasy city) reckoning with the past through the process of telling her own story.
In "Growing Things," two sisters are holed up in a house with their father after the world has been mostly destroyed, telling stories to each other both to pass the time and to reclaim some sense of tradition and normalcy, a reminder of the way things were: "Angie has repeatedly told Florida that their mother used to tell stories, and that some of her stories were funny while others were sad or scary. Those stories, the ones Florida doesn’t remember hearing, were about everyone and everything" (p. 84). The stories they tell now are about the horrific plants growing from the ground and taking over everything—the source of the apocalypse, the enemy that cannot be defeated. Their father is filled with secrets, as adults often are in Tremblay’s stories, and he later embarks on a mission to procure food and water, going out into the dangerous world outside and leaving the girls to fend for themselves in the house’s relative safety.
The premise, setting, and themes—sisters and stories and an elusive father figure—all beg a comparison to Kelly Link’s "The Specialist’s Hat," a modern genre classic, that Tremblay’s story easily withstands, matching the creepiness and sense of impending doom that Link conjured up so well in that story. The mystery surrounding the father's motivations is another element that binds the two stories together; in "Growing Things," Florida and Angie's father "has become unknowable, unreachable: a single tree in a vast forest, or a story she once heard but has long forgotten" (p. 92). Childhood is presented as a claustrophobic state of being, producing a sort of cabin fever—you desperately want to get out, but it might be even scarier on the outside. Florida’s coming-of-age occurs in a moment of uncertainty as someone knocks on the door who could be her father or who could not be, and both options are equally terrifying as we listen with her to "a pounding by a singular and determined first, as big as her shrinking old world, maybe as big as the growing new one" (p. 97-98).
Florida, Veronica, and Kate are birds of a feather, girls at various stages of the process of gaining access to a new world by uncovering previously hidden truths. Becca Gilman, the blogger protagonist of "The Blog at the End of the World," is similarly discovering that everything is not as it seems. After the death of her best friend, she sees destruction and decay everywhere she looks:
The city was darker last night than it was last week, or the week before. I don’t know if I’m doing a good job explaining all this. I'm watching the city fall apart. It's slow and subtle, but you can see it if you look hard enough. Watch. Everything is slowing down. A windup toy running down and with no one to wind it up. Everything is dying but not quite dead yet, so people just go about their days as if nothing is wrong and nothing bad can happen tomorrow. (p. 122)
Becca's descent into paranoia—or maybe it really is the end of the world, another of Tremblay’s recurring obsessions—is revealed in reverse time, mimicking the format of a blog in which the most recent entries always appear first. There are even recurring commenters to the blog entries who provide counterpoints to Becca's paranoid narrative, sometimes agreeing with her claim that something fishy is going on while at other times dismissing her as crazy. But Becca is similar to the girls from other stories in In the Mean Time because she senses that something is being kept from her; she exists in that threshold between blissful ignorance and full knowledge, and that between state threatens to break her completely.
Other stories in the collection feature things like spiders that eat secrets, people trapped in the rubble of giant buildings, men collecting teeth while trying to bury painful childhood memories (in a plot structurally reminiscent of classic horror novels by writers such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, in It (1986) or A Dark Matter (2010), respectively) and, in "The People Who Live Near Me," a defiantly unreliable narrator observing the minutiae—more mysterious and terrifying by the second, as the line between reality and fiction becomes dangerously blurred—of people living, well, near him. Again we have an example of obscuring the truth in the telling of stories, in this case anecdotes from a past that may or not have actually happened, or may have happened to someone else entirely. But does it really matter who the story happened to? Doesn’t it exist, now, as a separate thing altogether—as a part of us all equally? Stories, after all, are a way of coming to terms with the world, of making sense of its inherent senselessness, and this comes through in a number of Tremblay's stories. The narrator of "The People Who Live Near Me" perhaps puts it best: "I'm trying to understand my neighbor, a fellow human being who lives in the same cul-de-sac or the same development, by understanding how I'd react if I were in his situation, his proverbial shoes. Isn't that how we all try to relate to each other? Through the filter of ourselves?" (p. 145).
The two masterpieces of the collection come at the very end of the book. "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks" is a brilliant story about the end of the world, told from a child's perspective, a young boy who sees the foreboding strangeness of a world slowly emptying itself of people as an excuse to keep a family vacation going on a little bit longer. Danny knows that he doesn’t have all the information about his and his family’s circumstances, but he also doesn’t quite know how to process his observations:
The noises are outside the cottage, echoing in the mountains. He hears thunder and lightning or a plane or a bunch of planes or a bunch of thunder and lightning and he is still convinced you can hear both thunder and lightning or he hears a bear's roar or a bunch of bears' roars or he hears the cottage's toilet, which has the world’s loudest super-flush according to Daddy or he hears a bomb or a bunch of bombs. Bombs are something he has only seen and heard in Spider-Man cartoons. Whatever the noises are, they are very far away and he has no magic words that will send his ears out that far. (p. 179)
Danny asks his father to read a message etched onto a wooden picture frame he finds in the cottage they’re staying in on vacation—"Children are the magic dreamers that we all once were" (p. 186)—and this cheesy sentence feels, in the context of the collection as a whole, entirely true. The title refers to a moment early in the story when the vacationers discover that they aren't allowed to feed the ducks that they’ve encountered on a beach, and later, when it seems that all has been lost, the family disregards this rule, finding—at least in Danny's eyes—that the end of the world means you can do things that weren’t allowed before. Danny is a very observant narrator, though, and by the end of the story he begins to understand that something big is happening: "He almost knows why they are still here when everyone else is disappearing, but he can’t quite get there, can’t reach it, like the night he tried to send his ears out to the noises" (p. 187). But since we know more than Danny does about what's going on, we want him to stay forever wrapped up in childhood’s naiveté, feeding the ducks and living a perpetual holiday. The tragedy, of course, is that he can't.
Yet another apocalypse tale is "We Will Never Live in the Castle," the collection’s devastating final story, notable not only for the strength of its narrator’s voice but also the scope of its ambition. Like Constance in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), Tremblay’s narrator isolates himself as a way of surviving the harshness of the world; distrustful of the outside, which has largely fallen into chaos and ruin in the wake of some mysterious apocalyptic event, he seeks solace in the familiar, in spaces he can control. The struggles inherent in a world where there are no more rules occur here among survivors, mostly teenagers, holed up in a children's theme park—an appropriate metaphor for all that has been lost—as these characters make reluctant alliances and try to survive on their own terms.
Despite his reservations about trusting others, the protagonist befriends a girl his own age in an attempt to revise the life of the awkward teen he had lived before and show that now, after the world has seemingly ended, everything is different. He recalls how he once "wore Dickies that were too tight and too small for me because Mom wouldn’t buy me new ones, some of the older kids at the park used to ask where the flood was, they don’t ask that anymore, do they?" (p. 197). He plans, with his new accomplice, to take over Cinderella's Castle, presented in the story as a sort of mythic place ("I deserve the Castle, I want the Castle" [p. 204]) which has been forcibly, and rather fittingly, occupied by a group of jocks. However, he faces consequences for his trust which in high school would be entirely manageable—being ostracized from one's peers is hurtful but not necessary life-threatening—but all bets are off in the apocalypse, and the expectations and responsibilities that come alongside inheriting the earth are all the more urgent when you're actually all that’s left.
"We Will Never Live in the Castle" aptly and heartbreakingly addresses the traumas of growing up while exploring the implications and consequences of isolation, self-inflicted or otherwise—of not being part of the wider world. The story's ending is wrenching and horrific, shocking mostly because you can’t imagine any other way things could have ended up. But the darkness of Tremblay’s fictional worlds is imbued with true depth and feeling, showing us that sometimes there is indeed beauty to be found in dark corners. And, being the concluding story in the volume and also one of the few stories original to In the Mean Time, we can read "We Will Never Live in the Castle" as exemplary of Tremblay's skill level in the short form (he’s also published two novels)—which is to say, this is brilliant stuff. He tells the kinds of stories that reveal the truths nesting inside the things that scare us the most. If ever I find myself wandering through an apocalyptic darkness, I would trust Paul Tremblay to hold my flashlight.
Richard Larson was born in 1984 and is a Brooklynite by way of St. Louis, MO. His short stories have appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, and Sybil's Garage, and are forthcoming in Subterranean, Shimmer Magazine, and Wilde Stories 2011: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction. In addition to reviewing books for Strange Horizons, his film (and other) reviews have also appeared at Slant Magazine and The House Next Door. He went to grad school but all he got was this stupid T-shirt, so now he spends most of his time reading and writing (and writing about) speculative fiction. He blogs at http://www.rlarson.net.