Careful listeners may recognize Paul Tremblay as the author of one of the first books we ever covered on this podcast: Headful of Ghosts. The last story I covered came from The Best Horror of the Year Volume 11 (which I’m still working my way through), but when I was flipping through this years edition of The Best Horror of the Year I noticed there was a Tremblay story front and center. I just had to check it out. Headful of Ghosts is the only thing that I’ve ever read from Paul Tremblay. I thoroughly enjoyed Headful of Ghosts and I’ve been looking for a break in my podcast reading to check out another one of his books. This short story was a perfect fit.
Before we jump into the story itself I just wanted to briefly mention that the story was originally commissioned for a ghost story anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories.
The reason I want to briefly mention this is because I believe that Ellen Datlow is a name that sci-fi/fantasy/horror fiction fans should acquaint themselves with. Datlow is in award winning editor, and she has put together some of the best short story anthologies out there. If you walk past something edited by her in the bookstore, maybe thumb through it.
Paul Tremblay took an interesting tactic with this story. I believe it’s at least partly fictional, but it’s told from a first person perspective and the main character is actually Paul Tremblay. This isn’t a Lovecraft situation where the narrator is supposed to be a fictional character, but I just forgot the name and called him “Lovecraft.” In this case, Paul Tremblay is telling a story as if from memory.
The story begins with Tremblay’s mother dropping off a box full of old mementos from his childhood that she no longer wants to store in her house. Tremblay’s wife and child are away on an overnight trip and so he is alone in the house as he goes through the box. In the box he finds a drawing that disturbs him greatly. This drawing takes him back to a memory of a summer vacation where he decided to get to know a girl he liked by being the first customer in a little haunted house tour that the girl and her sister are running. Much of the story describes Paul’s tour. The two girls seem to work well together, the script for the tour is obviously written by the older girl while the younger girl manipulates the various tricks and illusions in quirky and cute ways.
After a few jump scares and some descriptions of Paul’s teenage awkwardness, the tour seemingly stops and Paul has a heart to heart conversation with his love interest. During the conversation she shows him the drawing and she tells him that this is the ghost that haunts her. She talks about being terrified that some day this ghost will leave her mind and come into reality. Then they hear a bump coming from upstairs, and it’s not the little sister doing the effect. To avoid spoilers I think I’ll end the summary there.
Overall, I enjoyed the story. It’s concise, well written, and packs a decent punch. True to Tremblay’s style it remains grounded in plausibility, and it has something real to say about the human experience. Particularly, it deals with themes of growing up. As we grow up we become different people, and for better or worse we tend to forget the people who were important to us as children. I think everyone of a certain age has had moments where something triggers a powerful memory that allows you to temporarily return to your past headspace. The feeling of overwhelming nostalgia, and usually a few regrets is real and it’s powerful. I’ve felt myself recoil from experiences like that. Tremblay really taps into that experience, and explores some of the horror of our childhood regrets refusing to stay in the past.
There are a few things that I didn’t like about the story. This may not be a fair criticism, as this is a story set in Tremblay’s childhood and Tremblay was a child of the 80’s. I’m absolutely exhausted with 80’s nostalgia right now. I have never cared for Stranger Things. I’m not into the “kids on bicycles having adventures” trope. That just isn’t my nostalgia, and I don’t relate to it. Fortunately, that’s not really what this is. Unfortunately, once I get that vibe I find it difficult to shed. This could be a personal problem unique to me.
The second issue I have is a consequence of having read Headful of Ghosts. I see Marjorie and Merry in these girls. The age difference is similar, and their personalities are very similar. We have a teenaged girl who makes up stories that her little sister participates in, and the teenaged girl is worried about a ghost literally escaping her head. I can’t decide whether or not I like this. I absolutely love the idea that Marjorie and Merry from Headful of Ghosts were based on these sisters that Tremblay supposedly knew as children. On the other hand, if this story is a complete fabrication, I’m worried that he’s going back to that well too many times. Tremblay admits that at least parts of this story are fabricated. Tremblay includes an illustration with the story, and he does credit the artist who is a member of his family.
I tend to think that these sisters did not actually exist, and this is either homage to a previous story or he unconsciously fell into a familiar groove. If that is the case, I think it’s too similar and I would have loved to have seen something new from Paul Tremblay. I know he has other novels that are totally different from Headful of Ghosts, so I don’t want to make too big a deal of this, but it did affect my overall enjoyment of the story.