Horror Writer Paul Tremblay on What’s Scary

Bram Stoker Award-winning horror writer Paul Tremblay explores what's scary in the 21st century.

This article originally appeared in the 2016 Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here. Illustration by Emily Gloria Miller.

A shadowman watching you from your bedroom window; a dead tree that grows over the Devil’s final resting place; a young girl who may or may not be possessed by a demon; a boy who inexplicably walks into the woods one night, never to be seen again. This is the ominous world that Bram Stoker Award-winning author Paul Tremblay, 45, has created for his characters.

His protagonists float endlessly in a thick grey matter between the supernatural and the rational. Yet, it would be unfair to call Tremblay a cruel puppeteer. The writer is a self-identified skeptic and he plays both sides, advocating for the monsters that creep in the night, such as a mysterious shadow that’s stalking a small town in New England, as well as its logical explanation. Perhaps the girl who everyone thinks is possessed is actually suffering from a severe mental illness? By the end of Tremblay’s two latest novels, A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, you could argue either side and never quite come to a satisfactory explanation for the events that so heavily scar his characters. There’s a healthy dose of skepticism in his work, even as the author feeds into our most primitive beliefs in monsters and ghosts.

Tremblay, who has been publishing stories since the early 2000s, became one of horror’s most important voices with A Head Full of Ghosts, which he describes as a “postmodern, skeptical take on The Exorcist.” It’s the story of a family torn apart by the rapidly deteriorating mental health of Marjorie, the oldest daughter and the book’s tragic character. NPR praised the book for its “unsettling conversation about the truth, or what the various characters suspect is the truth.” Even Stephen King championed the book on Twitter: “A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.”

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Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is Tremblay’s latest. It focuses on a town dealing with the aftermath of a boy’s mysterious disappearance in a national park. “The deep waters [Tremblay] treads are the beautiful, black waves of nightmares,” said Fangoria of the book.

“As far as scaring people goes, I don’t know if I sit down with the goal to scare people. I’m super happy to find out that does happen,” Tremblay says. “When I sit down to write, and if I think it’s going to be a horrific story, I tend to concentrate more on it being disturbing. Even if there is going to be a supernatural element, I try to treat it naturalistically, if that makes sense, and build empathic characters. I think if I do that, the horror will sort of take care of itself.”

Tremblay’s work is from a different school of horror fiction, not the kind of campfire story you might think about when walking through your local bookstore. In fact, Tremblay, who grew up on a healthy diet of campy creature features, doesn’t rely on the gore and violence that many people expect from the genre.

He shared that it can be frustrating as a horror writer to be most associated with splatter films. “More than any other genre, horror gets associated with its worst movies,” he says. “When you say horror to somebody, most people’s images are of Eli Roth movies, Freddy Krueger, or Friday the 13th. They don’t think Shirley Jackson or Kelly Link, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She writes horror stories!”

Preferring a more literary approach in his fiction, Tremblay hopes the genre will continue to shift in that direction, although he also embraces being on the outside of the mainstream literary circles – the genre’s special place in American letters.

“There’s a big part of me that thinks horror will always be considered ‘outsider’ fiction, and the punk rock fan in me really likes that,” he says. “Because horror is ultimately about a transgression. Things are never going to be the same after a certain thing happens in your horror story. It’s uncomfortable, it’s disturbing.”

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A particularly unsettling transgression in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock involves a group of teenagers and a broken glass bottle. It’s one of the few moments of violence in the book, and it tears the characters apart.

“To me, when horror is done well, when it’s at its best, I think it answers the hardest questions of literature, which are how do we live through this? How does anybody live through this? When horror is really good, it asks those questions in difficult ways.”

How is Tremblay asking those questions in his own work? A big concern in his books is the horror of the internet: how we interact with it, how we’re all connected through it, and how people can use it to do terrible things. In his books, technology and social media are often the tyrannical fences that keep his characters boxed in, unable to escape the more conventional terrors. To Tremblay, who writes on a computer and uses social media more than he’d like to admit, the web is a big source of horror in the 21st century.

“I do think [an] anxiety I often grapple with is about the internet and social media. Yeah, there are obviously so many cool benefits to it, but we’re also learning there are many uncool things about the internet and being connected all the time,” Tremblay says, recalling a short story he wrote in 2008 called “The Blog at the End of the World,” which tackles similar themes amidst a potentially world-ending epidemic being covered up by the government. It’s a paranoia-fueled examination of the evils of comment sections and the trolls who can do so much harm with mere words.

“The idea of information and misinformation, this eternal battle of the internet, is certainly very interesting to me as a writer. I think for both books, that’s certainly in there,” he adds.

Scenes from Disappearance at Devil’s Rock quickly come to mind: a sister desperately texting her missing brother that she loves him and that he should come home; a depressed mother who reads terrible rumors about her son on Facebook and Twitter; and the mysterious final Snapchat messages the boy sent before disappearing forever. Tremblay often uses technology to depict the pain and suffering of his characters.

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“All this stuff can make you feel more isolated. In fact, I think there are tons of [sociological] studies out there that show how easily emotionally manipulated you can be by social media. There’s certainly enough evidence out there to say that being on Facebook too much actually makes you depressed. One of the things that they theorize is that seeing all of these people posting happy things, and you’re just reading that all the time, you’re like, ‘Jeez, why isn’t my life like this?’”

Although Tremblay regards himself as a storyteller first, and that these real-life concerns are all in service of the fiction, he also emphasizes that he’s “interested in telling a story about right now.” That’s why Tremblay’s characters are trapped in moments of uncertainty, frantically trying to piece together the truth from bad memories, police transcripts, and the web. But there’s so much noise, so much conflicting information, that they’re doomed to never know the truth for sure.

A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are out now. Tremblay’s next novel is The Four, which is described by HarperCollins as “a riff on a home invasion story with a potential supernatural twist” It’s due out in summer 2018. A collection of Tremblay’s short stories from the past decade, The Growing Things, is also out in 2019. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

You can check out the print version of this article below: