Growing Things by Paul Tremblay

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On 29th July, horror maestro Stephen King tweeted:

“Can’t praise Paul Tremblay’s GROWING THINGS highly enough. 19 creepy classics that will turn your favourite easy chair into an uneasy chair. One of the best collections of the 21st century.”

High praise indeed. When one of the undisputed masters of the genre goes out of his way to say that your collection is one of the best in the century, you take note. Book cover quotes from authors are a dime a dozen, but when a prominent author gives you some air time on the Twittersphere, it means something. Fortunately for me, I had already read The Cabin at the End of the World and A Head Full of Ghosts, so knew that his short story collection, Growing Things, would depict frighteningly imaginative tales of the macabre. After reading the last page, I wasn’t disappointed. On display here are nineteen eerie shorts of the uncanny, some with terrifying imagery, some swerving towards heart-breaking poignancy, reflecting our world from a surprising (if traumatic) perspective. All the stories will resonate and linger in the mind long after reading, and each is well written from whatever perspective Tremblay decides to tell his story. In a couple of the stories we read from a child’s viewpoint, and Tremblay expertly manages to tread the fine line of childish temperament and innocent sentimentality without losing the flow of prose. With all short story collections however, there’s an inevitability that particular stories will be more memorable than others. And Tremblay’s Growing Things is no different.

The title story is our first glimpse into Tremblay’s world, and it sets the scene of what to expect throughout the anthology: whether the concealed message relates to the ongoing debate about climate change, this short portrays a slow apocalypse via invasive plants, shooting up through the ground like bamboo stalks. Two sisters, Marjorie and Merry, are trapped in an old cabin as their father paces the mudroom, trying to work out how to survive the growing things. There’s a vague sense of foreboding running throughout the narrative, and Tremblay has mastered the art of describing an ominous dread permeating throughout the character’s lives. The girls tell stories to distract themselves as the wooden stalks sprout through their basement floor, threatening to tear their home apart. When their father leaves the cabin to find food, they have no idea if he’ll ever return.

Next is “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks,” portraying an addict (S.W.I.M is a cipher for “someone who isn’t me”) the acronym used by the female protagonist on an online forum to discuss her junkie-like tendencies, and this story made me think of Stephen King’s The Mist, even though there is no titular fog in this story. But there be monsters.

It’s not just horror or the uncanny that we explore in Growing Things too, as Tremblay writes crime fiction and this is evident in a couple of stories – in “The Getaway,” a knockoff artist is struggling to escape his brother’s shadow, and “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport,” chronicles a flashback tale from a boy that tries to piece together the murder of his father. As you tumble down the rabbit hole that Tremblay has tunnelled for the reader, you take note of all the experimental narrative structures, story formatting and literary devices used within the collection. To explain them here would be spoiling some of the fun surprises that you should be able to experience for yourself, but for fans of Choose Your Own Adventure tales, let’s just say that there’s a beautifully haunting story in the mix that plays with the old trope used in the Fighting Fantasy novels of yesteryear.

An author reading that goes awry, a family vacation that messes with your conception of whether the main protagonist is having some sort of brain trauma, all these stories seamlessly sprinkle in a sense of unease that abruptly builds to a sense of pure terror. Tremblay also plays with Meta narrative in “Notes from the Dog Walker,” which is a brand-new novella and among the most impressive here. Told in a series of messages left by various dog walkers of (possibly) Tremblay’s own dog, the story begins innocently enough, slowly becoming odd, moving to awkward, and ultimately spiralling into intense discomfort – there’s fan service at play here too – a character who could allegedly be Karen Brissette from Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts rants about the horror genre in her notes, while the memorable Merry from the same earlier book anchors the equally creepy “The Thirteenth Temple.” You don’t need to know any of these characters from Tremblay’s earlier works, but it adds a nice touch to the proceedings.

Tremblay writes about ghosts and monsters and the end of the world. Disasters of the mind, both large and small haunt the space between the covers. These are the kind of horror stories that could be found in an episode of The Twilight Zone. They’re the kind of stories that make you want to check under the bed before you go to sleep just to make sure there’s nothing under there. That make you race up the stairs and slap on the lights if you’re alone at the house at night. If you’re a fan of speculative horror, then no doubt you’ve already heard of Paul Tremblay. For those out there that have no idea who he is, then I highly recommend Growing Things as a ‘get to know you,’ offering, as I’d likely suspect that once you start reading, you’ll devour the whole thing like a ravenous creature from the author’s own pages.

Growing Things is published by Titan Books and is available here.

Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy awards and is the author of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and The Cabin at the End of the World. He is currently a member of the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards, and his essays and short fiction have appeared in Entertainment Weekly.com, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He lives outside Boston with his family.

Reviewed by Anthony Self

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