With each of his (increasingly acclaimed) novels, Paul Tremblay has proven himself a master of certain strain of psychological horror, focusing more on the inner landscapes of his characters than the supernatural threats that menace them. His latest, The Cabin at the End of the World, is built on a familiar horror premise: a family of three is conered and held captive in their home by a group of strangers for their own ends.
But rather than simply pit his human protagonists against a group of inhuman monsters, Tremblay uses the tight confines of their cabin and the tense atmosphere and breathless pacing of the home-invasion narrative to delve deeper into the psyches of all of his characters, both victims and perpetrators, and explore the mindset that would allow someone to commit such evil acts. Under Tremblay’s skilled hand, the narrative turns from dark and intense to cerebral, a tour de force of psychological and religious horror. To twist the old adage, it asks, why do people do bad things to good people?
On a bright summer afternoon, Andrew, Eric, and their daughter Wen are vacationing in a remote lakeside cabin when four strangers advance on their house carrying strange tools. Led by a soft-spoken young man who calls himself Leonard, the four claim they’re there to help the family save the world, and that the three family members will have to make a single, horrifying choice. As the situation quickly descends into violence and paranoia, a series of bizarre coincidences casts doubt on whether or not the intruders are telling the truth. Both parties are pushed to their breaking points, each desperate to ensure their survival—and possibly the survival of the entire human race—by whatever means they deem necessary.
There’s an economy in the way Tremblay depicts the action, which tends to be told in snapshots or short descriptive sentences, never lingering long on the gory details and quick-cutting between the parallel events as the situation unravels. The frenetic, cinematic editing in these sequences ups the dramatic tension during slower scenes, the contrast drawing out the suspense and adding fuel to a fire that could ignite with the turn of the next page. The technique underscores the uncertainty at the story’s center—both the invaders and their captives seem to be at sea, unsure of what their next step should be. When violence breaks out in short, sudden bursts of prose, the intruders are left just as horrified as their victims—not to mention readers.
In contrast to a lot of home invasion narratives, there’s an element of pathos to the cult members, who cut pathetic figures even when in (dubious) control of the situation. They’re following mysterious directives they know very little about, and are unable to harm their captives except in self-defense. The banality of their evil—they’re simply following the instructions of a purported higher power (or a deranged and vengeful madman, your mileage may vary)—makes it all the more terrifying; as far as they are concerned, a greater power has trapped them in this cabin and is forcing them to hold a family hostage until that terrible choice is made. Despite their apocalyptic portents and weird weapons, they seem to be relatively normal people, which only makes what they’re choosing to do to Eric, Andrew, and Wen all the more monstrous.
The Cabin at the End of the World is an interesting exploration of the mindset of evil. The antagonists never take full responsibility for their actions, offloading the blame on their masters, or onto Eric and Andrew for failing to make the sadistic choice they’ve been offered. They’re the most terrifying kind of villains: not particularly monstrous themselves, but with such a strong belief their ends are justified, they’re willing to resort to any means to bring them about. Is saving humanity worth it if what’s required proves us not worth saving?