I’d heard that Paul Tremblay was a rising star amongst horror writers, so I came to ‘Survivor Song’ with high expectations. Paul Tremblay exceeded them, delivering a gripping, intense novel built around big ideas and driven by strong, memorable characters.
‘Survivor Song’ is one of those timely books that suggest precognition by the writer, or at least being tapped into the zeitgeist. Published this year, it imagines a fast-spreading, deadly virus hitting Massachusetts. Hospitals are overrun, there are shortages of PPE for front-line medical staff, disagreements between Federal and State authorities on what needs to be done, a struggle to impose a quarantine and small groups of self-appointed alt-right militia patrolling with guns to keep their neighbourhood safe and resist what they’ve convince themselves is a UN-led conspiracy to take over America using a mind-altering vaccine against a virus they released in the US.
Sadly, in these days when, despite 200,000 deaths, COVID-19 is labelled as both a hoax and an attack by the Chinese and making wearing a mask mandatory is seen as a violation of freedom and an attack on the Constitution, this all sound familiar.
What’s new is that this virus is a form of fast-acting rabies, passed on by saliva. Within an hour of being bitten, people go rabid, lose their minds and start to bite others. Yep, you got it, a zombie plague.
But Paul Tremblay refuses to go down the route set out for us in all those zombie-apocalypse TV shows and video games. He keeps the focus human and real. He lets us continue to see the infected as victims, people who have been bitten and are losing themselves. He rejects the it’s.-the-end-of-the-world-so-let’s-abandon-civilization-and-kill-stuff knee-jerk reaction and frames the plague as something that will pass, something that can be survived, something where what we do and what we refuse to do to survive will define our futures.
As I neared the end of this book, with my emotions wrung-out, my mind buzzing with questions about what I’d do in these circumstances and with new real-to-me characters taking up residence in my memory, I tried to name what Paul Tremblay was doing to me, the kind of fear he’d been feeding me or letting feed on me.
It wasn’t horror, that hair-standing-on-end from a nameless fear feeling. It wasn’t terror, where the fear is like a pain so intense and overwhelming there is no room for anything else, not even the belief that it will pass. It was dread, the slow-burn cousin of the fear family. The one you see coming. The one that leaves you with your ability to think and act but slowly, inexorably extinguishes your hope.
What gives ‘Survivor Song’ extra bite for me is that it captures and amplifies the car-crash-in-slow-motion that has become daily life under COVID-19. The ending of the book goes a little beyond the car-crash of the plague. In some ways, it can be read as hopeful but I found it mostly sad. The survivors have a future but it’s a future salvaged from the wreckage of another generation’s dreams. It’s a message that survival has a cost and survivors have scars but they make other people’s future possible.
Paul Tremblay manages to make real the idea that as a species we are not so fragile that a major disaster topples our civilisation but that as individuals we can be ended by the actions of a moment, that what survival of the fittest really means is the survival of the fittest species, not the fittest individuals.
How it works
The book opens with a warning to the reader:
‘Olden times: when wishing still helped.
This is not a fairytale. Certainly, it is not one that has been sanitised, homogenised or disneyfied, bloodless in every possible sense of the word. Beasts and human monsters defanged and claws clipped. The children safe. The children saved. The hard truths harvested from hard lives if not lost then obscured and purposely so.’
It’s learning those ‘hard truths harvested from hard lives’ that this story is really about.
As well as rejecting the zombie fairy tales we tell ourself, Paul Tremblay breaches most of the rules of a pandemic story and the book is all the better for that. We’re not following a lone scientist valiantly trying to defeat a killer disease, or leaders in government agencies trying to hold back the chaos or even a group a talented people prepped and ready to lead their tribe through the danger. We’re following two women, long-term friends, one thirty-eight weeks pregnant, one a Doctor, as the super-rabies pandemic rolls over them like a forest fire. The story-telling is detailed and personal and very powerful.
Book One, which sets out the situation and introduces the two women, focuses on what it means to be in the middle of this kind of disaster. It brings home that you do what you can with what you have, you try not to let your decisions be driven only by fear and you don’t let yourself think too far ahead. A lot of that felt very familiar and all of it felt scarily real.
This is a book powered by strong, clearly-drawn, complex characters. The two main characters are women in their thirties. Natalie, who is thirty-eight weeks pregnant and Rams, Dr Ramola “Rams” Sherman – her friend from college who works as a paediatrician at a local hospital. When Natalie’s husband is killed by a rabid man and Natalie is bitten, she calls Rams for help and the two begin a nightmare journey looking for treatment for Natalie and a safe place for her baby to be born. Natalie and Rams are very different from one another. Natalie is a white American woman who is married and pregnant. Rams is an English woman of Indian descent who chooses to live a solitary life.
Paul Tremblay writes excellent dialogue, capturing the nuances of speech from Rams, the English doctor, through to the bro-speak of two teenage boys. He also takes the time to get us inside the heads of Natalie and Rams.
I found myself feeling a strong affinity for Rams when Paul Tremblay shared her attitude to happiness.
There would always be a point during their conversations, when Ramola would tell mom not to worry because she was happy. Which was more or less true. Although happiness was never Ramola’s ambition.
Happiness held no nuance or compromise, did not allow for examination, did not allow the hopeful hungry will that fills the vacuum of failure and what might have beens. Nor did it allow for the sweetness of surprise.
Happiness was as rigid in its demands for adherence as a calendar shouting about compulsory date nights. Happiness was for dogs, lovely creatures though they were.
Ramola yearned for something more complex, something earned and something more satisfying. If she ever felt lonely, it was a passing storm. Not one she brooded upon and it was easily banished by resolving to be better about seeing friends, seeing Natalie and Paul.
What Ramola yearned for was not a gormless vision of happiness or a dewy romantic relationship, but a future when she was financially stable enough to travel wherever she wanted on holiday. In some daydreams, she travelled with friends. In others, she travelled alone. That was the life she desired to live.
The insights into Natalie’s thoughts are given in a way that tugs at the emotions while showing her slowly degrading capability: she records messages to her unborn child on her phone.
Much of the novel is structured as a quest with Natalie and Rams travelling across the broken city, overcoming obstacles, risking encounters with the rabid and meeting people who may try to help them or kill them.
The quest trope is twisted in four clever ways:
- the rabid are not zombies, they’re sick people, the kind of sick person that Natalie may soon become, so they’re more than threats to be eliminated.
- the ‘get the pregnant woman to the hospital’ quest seems hopeless. She’s infected and likely to turn rabid, She’s not a I’ll-die-if-my-baby-can-live sacrificial vessel but a woman who wants to live but knows she probably won’t. The hospitals are as likely to be hotspots for trouble as they are sanctuaries offering help,
- the back-stories of the women make them more and more real as time passes. We’re not getting the fortunately-I’m- ex-Special Forces-background, or the-quiet-woman-with-a-deadly-past background, just women who you might meet anywhere in America, trying to live a life that is now being taken away from them.
- as the journey continues, everything gets worse on every page but not in the ‘now we have to make a desperate effort to win’ way, but in a ‘we are going to lose and our only choice is on how badly’ way and our only hope is not to betray each other before we lose.
I was warned at the beginning of the book that this wasn’t a fairy tale. I think the part that brought that home to me most was the story of the two bike-riding teen boys, self-styled zombie hunter, who try to help Natalie and Rams to get to the hospital. They have played zombie video games so often that they have convinced themselves that they know what’s going on and are now heroes in their own movie.
This illusion is shattered when they encounter an informal militia in a scene that was full of tension, then violence and finally sadness. Paul Tremblay gives the boys their own ‘Interlude’ chapter where we break off from the quest and see what becomes of them. This was one of the toughest parts of the book. Tremblay doesn’t pull any punches. It’s not gory, just sad and doomed but he makes the sadness real and the doom count.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version of ‘Survivor Song’ which is delivered with great power by Erin Bennett. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.