By Paul Tremblay
Releasing a book about a pandemic during the middle of a real pandemic is a bold move but one that Paul Tremblay has taken. Although there are some parallels between what is happening in the world today and those within the pages of Survivor Song, they are not enough to make the book off putting. We may be stuck indoors most days as there is a real threat outside, but at least that threat is not a new strain of fast working rabies that turns people rabid in just an hour.
Natalie is 8 months pregnant and feels every moment of it. If being tired and heavy were not enough, she is also living in the middle of a pandemic. Her husband and she are hiding away in their remote New England homestead with only the news for company. It appears that a virulent strain of rabies is on the loose that is turning both animals and humans rabid at great speed. When a stranger comes to the door things do not look good. Natalie has just been bitten and must get to the hospital as fast as she can. Perhaps her doctor friend Rams can help? Time is ticking.
Song is one of those horror novels that sets off like a train and never stops. Events open during a pandemic and we are only given a few pages to get to know Natalie before her life is changed forever. Now it is a race against time to save her and the baby. The book is a two header; although the major event happens to Natalie, it is Rams who is given the lion’s share of the perspective. This works well as she is the healthy partner and can describe events in a rational manner. The fact that she is also a medical professional means that we get a great insight into what may be happening to Natalie and the baby.
Although focused on just two characters, Tremblay does not prevent us from learning more about the wider world. He uses this pandemic to explore how the citizens of New England and America would react in such a situation and the answer is not brilliantly. Whilst the real-world events of today have shown that many people do keep calm and carry on, those in Song are just as likely to panic and rush to the hospital. It is safe to say that Tremblay does not have must respect for certain types of people that make the problem worse, rather than better.
If you divorce yourself from our reality and instead focus on the story, there is a lot to recommend in Song. The central relationship a powerful one as two old friends do whatever they can to survive. The added element of a pregnant women really increases the tension. It can be a little unnerving to put someone so vulnerable at risk, but sometimes that is what horror is all about.
To make a book scary, you are going to need the horrific elements and they are in abundance here. This is based on real fears, not the fantastical. You can imagine a disease like this being exposed to people. It is the right side of reality to feel more like medical horror, than a zombie novel, although some of those tropes do make it into the book. Essentially Natalie and Ramola are on a horrific road trip and when they hit bottlenecks along the way, things turn nasty.
The action and horror occur over several set pieces in the book, but it never overshadows the core relationship in the book that is the foundation. Without the Natalie and Rams doubleheader, there is no horror. We need to care about their plight for the fear to grip us. Tremblay does a brilliant job of drawing us into their world. We want them to succeed, even if it feels there is no way that this is possible.
Survivor Song is a thrilling horror book that also has heart. The relational dynamic is key for the horror to work. Within its pages you not only get scares and character development, but an interesting view on how certain people in society react to a pandemic. If you have the stomach for it, there are some interesting parallels to our own situation. Thankfully, the world that Tremblay creates is different enough from our own that the terrors remain on the page and should not make it into your nightmares.
Written on 7th July 2020 by Sam Tyler .