Despite having a stack of library books to finish, I decided on Monday to purchase Paul Tremblay’s new novel, Survivor Song. I’ve always enjoyed Tremblay’s work (Head Full of Ghosts is one of my all-time favorites) and figured a pandemic-themed story by one of my favorite authors might pack an extra punch right now.
The book was supposed to last me through the week. Less than 24 hours later, I closed one of the most riveting modern horror/suspense novels I’ve ever read.
In present day Massachusetts, a mutated strain of the rabies virus spreads like wildfire through the local animal population. As if that weren’t bad enough, the virus has also begun jumping from animals to humans.
Cases multiply, hospitals become overrun, and society begins to break down.
In the midst of all this, pediatrician Ramola Sherman receives a call from her friend Natalie, who she’s barely spoken to since her baby shower eight months ago. Now she’s alone and desperate for help after her husband was killed by a rabid intruder, who also managed to bite her before she could escape.
Knowing that this form of the rabies virus takes only hours to work instead of weeks, Ramola rushes to try and help save both her friend and her unborn child.
While the best parts of Tremblay’s stories are his characters’ inner thoughts/struggles, he often frames their journeys against the backdrop of an ambiguously supernatural threat. It’s something he does extremely well and with unabashed zeal. He even poked fun of himself about it in his short story, ‘Notes from the Dog Walkers’ (part of Tremblay’s Growing Things short story collection).
With Survivor Song, however, there’s absolutely no ambiguity about what’s happening. The challenges facing the protagonists (which take place over the course of a few hours) are clearly defined and understood, both by them and the reader. Tremblay even goes so far as to start the novel with a ominous preamble that basically says “This will be a good story, but it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
He totally delivers on that promise, too.
Yes, there are horrifying visuals and thrilling action sequences, but the main characters are so well written that you can’t help but continue flipping pages to keep up with them. They’re also believably flawed, terrified, and even selfish. It may be cliche to say you “feel like you know” the fictional players in a good story, but it absolutely applies here.
The novel’s side characters are surprisingly well crafted, too. Tremblay pulls off Lauren Buekes levels of character development, attaching our hearts and minds to people who’d be static and unremarkable in most other tales. We see the best and worst of ourselves in the best and worst Survivor Song‘s eclectic supporting cast.
As far the ending, Tremblay once again defies his normal conventions. While the narrative’s conclusion offers plenty to think about, the culmination of Ramola and Natalie’s journey–and the fate of the world around them–is made explicitly clear. It’s also followed by a hauntingly beautiful coda that refuses to let you forget about the book you just put down.
What Doesn’t Work
As much as I loved Tremblay’s character development, there were a few times it veered so far away from the narrative for so long that I was tempted to stop and mark my place (or pick up my phone and play a couple rounds of Toon Blast).
It always managed to draw me back in, but definitely stood out against the otherwise breakneck pace of the story.
There was also a bizarre formatting decision near the end of the story that not only felt unnecessary, but actually detracted a bit from how tense and powerful it was.
Survivor Song is absolutely relentless. The story and characters grip you in such a way that it’s virtually impossible to leave them stranded by a bookmark.
It’s also a chillingly accurate representation of the challenges and failures happening during the current pandemic. COVID-19 is certainly less scary than a mutated rabies vaccine, but the cracks and scars it’s causing in our world open and bleed through every page.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Survivor Song may be filled with terror, and tears, but it’s ultimately about something much stronger: The ability to find hope even in the darkest times.
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