A family of city-dwellers retreat to a remote location for a holiday. The remoteness of the location is vital for the story to work. A group of four strangers, carrying homemade pitchforks, descend on the holiday makers and attempt to convince them that they must willingly sacrifice one of the family in order to save the world.
The story could be a metaphor for liberalism and the difficult choices it manages to sidestep. Or it could be representative of the insanity of expecting individuals and their choices as consumers to be the best way to avoid global ecological disaster. Certainly one of the book’s strengths is that it encapsulates the issues of our time, the homophobia, the racism, the power of the internet to embolden conspiracy theorists into action, and the vulnerability inherent in separating oneself from other people – even if only for a short holiday.
In fact there are a lot of things that work really well in this book. Tremblay offers up a cocktail of confusion: the desire to convince others of our own world view and a refusal to change our views in light of evidence and logic. Both the holiday makers and the home invaders face similar frustration and fear. Both make tenuous connections to reinforce their beliefs – is one of the invaders a man who previously attacked Andrew? Is the ongoing bird flu epidemic proof of the end of the world? Both sides do this and neither are completely successful in convincing others. But the desire to justify and prove our beliefs is something that is inherently human and in our modern times dense with competing information, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. For me this was the true horror of The Cabin at the End of the World. The confusion and the absence of an identifiable objective truth.
Scenes of visceral violence will satisfy the avid horror reader and suitably shock other readers. The violence is the only thing that has solidity and permanence. It’s what the characters and readers will take with them at the end.
While the central story is original and fascinating it is also repetitive and never reaches a satisfying conclusion. The points of view shift between characters like vomit on a waltzer. Flashbacks are frequently unsuccessful and read like unnecessary exposition present purely to increase word count. And the end feels like a cop out. There is no end!
If novellas and short stories were as popular as novels The Cabin at the End of the World could have shed 20,000 words and been far more successful.
I did enjoy the book. The unconventional family, the oddball strangers and their shared humanity that grows like fungus within the cabin. The tragedies, the self-justifications, the self-doubt, the sacrifices demanded and made. However bizarre the surrounding story might be, however frequently the demands are repeated and rejected – you must sacrifice one of your family – we will never sacrifice one of our family, there is the nugget of something powerful and real at the centre. I think it might be likened best to two groups head-butting each other until they both collapse concussed. It might seem the ultimate act of stupidity, but it also seems increasingly likely.