Book Review: Growing Things by Paul Tremblay
Growing Things and Other Stories is a chilling collection of psychological suspense and literary horror from multiple award-winning author Paul Tremblay.
Paul Tremblay and I have something in common. We’re both high school teachers.
That being said, he’s more likely to teach Calculus while I teach English. One of my most well-worn rules when teaching writing is never, ever, under any condition use words like “it” “stuff” and, especially, “things.”
These words are empty spaces. Gaps in meaning. They have no spine, nothing to stand on, and the reader has to do the hard work of filling in the details. In a concrete world, emptiness is confusing.
And that’s kind of Tremblay’s point in this collection of short stories. There are things growing in these stories. Sometimes we see these these…things very clearly, but that doesn’t mean we actually understand them. Other times we only catch a glimpse but find a deeper kind of meaning.
The title story features the same characters as Tremblay’s Bram Stoker Award-winning novel A Head Full of Ghosts. In “Growing Things,” the characters inhabit a world overrun by the bamboo-like relentlessly hungry plants that readers of the novel will remember. Not at all a lost chapter, prequel, or sequel (that honor goes to “The Thirteenth Temple”), this story is all the more unsettling for how familiar the drastic change in setting seems.
Like all of Tremblay’s horror work, the most successful pieces in Growing Things are the stories where he scoops up genre conventions, holds them tenderly, and refashions them into something immediately recognizable and yet completely fresh.
“Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” is a Lovecraftian tale told by a drug addict whose hold on reality has grown more and more tenuous after being barred from seeing her daughter. When a creature comes out of the sea, the reader is left unsure if the monsters are internal or external.
The world sighs breathes, and it’s so loud, like a whale breathing in my head. Trees crack and fall all over the neighborhood, London Bridge falling down around our new house on the hill. Sirens somewhere in the distance, in town, probably.
Readers expecting traditional scares will need to recalibrate their expectations. Tremblay won’t tell you what happened to the world in “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks,” because the world’s not the point. The family at the heart of the story—and the four-year-old boy telling the story—is the point.
Tremblay not only loves subverting genre expectations, he loves playing with the form of the short story itself. We have diary entries, a conversation told through emailed updates from professional dog walkers (sent to Tremblay himself!), a story interspersed with an interview transcript, stories within stories, a choose-your-own-adventure story about trauma and grief, and a brief jewel of a story told in a three-column format of questions and answers that bounce off each other into…something hard to describe.
And that’s really Tremblay’s greatest gift. He’ll tell you exactly what happened in a story. He’ll show you the monster crawling out of a swamp, he’ll show you photographs of the literal demons haunting an author, he’ll show you a man accepting the gift of a perfectly formed miniature bird’s head, and he’ll tell you a story about a pawn shop robbery gone horribly wrong, but for all the precision and detail, you still won’t be entirely sure what happened. Sometimes empty spaces are a gift we should cherish.
The real seeds in these stories crawl out of the ink and under the reader’s skin. But beware. As the title reminds us, seeds grow.