“We will not intrude on Luis here, not for much longer. His past, particularly his regrets and recriminations, belong to him. We know enough and we will never know enough to understand what he will do next.”
Last year, I read Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. I consider Tremblay one of the best horror writers working now, but it is not a particularly frightening part of his latest novel that I choose to write about today. Instead, I want to take a look at a part that I fear most readers might glance past; a literal interlude in the story of the two desperate women making their way across a New England town ravaged by a super-rabies virus.
I was turned on to Tremblay by Stephen King’s Twitter recommendation of A Head Full of Ghosts, which remains one of the most frightening novels I’ve ever read. Following this, I read through Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World, both of which might be more properly described as thriller than horror. With that in mind, I was excited to hear of the release of Survivor Song, which marks a return to novel-length horror for Tremblay. I was perhaps a little trepidatious though; unlike the horrors in A Head Full of Ghosts, which deals primarily with the question of whether a young girl is possessed or deeply mentally ill, Survivor Song’s horrors are much more personal for me.
In Survivor Song, a mutant strain of the rabies virus begins to spread rapidly through small-town Massachusetts. For those who aren’t aware, rabies in its current form is already an incredibly horrific disease. Once contracted, failure to receive a vaccine will result in a virtual one-hundred percent chance of dying horribly. There are exceptions, but those number in the single digits. The catch? By the time you know you have it, you’re dead. Once the disease has gone symptomatic, there is no applying a vaccine. There is only the knowledge that you will die, likely within a matter of weeks. You will die terribly, muscles aching, afraid of water, and losing your mind.
From 2017-2019, I lived in an apartment infested with bats. While neither myself, my partner, or my cats were ever harmed, there were multiple instances of bats in the apartment. They entered through holes underneath the radiator, a gap underneath the front door, or simply scratched and squeaked in the ceiling or in the walls. Sometimes my cats would run to the door late at night, and I’d peer through the peephole, seeing the flash of brown-and-black flying erratically around.
Landlords are useless under normal circumstances, of course, but legislation against the killing of bats (which, however I may have felt at the time, I understand), prevented anything other than efforts to remove and exclude them. This situation caused a great deal of anxiety for me, to the point when I still brace myself looking through the peephole at night or feel a rush of panic when one of my cats sniffs around at the base of my apartment door.
Returning to this disease in Survivor Song was therapeutic, in a sense. Seeing people confront this virus and fight for every minute of life they can get helped me recover from my own anxiety. In Survivor Song, it’s a matter of hours, not weeks, before the victims become symptomatic. The unreality of it contextualized my fear.
The book itself concerns the attack of a pregnant woman, Natalie, by a rabid man. Her husband is killed in the assault, and she is bitten. She quickly gets in contact with an old friend, Ramola, a doctor in town. Ramola meets her and ushers her to hospital, hoping to act quickly enough to prevent the virus.
I won’t spoil the rest of course, but much of the book concerns their journey and their friendship. And yet, at the core of the book, there is another friendship. It is covered in fewer pages and is not Tremblay’s focus. But there are sections of the book–interludes–that remind the reader that “this is not a fairy-tale,” even as the pages are decorated in such a way that evoke The Brothers Grimm.
One of these sections follows Luis and Josh, two friends who meet up with Natalie and Ramola midway through the book. They seem thrilled by the violence taking place around them; with mammals of all kinds susceptible to the virus, people are catching rabies from animals as innocuous as passing squirrels, who leap violently toward them, driven mad by the disease.
Luis and Josh clearly have watched The Walking Dead, describing the events as akin to a zombie apocalypse. They are excited for the adventure of a post-apocalyptic world, where society has collapsed and you are forced to make hard choices to survive. Ramola, of course, knows that, while tragic, the events are hardly apocalyptic; a virus that kills within hours is hardly likely to spread very far (conversely, part of the reason our own pandemic is so long-lasting is because it kills relatively infrequently and spreads easily), and as such, containment and protection of the survivors is the next task; not societal collapse.
Luis and Josh recognize that Natalie is hurt though, and so they band with Ramola and Natalie to help them get to help. During the course of their travel, they are attacked. While they are able to fight off their attackers, Josh is bit on the head by a dog. They part ways from Natalie and Ramola then, and this is where the interlude begins.
“You are not supposed to go back, you can’t go back, and if you attempt a return you will be forever lost.”
One thing that I think fiction often has a hard time portraying is male friendship. It exists, of course; there is certainly no shortage of fiction featuring men. But so much of it feels obligated to depict male friendship as this hyper-performative display of machismo, where men talk about what they ate or how much they can bench or who they fought or fucked. Ironically, perhaps, one of the better examples I’ve seen recently is The Sopranos, which I’m watching with my girlfriend currently. I’ve never seen it before, and while the show certainly has a reputation for all of the above, one of the things that has struck us the most is how deeply these characters care for one another. When was the last time you gave your friend a kiss on the cheek when you met up?
What Tremblay understands is that the core of male friendship is love. This is true of any friendship, of course, so this this might seem odd to read. And yet, years of conditioning have taught us to see open admittances of love between men as taboo — whether it might be some latent homophobia or simply cultural norms that have taught men to conceal their feelings, the end result is the same. How many times did Chandler and Joey embrace on Friends, only to awkwardly realize what they were doing, then separate to the hooting and hawing of the audience?
Josh has been bit on the head. It is a death sentence. Even if he had a vaccine, which he doesn’t, it’s far too late. Rabies is a virus that needs to reach the brain. It was delivered almost directly to it. Josh is a dead man riding a bicycle.
Still, he and Luis ride on.
“Josh’s riding is erratic. He weaves and abruptly jerks his bike at hard angles when the road is clear. He shouts at shadows and he shouts at trees. He lists until Luis calls out his name, then he lists some more. Luis knows Josh will not be Josh for much longer. Perhaps he already isn’t Josh, or the new non-Josh is growing, metastasizing, laying claim. Regardless, Luis will follow Josh and follow him until he cannot lead anymore.“
We know how this story ends. As Tremblay reminds us, this is not a fairy-tale. But, even as he insists it is a song, the story takes on aspects of fairy-tale. Luis and Josh leave the road, travelling into the woods. Perhaps emulating Michonne in The Walking Dead, Luis ties up Josh on a lead, wrapping a bandanna around his dying friend’s mouth to prevent him from biting. His friend’s mind is not yet gone, and so Josh acquiesces to this. They walk together through the woods, unable to ride any further. From the trees emerge all manner of mammals, driven mad by the virus; squirrels and rabbits and bats and bigger animals still, all homing in on the two friends.
Even though his friend has already been bit, and even though he is already doomed to die, Luis will not let them have him. He wields the makeshift staff he carries like a trained warrior, snapping away at legions of creatures which swarm them.
“The teens more than endure the tiny terrors, they revel as though there never was and never will be a sweeter time, a greater moment. If not an apotheosis, this is them at their best, and they laugh and they boast and they shout and they live and they know there is no future.”
There is a surreality to this part. The thought of suburban teens expertly wielding a staff to fight off hordes of rabid animals is almost silly when you envision it. But Tremblay makes it work. This is not a fairy-tale, he reminds us. This is a song. It has no happy ending.
Surreality can only be stretched so far. The animals soon grow to be too much. They overwhelm Luis, and Josh pushes him to the ground. He shields his friend with his body, giving him everything that he has left. The bats rip and tear and bite and yet he does not leave his friend.
When at last it is over, they rise and come to a clearing. A rock with a split in it sits at its centre, which fans of Tremblay might recognize. It is here that the inevitable happens.
“Josh stops walking. He turns, and he has turned. This is the reveal of Zombie Josh, the zombie teen wth red coyote eyes, lips a ragged drawn curtain, foam and saliva faulting from his gagged mouth. Luis cannot help but stare at his friend’s teeth, as though he’d never really seen them before, seen them for what they can be. Hands still tied together, Zombie Josh rushes at Luis. Thus begins a dance that will last into the night. Luis will not hurt Zombie Josh, even though he’’s seen all the movies and knows all the rules. Instead, he will duck and he will dodge and he will sidestep and he will run.”
Luis refuses to hurt Josh, but he also refuses to leave him. They dance like this until the virus in Josh’s head rages through him, removing his ability to fight and bite. Josh is tired, and sits back against the rock. He no longer is conscious. His body is barely functioning. It is here that he will die.
And what does Luis do? What happens next is something I’ve never experienced in any kind of zombie or zombie-adjacent fiction. It is utterly novel and incredibly perfect and impossibly tragic. I will not summarize it, for it deserves to be read:
“Luis slips his hands under Josh’s head and ties the gag. The sopping wet bandanna slides easily out of his slack mouth. . . Luis rolls up his right sleeve. . . Placing a thumb on Josh’s chin, Luis pulls down the lower jaw, opening the mouth. He takes the thumb away. Josh’s face and body tremors, but he doesn’t wake and his mouth stays open. Luis places the soft underside of his forearm into Josh’s mouth, the inside of which is as hot and damp as a sauna. Luis positions his left palm under Josh’s chin and pushes, closing the mouth, forcing his friend’s teeth against his skin. It hurts, but he doesn’t know if the teeth have broken through yet. He pushes harder and Josh convulses, perhaps because the body’s main airway is being blocked. There is still a spark of life within the engine. His jaws contract once, and hard.”
Suicide in post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing new, and it’s true that this is a suicide of sorts. And yet, it doesn’t read that way. It reads as an act of love; the desire from one friend to another to not let him travel into the dark alone. Instead of leaving his friend, or facing the now-clichéd moment of agony as he’s forced to kill his former friend, Luis chooses something different. His choice is made all the more powerful by the fact he cannot let himself be bit; he has to force the empty vessel of his friend to do it. It is his friend who sends him on his way.
Tremblay understands horror, because he understands what scares us. Certainly Survivor Song scared me in a way that most horror doesn’t, reminding me of some of the darkest moments in my own life. But Tremblay also understands that horror is not horror when there is no humanity. How many people, realistically, are afraid when Jason Voorhees machetes another interchangeable horny teen? We don’t root for the teen. We root for Jason. We want to see what he does. Like any work of art, the best horror compels the audience to care. If we care about art, then we can be moved, whether it is to tears or to screams.
It is this same gift that allows Tremblay to capture the love at the heart of male friendship. It is something that I wish more writers understood. We care about Luis and Josh because we’ve all been the stupid kid, wondering how we’d do in the zombie apocalypse. But more than that, we know what it is to love our friends.