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Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay review – a truly unsettling brand of horror

Growing Things is a short story collection by Paul Tremblay, the 2018 recipient of the Bram Stoker award for Superior Achievement in a Novel for his Cabin at the End of the World. Each of the nineteen stories within this collection provides the reader with a gripping picture of terror, each unique and separate from the other pieces within its horrifying menagerie. That being said, one story, “Notes from the Dog Walkers” works well to tether each of the stories together through its construction of the Tremblay Universe.

Growing Things is not only masterfully written, but also artfully designed. Should you decide to read the stories in their given order (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll find that they are purposefully ordered to guide the reader through a darkly affective journey. The collection opens with “Growing Things” and ends with “The Thirteenth Temple,” both of which contain characters from his novel A Head Full of Ghosts. Readers of this previous work will especially appreciate these stories, as they both provide different perspectives on familiar characters; however, even if you’ve never read anything by Tremblay before, don’t worry, you’re in good hands. He provides just enough context for completely new readers to enjoy the story, while simultaneously not overloading or boring fans of his previous work.

What I appreciated most about Growing Things was the way each of the stories are connected. At first, I didn’t really notice any sort of common theme or concept, however, after a day or two of allowing Tremblay’s miniature nightmares to stew, I realised that it was right there in the title – each narrative deals with a fear related to growing up. These fears include failing a child, fading into oblivion, losing a parent, and creepy lessons learned from an even creepier teacher, among others. At the end of “Notes from the Dog Walkers”, Tremblay uses a character that acts as a stand-in for himself to answer why he works within the genre of horror: “it’s because of the hope of horror and it’s because of the horror of hope.” In this story, he taps into the specific fear of growing up and dealing with the unknowingness of our own mortality. At the start of an earlier story in the collection, “Our Town’s Monster,” an elderly man faces a room full of school-children to proclaim that:

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The body becomes monstrous… Our skin sags, wrinkles, flakes, loses the luster that isn’t any color in particular, but is there. Strange bumps and lumps emerge, like they’ve been there all along, waiting beneath the surface, biding their time. Our body transforms into this thing, this intimate stranger.

In a way, Tremblay’s short stories are also “intimate strangers.” They are bewilderingly uncanny as they meditate on the inevitability of mortality, aging, and death, facts of human life that many often seek to forget or ignore. Tremblay holds his readers for the entire duration of Growing Things, forcing them to confront these intimate yet strange truths.

One element of Growing Things that became immediately apparent to me as I flipped through the book’s pages is its playful use of and experimentation with genre and form. The story “Something About Birds” switches between a more traditional short-story format and a fictional interview; “Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild’” is presented as a diary-like journal of research; “Notes from the Dog Walkers” is written as a chronological collection of emailed notes sent to “P___ _____,” a local high school teacher, horror fiction writer, and textual stand-in for Paul Tremblay, from three dog walkers of the Happy Dog Services; “A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken” takes the form of a short ‘choose your own adventure’ narrative; and “Further Questions for the Somnambulist” is a poetic presentation of the streams of three separate character’s consciousnesses.

These are just a few examples of Tremblay’s experimentation with the short story form; however, they provide some insight into the diversity of each of his texts. This playfulness not only demonstrates Tremblay’s craft, but it also adds to the actual horror of the stories within this collection. As the reader begins the next narrative, he or she can never be completely sure what this new story will contain or what shape it will take. This literary disorientation was something I had never experienced prior to picking up Growing Things, and it definitely added to the text’s literary potency and status as a piece of horror fiction.

Although many of the short stories in Growing Things makes use of an unusual form or literary genre, all of the stories take place in familiar settings full of ordinary people. These everyday fears twist and turn as the story progresses, eventually devolving into pure, and often terrifyingly ambiguous horror. For example, my favorite story from the collection, “Notes from the Dog Walkers,” appears at first to be about the fear of allowing strangers into your life and home. Readers will likely relate to this fear, whether connecting to their own trepidations about over-sharing personal information on social media or in their writing, or allowing strangers into their homes to walk their dog. As the story progresses, however, it takes a sharp turn into the ambiguous, reaching an almost cosmic level of horror. Although the mysterious “KB” is clearly the source of threat and fear in this story, it becomes difficult to pinpoint exactly who or what KB is by the end. Is KB just a homicidal dog walker or are they representative of something larger- death, mortality, or oblivion? It’s difficult to say, but, to borrow the words of KB, the threat they pose is unavoidable and inevitable:

We’ll be apart for a time. It could be an hour, it could be fifty years. However, there will, eventually, come that final time. Without regard to my arrival being heralded as a balm or a terror, I will take you away. And your little dog too.

Aside from the stories themselves, what I appreciate most about Growing Things is the collection of notes found at the back of the book. For most of the stories, Tremblay provides what he describes as “odds, ends, anecdotes, and rants.” After reaching the end each story, I scrambled to the last few pages of the book, hoping that there would be notes. When there were notes connected to the story, I was delighted by the insights Tremblay offers. It was almost like having the author present throughout the reading process, informing me how he came up with the different ideas for each of his stories. For example, in his first set of notes on the story “Growing Things,” Tremblay claims that the story started as a “simple what-if, or, more accurately, a WTF moment.” While walking his dog in Spring of 2008, he noticed “neat rows of weeds” that eventually grew to be taller than him in just a few days. According to Tremblay, he proceeded to wonder how and why these weeds could grow so tall, as well as to admire the strength of the weeds, noting that they might be “sharp enough for a person to be impaled on the spikes.” From these observations, he claims that “the seed (sorry, I know, I know!) of “Growing Things” was there for me to, um, water. Sigh.” Tremblay’s casual and often humorous tone, along with his honest reflections on the writing process, perfectly compliment the darker fiction found within the pages of Growing Things. Anyone who is at all interested in the craft of writing or constructing horror will greatly benefit from Tremblay’s insightful anecdotes and observations.

It’s not often that a writer so fully explores and embodies a theme as Tremblay does in Growing Things. Not only does he effectively display both the mundane and extraordinary terrors of growth via his short fiction, but he also provides readers with an insider’s look into the growth and development of Growing Things and himself as a writer. Growing Things delivers a truly unsettling brand of horror that grabs hold of the reader and refuses to let go even after you’ve finished reading.

Growing Things and Other Stories written by Paul Tremblay is published by William Morrow (US) and Titan Books (UK). Buy the book: US / UK

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