Reading the Pandemic

Cover of Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

The most prescient novel I read over the last year was Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. Written a few years back, as writing and publishing schedules go, it was released last summer when #PandemicLife was 100% a thing, even for many people who don’t believe in EUAs or booster shots. I’d heard about the book, of course, as I always keep an ear out for Paul’s books, but it didn’t really click that it was a pandemic book.

Reader, I read one review and promptly slid that title (apologies, Paul) to the bottom of my virtual TBR pile. That happens sometimes when subject matter doesn’t work for me, and I hope that it will work down the road. In any case, I couldn’t bring myself to read a current-day book about a pandemic.

This May I finally picked up Survivor Song, and I give it two dangerously infected thumbs up. It brings together in one book many lasting or new themes in horror: rationalized monsters, pregnancy fears, high-style influence, and more. The interest in language tied to disturbed behavior that showed up in The Cabin at the End of the World and elsewhere in his work appears here, too. If you haven’t seen it, watch Pontypool shortly after reading Survivor Song for a different take on the role of language tied to mob behavior & are-they-or-aren’t-they zombies.

The most challenging part of reading the book was, in fact, reality. Like so much speculative fiction, the plot springs from trends that were clearly visible or discernible to anyone with the will to research. And yet, it was frankly disturbing to read about quarantine, mobs, street violence, troops, and crazed militiamen in the wake (?) of COVID-19 and the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. There will always be plagues and political violence, but reading this account of a fictional plague, nutters going on about the U.N., and street battles between would-be saviors and the forces of law and order felt like re-experiencing our recent struggles in an only slightly alternate timeline.

If you haven’t read Survivor Song [Amazon | B&N | Bookshop.org | Waterstones | Goodreads], check it out. Then check out the rest of Paul’s work.

P.S. I didn’t read much else pandemic-related in the last year that I’d recommend… except for one book. It wasn’t precisely about zombies, nor did it rise to the level of this book, but enjoyable and not unrelated is Thomas E. Sniegoski’s Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory. It’s throwback pulp and overall probably of greatest interest to readers of Mike Mignola’s comics series for which it’s a tie-in, or those of us who like the occasional throwback pulp. It does offer a picture of the use of infectious, lowered-mental-capacity goons for criminal ends. If that doesn’t evoke the politics of our seditious, social-media-infected times…

2 thoughts on “Reading the Pandemic

  1. The word that kept coming to mind while reading Survivor Song was *tense*. From the opening to the end of the main story it was a perfect balance of high-stakes tension and character development without a wasted word (the only slightly sour note for me was the epilogue, which I strongly believe the book didn’t need.) I did put off reading it for a bit–I just couldn’t when the pandemic started–but my desire to read a new Paul Tremblay book overcame my discomfort at the timing about five months into the pandemic. It was definitely a weird time to read it. But what a great book! BTW, if you haven’t read the Pontypool book (Pontypool Changes Everything) I highly recommend it. It’s experimental and strange and really draws out the themes of the movie, which I also adore.

    • I have not read the Pontypool book, so I’ll put it in the pile. Thank you, Paul! The tension did start and stay strong, and I liked the glimpses of characters I’d seen previously in one of his other books. It was a kick!

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