Seven people linger within the walls of a quaint cabin bordering a lake. Three were meant to be there and had rented it out for a week of disconnected bonding time. No phones. No service. Just the company of each other and the calm of nature around them. Four have forced their way in with slapdash weapons, claiming that the world will come to an abrupt end if a decision of sacrifice is not made.
Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World introduces a cast of characters teaming with motivations unknown until the very last pages of the book, and even then, actions are questioned, and losses are pondered. What the plot line lacked for in clarity, the story picked up in characterization.
Wen is a seven-year-old girl who is introduced within the first pages of the novel. She smartly sits in the front yard of their cabin and collects grasshoppers when a hulking man in a pristine white dress shirt, followed by three more strangers’ intent on getting into the small cabin.
These four strangers: Leonard, Redmond, Sabrina, and Adriane, fight their way into the cabin occupied by Wen and her two fathers, referred to in the novel as Daddy Eric and Daddy Andrew. They claim that the world will end, event by event, unless they choose someone of the three to sacrifice.
Cabin at the End of the World is framed as a gigantic bottle episode, with Eric and Andrew strapped to chairs in center of the cabin as Leonard, persistent but calm, explains the dire nature of the situation: They must choose, and it must be a willing sacrifice.
Leonard pays close attention to the time. He knows when each event is set to happen and if Andrew and Eric do not make a choice, than one of the four who have entered the cabin are to die by the weapons that are always looming in the background.
The Question of Believability
One of the main themes conveyed through the novel lies in what is believable without evidence presented. The story is told through the eyes of Wen, Andrew, and Eric and gives the plot a unique way of seeing the situation through a cynic, an optimist, and a child.
When four strangers break into your home and claim that a choice of sacrifice will save the entire world, would you believe them?
Paul Tremblay does a good job fluctuating between convincing the reader that Leonard is being truthful. That the group of people that showed up at the cabin all were shown the same images of the world ending, of the cabin, and of the family sitting in front of them begging to be set free.
By the end of The Cabin at the End of the World, there is no concrete answer. Tremblay keeps under wraps who were the heroes and who were the villains. Horrible things line up with the prophecies that Leonard presents between the horrible maiming of his friends. But couldn’t that just be the current state of the world?
Sabrina, a traveling nurse and one of the self-proclaimed prophets says:
Maybe the truth is the end has already been happening long before we arrived at the cabin and what we’re seeing, what we’ve been seeing, is not the fireworks of the world’s denouement but the final flickering sparks of our afterward.
While this is something extremely well crafted it’s also something that was frustrating. Typically, with Tremblay’s work, there is a thin line between the horrors of the supernatural, the unbelievable, and real life terrors.
Possession and mental illness in A Head Full of Ghosts (2015)
Vampirism and drug addiction in The Pallbearers Club (2022)
And finally, the seven plagues and the current state of the world in The Cabin at the End of the World. While this has worked in the past, there was something that fell a little flat in this one. Both sides of the argument of believability had little to go on, not enough gas in the tank to really drive the point home.
At the end of the book, the only thing I questioned was why I had read through the entire thing if there was no true endgame. The lines had become too blurred, the characters spent 200+ pages struggling with one another in a back and forth game of death and carnage.
All of the deaths, and there were many, seemed unnecessary, nearly pointless. More than anything, it was vexing watching these characters make decisions without presenting a solid argument for why they were committing these actions.
The Question of Sexuality
It is plainly stated in the beginning of the novel that Eric and Andrew are in a relationship that is passionate, and domestic. They’ve adopted Wen, who as a child, had to go through countess surgeries for a cleft lip. Throughout the novel you get beautiful, soft, glimpses into their lives in Boston.
Andrew is a professor who teaches at Boston University and Eric a market analyst who paid his way through college after his parents, stated as Catholic, pulled funding when they found out about his sexuality.
Tremblay tries not to make the novel about the couples sexuality, he drives home that Leonard, Sabrina, Adriane, and Redmond are not there because they are opposed to Andrew and Eric’s lifestyle, but Andrew makes it abundantly clear that he believes they are targeted for this reason exactly.
Andrew is sharp-edged and recalls Redmond from somewhere but isn’t entirely certain that he can place has likeness until half-way through the novel. Thirteen years before the attack on the cabin, Andrew was in a sports bar when he was attacked.
He realizes that Redmond, someone he pegged from the beginning, as unlikeable and the epitome of every homophobic white man, was the guy who had attacked him all those years ago. Sure, he had gained more than 50 pounds and aged like produce, but it’s him, Andrew is certain.
This, unfortunately, is something else that dies within the walls of the cabin. Eric, suffering from a concussion, does not see the likeness and continues to call into question the validity of the apocalypse riding on their shoulders. In the end, you never get a solid answer as to if Redmond was the one that attacked Andrew all those years ago.
It was refreshing to have two queer characters presented as a normal family during the first half of the novel. There was no lingering subtexts about their struggle about coming out, or their adoption of Wen being harder than it should be because they are a same sex couple.
I mention this, because it fell apart throughout the plot. Andrew’s vicious proclamations drip into a targeted attack that is often portrayed when authors attempt to tackle LGBTQ+ topics. There was a blatant questioning of motive behind Leonard’s actions that were shot down and of religion and the comments on the current state of the world.
This aspect of the novel, while different and appreciated for it’s initial portrayal, fell flat like the rest of the book. I felt for Andrew and Eric, and even more for Wen. But it begs the question, would the novel leave the same impact if homophobia wasn’t tackled within it’s pages?
Paul Tremblay has captured me with his works since his first major hit A Head Full of Ghosts. He has an undeniable way with words that translates through all of his novels, including this one. But, it was not my favorite by far.
Cabin at the End of the World tried to tackle too much, and what it did tackle, it didn’t’ get across well. There were no firm answers towards the plot. You were meant to make your on choice. Was Leonard telling the truth? Was Redmond really the man who attacked Andrew? Did their sacrifice matter?
Not enough information was given to make these calls, so when the book finally did end, it left me with a hollow, unsatisfactory feeling deep down. Even upon a second reading, there was nothing hinting towards the truth.
Editors Note: Be sure to check out Malevolent Dark’s cabin apocalypse review of Cabin in the Woods (2012).