by Julie Rea
Survivor Song, by Paul Tremblay, is about an epidemic that causes havoc in the United States. The book is successfully nightmarish, with the narrative involving heroic characters facing horrible odds. In addition, the context of the reality of the actual, current pandemic makes the book an unsettling mirror. I couldn’t read it without my heart aching for both the fictional characters and those who, in the real world, have had their lives torn apart by COVID-19. I’d suspect the mirror effect is more pronounced if the reader (like I do) happens to live in a region like the United States, where the response to the virus has been especially dire.
In the novel, a new form of rabies ravages New England. The disease is horrifying in its rapid onset and its symptoms, which track traditional rabies patterns of dementia and hyper-aggression. The disease provides competing threats: it kills people, but before the infected die, they attack (mostly by biting) others. The nature of the disease determines the course of the narrative: once someone is bitten, they have approximately an hour until the infection reaches the person’s brain. Transmission spreads within New England rapidly, and once the epidemic is off and running, the hospitals are overrun within hours.
Survivor Song is a zombie tale along the lines of 28 Days Later: the infected lose their humanity and become aggressive toward others when they become ill, and the focus of the tale is how to avoid or possibly survive infection.
Like Tremblay’s previous novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Survivor Song‘s focus is on what good and brave people do to protect the ones they love. Little attention is paid in the narrative as to what is happening in the larger world; the fate of its two primary characters is the sole concern of the novel.
This horror, the failure of institutions, the cruelty apparent in the spectacle of the failure of leaders to do what is needed, maybe what future zombie narratives will tackle to stay relevant.
Nats is a woman who is nine month’s pregnant and is bitten when an infected man invades her home and kills her husband. Rams, a physician, is Nats’s friend from college. She is the one to whom Nats flees for help after the initial attack. As Nats becomes weaker, Rams must do her best to fend off the infected in her quest to get her friend to a functioning hospital so her friend’s baby, if not her friend, can be saved. As Nats’s condition worsens, the choices Rams faces as a doctor and friend become darker, more traumatizing.
Within the tightly-plotted book are set pieces that provide adrenaline jolts within the edge-of-your-seat reading experience, like an especially steep bit on a roller coaster. I am not going to forget anytime soon the scene where Rams is tending to an increasingly incoherent and confused Nats, a group of friendly but clueless youths, and a bunch of less friendly camo-suited hunters of the infected. Rams’s hands are more than full with all of these people and their needs when the group is set upon by first a rabid dog, then the rabid owner of the dog, and then some rabid coyotes that are drawn to the chaos.
One question the reader might have is this: can I care about the plight of two characters traumatized by the circumstances of a fictional disease in the current real-world context of COVID-19, with all of its attendant horrors that include the enraging mishandling of the response to the virus?
The good news for fans of horror generally and Tremblay’s work specifically is yes, Survivor Song‘s harrowing narrative is able to compete with the current context by pitting characters we care about against the horrors of the human’s body’s failure to fend off a virus that feels neither pity nor mercy. In contrast to that, we have the heroism exhibited by both Nats and Rams in the face of their pitiless, merciless foe. Even in these dark days, individual acts of heroism, even fictional ones, arguably count for something.
What do we see in the book’s mirror which reflects the sensibilities of the novel and co-mingles them with the urgency of the pandemic? When speaking of heroic acts, where is the heroism in our leaders, who, at least, in America, are failing to protect our health care workers, our students and our teachers, and are telling us to expose ourselves to the virus if we want to eat and learn and remain housed? The narrative of Nats and Rams is nothing that anybody should have to experience in this life. So why, when in reality we experience similar desperation, will our government fail to come to our aid?
This horror, the failure of institutions, the cruelty apparent in the spectacle of the failure of leaders to do what is needed, maybe what future zombie narratives will tackle to stay relevant. I was reading Survivor Song when I came across Charles Pulliam-Moore’s article for Gizmodo, “Zombie Stories Are Going to Have to Change.” Pulliam-Moore argues that before COVID-19, zombie tales were “morbidly fun to consume . . . because, on some level, they absolve humans of any responsibility in their own demise and give us an easily identifiable villain to rally against.” In the television show The Walking Dead, for example, most of the perils involve zombie traps of one sort or another. While in that show, there are definitely non-moral non-zombified actors, these people (the cannibals, e.g.) come to their evil ways because their characters have been traumatized by the stress of the pandemic.
But in the world of COVID-19, we see the hardship caused by the virus, but the suffering’s great scale and the nature of its unequal distribution is determined by the fecklessness of our leadership. As Mr. Pullian-Moore puts it, “it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to recognize that while covid-19 itself is an unthinking, tireless enemy with an endless appetite for human life, the true monsters of our specific story are those who’ve politicized the pandemic and the few measures we have to face it.”
That Survivor Song doesn’t examine the failure of institutions to respond to a public health crisis doesn’t mean that it’s not a great read, even as 28 Days Later is still a good movie. Perhaps it is simply enough to note that the nightmare we’re living, albeit sharing strands of the DNA of trial by illness, is a different narrative from Tremblay’s Survivor Song.