In a very few short years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors—actually, make that one of my favorite authors, period. In his novels, and particularly in his short story collection, Growing Pains, Tremblay combines truly frightening scenarios with deeply felt characters, bravura storytelling, and sometimes experimental techniques.
The Pallbearers Club is all that and more. It’s structured as a memoir, starting with high school, of Art Barbara, a tall and painfully thin social outcast plagued with severe scoliosis, acne, and zero self esteem. In dire need of something, anything, to impress college admissions counselors, he starts the Pallbearers Club, a group tasked with attending the funerals of those without families or friends. The club is not an overwhelming success, but it brings Art one thing—a young woman named Mercy Brown who will be inextricably link to him for the rest of his life.
Mercy is mercurial, too cool for school, a force of nature with her ever-present Polaroid instant camera and love of early punk music. Her and Art have virtually nothing in common, but they become friends of a sort as she introduces him to the music he will become obsessed with.
What follows is Art’s life story as he stumbles through the decades, a life fueled by alcohol and painkillers, with more failures than successes. Mercy appears and disappears, sometimes for years at a time, but she’s always there.
If you’re wondering at this point if Tremblay has veered away from horror with The Pallbearers Club, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned. Art becomes convinced at some point that Mercy is a centuries old psychic vampire, feeding off his life force, the primary reason his life is in shambles. A series of strange, possibly supernatural encounters between them only adds to his belief.
Is Mercy a monster? Art thinks so, but we also get another view—one from Mercy herself. As we read Art’s unpublished manuscript, we also get to read Mercy’s hand-written comments on it. She’s funny, snarky, always brutally opinionated, and frequently at odds with what Art has written. Tremblay is working without a net here—hell, he’s working without a high wire—and pulls every bit of it off. With Mercy functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, we get to see their often antagonistic, even toxic, but also genuine friendship from both sides. Can we as readers trust what either of them is saying? Great question, one that I’m not going to answer. You’ll need to find out for yourself.
One other thing. Much of Art’s early years mirror Tremblay’s own, which may partly account for how painful and true it feels.
The Pallbearers Club is a tour de force that easily ranks with Tremblay’s best work, and that’s saying something. Join the club.