One of the seven definitions in the Merriam Webster Dictionary of “song” defines it as a poem set to music, or a melody written for a lyric poem or ballad. In contrast: a “fairy tale” is defined as a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings and lands, or a fabricated story, especially one intended to deceive. I looked those up after reading the first sentence (maybe even the refrain?) of Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song: “This is not a fairy tale. This is a song.”
At the outset, Survivor Song gives us a glimpse into a tragically familiar tableau: the United States in the midst of a pandemic—a highly contagious variation of the rabies virus, passed through saliva, with a near 100% fatality rate due to its rapid onset. There are government-mandated curfews, a food shortage, and strict shelter-in-place laws. We see all this through the eyes of the very pregnant Natalie, just outside of Boston, as she faces an even more familiar struggle: parsing conflicting information in the form of social media posts, radio interviews, and byzantine government statements, trying to figure out what exactly she needs to do to keep her unborn child and husband safe.
But she never gets the chance. An infected man bullies his way into her home, kills her husband Paul, and attacks her. A single bite to Natalie’s forearm is the locus out of which the entire song spins. Natalie seeks help from her longtime friend and doctor, Ramola, and, like an epic poem, the pair embark on a zigzagging journey to get Natalie treatment for her wound and a place to safely deliver her baby.
Ramola (lovingly called Rams) is the Sam to Natalie’s (Nats) Frodo. She is level-headed, ever practical, and a fierce protector, willing to go to any lengths to ensure Nats’ safety. In fact, it’s the grounded Ramola who makes sure this story does not become a fairy tale. From the start, she will not abide the magical thinking that can bloom in a world facing an unanticipated cataclysm like a pandemic. She uses logic and linear thinking—a whiteboard in her mind—to tackle the chaos around her. And, when the word “zombie” enters the narrative, she eschews it. As Natalie makes real-time voice recordings to her unborn child, she teases, “Can you hear Auntie Rams tsking me each time I say ‘zombie’?” But even as Nats pokes fun at her, Ramola’s disapproval makes her concede the truth of her own mortality, the truth her magical thinking protects her from: “Dead is dead. There’s no coming back…it’s easier to say zombie than ‘a person infected with a super rabies virus and no longer capable of making good decisions.”
Ironically, we can see that Ramola is imaginative, perhaps more so than Nats. Throughout this ballad of survival, she vividly describes daydreams of returning home to her native England (though she asserts it’ll never happen), and, as they pass a dead fox on the road, even recounts her favorite Grimm’s fairy tale, The Marriage of Mrs. Fox. She wishes she could carry the beautiful creature into the forest, lay it to rest at the base of a tree, and cover it with leaves and pine needles. Part of her wants to transport it elsewhere, to where there is no sickness.” But, just as she begins floating into this daydream, to escape the harshness of her circumstances, and the totally screwed-up world at large, she sharply pulls herself back to real life, and the reader with her.
Tremblay threads referential language and a meta-ballad through Survivor Song, too. Nats (hilariously) sings “Zombie” by The Cranberries, states how much she loathes Children of Men, shouts “Witness me!” in homage to Mad Max: Fury Road. Along with all of this, Rams and Nats cross paths with teenagers Luis and Josh who, quite literally, help them along their journey as they hitch rides on the boys’ bikes. With a youthful naivete, the boys live-narrate unfolding events as the plot of a zombie apocalypse—”this is the part in the zombie movie where the heroes team up with the randos”—much to the annoyance of Sam-like Rams.
By having Ramola remind us time and time again that the infected are not zombies, Tremblay forces us to reckon with the truth that this horror is not supernatural and not beyond the scope of our reality. And, by referencing the meta narrative of a zombie apocalypse, by making references to our own zeitgeist, he imparts the most frightening truth of all: this is not the horror of any possible future in a world that mirrors our own, it is the horror of a possible future in our very own world.
Why does Survivor Song work so hard to keep the reader firmly in the existential terror of the here and now? Is it to scare the shit out of us? It does that, sure. But, no, it’s not horror for horror’s sake, torture porn, an apocalypse narrative. Survivor Song actually gives us a solution, and a wonderfully simple one: refusing the lies we tell ourselves because we think they’re helping us survive, when they’re only isolating us from the gifts of others.
Ramola tells us she isn’t a religious person, and that “her faith is placed within the fragile hands of humanity’s capacity for kindness and service.” And, throughout Survivor Song, we see the other characters—the “randos” as Luis and Josh called them—exhibit selflessness of such enormity that it brought this reader to tears. And that’s what Survivor Song can teach us: instead of indulging or fighting our own magical thinking, our suspicion, and our basest instincts in the search for conspiracies and big lies, we accept our imperfections, our darkness…and exist with them. As Nats says to her unborn child, “You can’t always be nice. No one can…but that’s what people do, we prepare for the worst and think our worst but then we try our best.”
This is not a fairy tale. This is a song.
Survivor Song is available from William Morrow.
Lauren Jackson (LJ) is the marketing/publicity manager at Saga Press and Gallery Books. Her primary areas of interest are true crime, horror, Star Trek, and making spreadsheets. Her sun is in Scorpio with a rising sign in Libra and a moon in Gemini, for which she is seeking professional help. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alsoknownaslj, or on Hinge if your filters are right.