I had to stop multiple times while reading Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song to check whether it had been written before or during the pandemic. And then check again, and again, because the way his fictional society reacted to his fictional outbreak felt far too close to reality circa March-April 2020. But Survivor Song was published in July 2020, which means it would have basically been done and dusted by the time the first reports of COVID-19 emerged from China.
At least the ‘rona never turned anyone into a zombie.
Natalie is heavily pregnant, which would make her prone to worry, anyway, but the reports of a supercharged rabies virus infecting humans and animals alike has her anxiety spiking. She’s relieved when her husband, Paul, comes home safely from a late-morning grocery trip. That relief is short-lived; within minutes, an infected man shambles through their unlocked front door and attacks the couple. Paul is very clearly dead, while Natalie escapes with just a bite on her arm. She flees her suburb for Boston in hopes that her bestie, Ramola, can help her.
Ramola, a pediatrician at a nearby hospital, is a good bet, all things considered. In addition to being level-headed, she’s also unfailingly loyal to Natalie. She’s able to use her position as a doctor to get Natalie in the door of the overwhelmed hospital and snag a dosage of the vaccine. The doctor there suggests Natalie deliver her baby via C-section as soon as possible to ensure the child, at least, is safe from the virus should the vaccine not work. Before the procedure can be performed, though, infected patients overrun the hospital. Ramola and Natalie flee in an ambulance for a smaller clinic they’re told can likely take Natalie. When their ambulance is crashed into by an infected driver, they have to continue on foot, aided by two teenage vigilantes. But Natalie is growing feverish and the world around them is growing more and more unsafe from the infected. Regardless of whether Natalie’s condition is a side effect from the vaccine or a symptom of the virus, it’s clear that time is running out.
Tremblay’s made a solid name for himself in the horror space, and for good reason. He knows how to keep that perfect balance between action and detail, so that both the pacing and terror are on point. This is not a fairy tale with a happy ending, Tremblay reminds us multiple times, and Paul’s death right from the get-go confirms that. That scene is almost a jump-scare in the suddenness of the violence, but there’s plenty of slow and creeping horror, as well. Survivor Song is not a long book, and the events take place all within the same day—Natalie is bitten in the late morning, and by night, the events of the plot have wrapped up—but by the time the epilogue rolled around, I certainly felt haggard.
Not that I could stop reading it, either. The horror within the story and the eerie familiarity it brought both kept me riveted to each new step of the journey Ramola and Natalie take. The infected people and animals surrounding them are frightening enough, but it’s the healthy who form themselves into militias to “take care of the problem” in their own way that is perhaps even scarier. More disquieting still is how closely certain portions of the fictional pandemic mirrored the one that was happening around the time of Survivor Song‘s publishing. The runs on grocery stores, the knee-jerk reactions brought on by ignorance of the virus’ spread and severity, and so. many. conspiracy theories. There’s nothing preachy about how Tremblay shows this; rather, it’s a matter of fact that ended up being alarmingly close to fact. True, covid wasn’t the planet’s first epidemic or pandemic, but it still feels spooky. Consider this bit from one of the quick dips the omniscient narrator makes into the story:
“In concurrence with the quarantine, the vaccination program will be wildly successful
and will return the region back from the brink of collapse. In the final tally of what will
be considered the end of the epidemic—but not, to be clear, the end of the virus; it will
burrow, digging in like a nasty tick; it will migrate, all but encouraged and welcomed in
a country where science and forethought are allowed to be dirty words, where
humanity’s greatest invention, the vaccine, is smeared and vilified by narcissistic,
purposeful fools (the most dangerous kind), where fear is harvested for fame, profit, and
self-esteem—almost ten thousand people will have died.”
To date, covid has killed more than ten times the amount in the U.S. alone of this puny little supercharged rabies virus that shatters Natalie and Ramola’s lives, and left millions more disabled or otherwise suffering the effects of long covid. But the way people have reacted to the real-life disease, and the way they reacted in the pages of Survivor Song, are eerily similar. In the book, people kill pets out of fear that they will act as disease vectors; in real life, we collectively didn’t do much better. Maybe that’s just human frailty, identified and isolated and twisted by Tremblay to create a reality he likely couldn’t have expected to mimic our own so closely, or at least so soon.
It’s hard to tell whether I would have been quite so gripped by Survivor Song had it come out a few months earlier and I’d read it right away when we were all still in the Before Times. That seems so long ago I’m not sure I can really say one way or the other. The weight of societal change brought on by humanity’s best and worst natures being forced out by the stress of an unknown virus is palpable, and I think would have still been effective in that distant past. Now, it just hits a little closer to home.