The Pallbearers Club, by Paul Tremblay

Art Barbara is kind of an odd guy. He’s always been a bit odd and it doesn’t help that, when he was in high school, he founded a club to act as pallbearers at funerals. There’s his bad skin. There’s the severe scoliosis that requires surgery. Mostly, what makes Art weird is his awkward self-consciousness. We can hope that his also-odd friendship with Mercy Brown, near the beginning of The Pallbearers Club, might help draw him out of his shell…but this is a Paul Tremblay novel and nothing is ever quite the way it seems.

The Pallbearers Club is one of those books that’s very aware of its own construction. Part of the book is told by Art, written decades later, as a memoir. The other part of the book—helpfully written in a different font—is by Art’s friend Mercy, who comments on Art’s work and argues that it’s fictional because she doesn’t remember things happening quite the way Art describes. We are left to decide for ourselves which voice is the accurate one. On the one hand, Art gets the lion’s share of the narration and can show us all the strange things that happen to him after he meets Mercy. On the other, Mercy often presents herself as the voice of reason and can explain away a lot of those things.

So, what weirdness does Art encounter? Well, there’s Mercy’s interest in finding proof that the New England vampires were real, and not just a bunch of unfortunate people with tuberculosis. Mercy tells Art that she only started going to funerals as a member of the Pallbearers Club (both wonder if you can call it a club if there are only two members) to capture photographic evidence that there are life-sucking vampires lurking around Massachusetts. Then there’s the fact that Art complains of fatigue after every Saturday spent with Mercy. Things get even more bizarre after Art and Mercy reconnect in the late 2010s. It isn’t that much of a leap to wonder if Mercy is one of those life-sucking vampires.

But then, as Mercy points out, Art’s back pain has probably led to a serious dependency on painkillers. When he was seventeen, Art’s scoliosis got so bad that the only way to correct it was to have a large part of his spine fused to prevent it from bending. Anyone who’s ever twanged their back knows how excruciating it can be to move (and even not move), since every muscle leads back to the spine somehow. Art had to spend a long time recovering from the surgery and, in Mercy’s telling, it’s not hard to see that maybe Art never really recovered. Perhaps the sounds he hears and the splotches of light he sees are just hallucinations. Maybe the fatigue is just because Art doesn’t exercise and spends far too much time playing late into the night with a series of unsuccessful bands.

I usually enjoy stories that walk the boundary between supernatural and rational explanations. I really enjoyed Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. But I found The Pallbearers Club to be more sad than scary. I was hoping for more from this book.


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