Review: The Pallbearers’ Club

Boilerplate: my life is barely coordinated chaos so I still haven’t gotten a chance to finish 100 Years of Horror. Instead, I give you a review.

The Pallbearers’ Club hooked me with the title. It’s by the great Paul Tremblay, who I fell in love with after A Head Full of Ghosts. I think I mentioned it in January’s blog, where I discussed what I was looking forward to. And I’m happy to report that this one is worth it! Incredibly worth it, actually.

The premise here is that a nerd with scoliosis starts an afterschool club (because he needs to be “well-rounded” for college apps, a horror in and of itself). The club’s purpose? To volunteer to carry the caskets of those who die without anyone left in their lives.
At this point, if you’re not hooked, you’re probably reading the wrong blog, because goddamn is that fun.

The book is framed charmingly (which is #ClassicTremblay). There’s the main narrative, written by someone who is not called Art Barbara, and the comments on it, “handwritten” by someone who shows up in the book and has some thoughts on her own portrayal—someone who is not named Mercy.

These two semi-reliable narrators, in conversation with each other, tell us something that might be a vampire story, but is also a tale about coming of age, grieving, and the wounds from our youth that never quite heal. The story isn’t gory per se, but it’s grounded in the body: particularly our fickle hearts and spines.

Art and Mercy are refreshingly real. The past few years’ pop culture diet of sugary 80s nostalgia has many of us yearning for childhoods we didn’t have—that no one had because they’re not real—but the characters in this book are ordinary, and I love them for it. Art’s parents are flawed but not horrific and he’s working-class and unassuming. He’s a dork but also a punk, and Mercy is mysterious but not in a manic-pixie-dream-girl way. Neither of them are tropes, even though they easily could have been. They’re friends without forced pining or romance, in the way I often find myself friends with men but never see in fiction. They love each other, certainly, but without the clutter of romance. Of course, there might be more to it—a spiritual and physical feeding off each other, for example. But more on that later.

I also love Art and Mercy because they are New England punks, and as usual, the story is dripping with detail. It’s a love letter to Massachusetts and to 80s and 90s punk rock. The sheer number of references could be called indulgent, and maybe they’d turn off someone who doesn’t love that stuff or who wasn’t, like me, born on the East Coast. (The town of my birth, Beverly, is actually mentioned a few times.) I find them wonderful set-dressing, similar to the gorgeous and intricate backdrops in Studio Ghibli movies. This is regional horror, with a strong tether to place.

The prose is both artful (see what I did there?) and funny. Art’s list of band names, from “Institutional Pasta” to “The Brent Underwoods,” described as “a pop-punk five-piece (which is too many pieces) that had no members named Brent or Underwood” is a delight, as is his habit of verbing nouns. Mercy, too, is dryly hilarious, both as she’s portrayed in the main story and in her own voice as she writes the frame. The book is scattered with asides, the type I always get scolded for, whether they live in parens or commas.

They story’s central “was it real?” conflict is one Tremblay likes to stick us with, but it’s not frustrating because of everything else the novel does. Mercy’s crossing out of “memoir” and editing it to “novel” pervades the book. Are there some parts where the device wears thin? Yeah—the floating dresser didn’t grab me. But the rest, holy crow.

I read a review on Goodreads where someone said this book was basically about a maybe-haunted jacket and that made it boring. And all I can say is that review proves it’s possible to miss the point of something spectacularly. Because the “haunting” in this book isn’t just about visions that could maybe be passed off as a bad trip. There’s so much more to it.

SPOILER WARNING: my reading is one of no supernatural powers. Mercy is not a vampire, nor did she make Art one. It’s not creatures of the night that kill us, it’s life itself. The real monsters, if I can be permitted the cliché, are the heart that betrays us, the bones that warp and curve, the self-loathing we can’t get over, the loneliness that we all feel and we all deny. I think that Art found comfort in those stories, like I did, and Mercy—notice the name that isn’t hers, though it’s the one we know her as while reading—indulges the interpretation.

I’ve heard stories called a lot of things but here’s a new one: Tremblay tells us that a book is a coffin. That we have, by reading to the end, joined the Pallbearers’ Club ourselves. This closing paragraph is one that will stick with me. I’ll use it to explain horror and why it’s so important to me like I do with “Most times, a ghost is a wish.” It’s beautiful, and I think you should read it.