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'The Pallbearer's Club:' a memoir on friendship — and a vampire thriller

SHANNON BOND, HOST:

A new novel with chapter titles taken from the songs of the punk rock group Husker Du begins like this.

PAUL TREMBLAY: (Reading) I am not Art Barbara. That is not my birth name. But at the risk of contradicting myself within the first few lines of a memoir, I am Art Barbara.

BOND: And a few pages later, a critique inserted into the memoir from his best and only friend.

TREMBLAY: (Reading) Art Barbara - Jesus, dude.

BOND: What is Mercy's beef with that name, Art Barbara?

TREMBLAY: To be fair, Art sort of goes on for, like, a page about its pronunciation, particularly with a Boston accent.

BOND: How would he say it with that Boston accent?

TREMBLAY: (Imitating Boston accent) Art Barbara (laughter). But I think Mercy's more - her problem more with it is just that he's renaming himself for the purposes of the memoir. And I think she suspects right away, when he names her Mercy, it's a reference to sort of a unique corner of New England folklore.

BOND: Paul Tremblay tells us more about that creepy business in a moment. It's the back and forth between Mercy and Art - him often overdramatic, her often hilariously sardonic as she reads his writing - that propels Tremblay's novel, "The Pallbearers Club." That's the name Art gives to the club he creates in high school. It's kind of a community service project to provide pallbearers for people who die without friends and family to grieve for them. Mercy, an older, cooler woman who's into punk music, joins and ends up being the only other member, establishing a strange dynamic with Art.

TREMBLAY: So for one, I started with Art as really sort of, like, a stand in for my high school self. And I think, for so many people, you know, despite, like, the lens of nostalgia that we see everywhere in pop culture now, high school was difficult. High school was - you know, for especially people who weren't considered popular or the in crowd - was obviously a hard thing to do. So part of it was honestly a little bit of wish fulfillment, that I wish I had a friend like Mercy.

BOND: Yeah. Yeah.

TREMBLAY: Although as their relationship sort of goes through three-plus decades, it's one of those relationships that I think both people realize, you know, they've - they're good for each other, but they're also, like, the worst people for each other.

BOND: Right. Right. And along the way, Art comes to believe something about Mercy that Mercy disputes. Art believes she is a New England vampire. So what is a New England vampire? Where did this idea come from?

TREMBLAY: So Mercy Brown died of tuberculosis in 1892, and she was in a very small town in rural Rhode Island called Exeter. And, mainly because other people in her family were dying from tuberculosis as well, people started assuming, oh, the first person who was ill or one of the people that was ill must be coming back at night to feed and make their family members sicker. And so the New England way to cure it was to exhume the body. If the body's heart was still full of blood, that was a sign that that person was coming back at night to feed on, you know, their family members. So they would take out the heart, burn it, put ashes in water or wine and actually drink that mixture as a sort of cure.

And this is something that happened to Mercy Brown. She was, as far as we know, the last person to go through that awful, you know, postmortem - I don't know - heart cocktail experience, we'll call it.

BOND: Right. In some ways, what was more unsettling than the question of, like, is Mercy actually a vampire feeding off of Art or maybe even turning him into a vampire? - actually, the far more unsettling thing is we just don't know, as the reader, who's telling the truth here.

TREMBLAY: I know. I just think there's so much fun ways to play in sort of that liminal space because, you know, memory, identity, even existence is a lot more malleable and strange and unknowable than, you know, we like to think during our day-to-day. Memory and identity are very much wrapped up in this book. Like, Art yearns to be, you know, someone who he isn't. You know, what is his actual identity? Like, are his memories sort of faulty? Are - you know, are both Art and Mercy - it's not only is - which one is lying? Like, to me, it's like, well, maybe they're both not lying. Like, I mean, there's space for that, too, just because, you know, of the ambiguity of the things that they're experiencing.

BOND: Throughout this book, there are a lot of horror tropes and, you know, including body horror. Art has scoliosis. He has to wear this back brace that, the way you describe it, really does sound like a torture implement. And he ends up undergoing a grueling surgery the summer before he goes to college. And I understand that's something you experienced as a teen.

TREMBLAY: Yeah. So my scoliosis - I had to wear this really awful brace at night when I slept. You know, I get often asked not only why do you write but, like, why do you write horror? And for me, like, a big chunk of this book is my long-winded way of trying to answer that. You know, at the same time, it was a transformative experience. I was six-foot, a hundred and forty pounds when I graduated high school. And then, six days later, after I had my surgery, I was six-three and eventually six-four.

BOND: Wow.

TREMBLAY: And, you know, just a physically transformed person. But as this story takes place over 30 years, Art's body definitely goes through multiple metamorphoses.

BOND: Right. Right. And he's not always getting what he thinks he wants.

TREMBLAY: Right.

BOND: And I understand that during your recovery that summer, you came under the spell of another New England writer, Stephen King. Was there something about his books in particular that also influenced you?

TREMBLAY: Yeah. You know, I was a - math was always my best subject, so I didn't really - in a - as a high school student - or even in undergraduate, I was a math major, I didn't stray too far from that. But when I discovered King, I was like, oh, these aren't, like, dusty stories and gothic halls and things like that - you know, the stuff I had - I was forced to read when I was taking English classes. He's writing about, like, my dad, who worked in a factory for 25 years. And he's writing about my mom, who was a bank teller. So to me, that was, like, instant credibility, for me, as a reader, was seeing, oh, here are people, at least at that point in time, I hadn't actually really seen represented in the fiction that I was certainly taught.

BOND: And thinking about that, this book is very much located in the late '80s. It's a very Gen-X story, right?

TREMBLAY: For sure.

BOND: High school, the kind of humor, the kind of music - you know, Art goes from - in this - on one of his many transformations from listening to Def Leppard and The Scorpions to being introduced to punk and getting really into Husker Du.

TREMBLAY: Yeah.

BOND: What was it about this particular time period that really lent itself to this story or maybe shaped the story as you told it?

TREMBLAY: So first, like, '80s nostalgia's been sort of peddled for so long, you know, with - obviously, with "Stranger Things" probably being the most obvious.

BOND: Yes, absolutely.

TREMBLAY: I don't know, in - within the mainstream, it's like nostalgia's always - I think it's really dangerous - like, the idea that, oh, things were much better back then is sort of, like, the implication when we watch sort of these fun programs. And, I don't know, the reality is, like, no, things were awful for so many people back then. You know, it's not - it was not a better time, certainly not for Art.

The changeover to punk to him was a revelation because here were musicians doing something different. Here were musicians that were oftentimes in their lyrics saying something is terribly wrong. I guess, as dark as punk music can be sometimes, to me, that's, like, a hopeful act, the idea of saying, hey, we're exposing, like, a terrible truth here. And I think horror stories do the same thing. It's hopeful because, you know, there's that shared recognition that something's terribly wrong, whether or not we can fix it. You know, hopefully we can.

BOND: Paul Tremblay's new book is "The Pallbearers Club." Paul, thank you so much for talking about this with us today.

TREMBLAY: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING I LEARNED TODAY")

HUSKER DU: (Singing) Something I learned today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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