Horror novelist Paul Tremblay is venturing down a road that’s going nowhere fast.
It’s a thread of sun-baked asphalt that runs from the suburban sprawl of Santa Clarita, Calif., into the hushed slopes of the Angeles National Forest, weaving alongside a dry creek bed that is leading us to the site of long-ago death and destruction.
About a mile in, we lose cell service. It’s not coming back. The slopes of San Francisquito Canyon grow steeper. Swaying golden brush becomes thatches of thick, olive chaparral. The little boxes of houses recede on the horizon.
Tremblay is researching a location for his new novel The Cabin at the End of the World, and I’m leading him to the ruins of the St. Francis Dam, which began construction nearly a century ago to supply fresh water to the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles.
Instead, it collapsed two years after completion. At midnight on March 12, 1928, the concrete span across this remote sandstone canyon buckled against the weight of 12 billion gallons of water. No one who witnessed the failure survived to describe exactly what happened.
The tidal wave swept away whole sleeping towns, taking between 400 and 600 lives with it as it surged 60 miles across the desert to empty into the Pacific. It remains California’s second deadliest single disaster after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
True to its title, The Cabin at the End of the World, which is new in stores this week, is a story of apocalypse…maybe. Like Tremblay’s other recent novels, the possession tale A Head Full of Ghosts and the missing child thriller Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, extracts its terrors from uncertainty. The characters (and the reader) are never sure if what they’re experiencing is real.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that identity, memory, and even reality is a lot more malleable, and open to interpretation than we’d like to think in our day to day,” Tremblay says. “The very essence of our existence is ambiguous. We don’t know the answers to the biggest questions of life.”
The book is a home-invasion story. A young family — dads Andrew and Eric, and their little daughter Wen — are visiting a remote, lakeside cabin on vacation when they are accosted by four strangers. These unwelcome visitors claim to have shared a series of visions — the world is about to end. And they are determined to make the family believe their nightmarish scenario.
As the hostage situation plays out, with the two fathers plotting an escape and the attackers pleading with the men and their daughter to join them, the outside world occasionally punctures this secluded space. Are the images on the news actually harbingers of Armageddon?
The strangers are strangers to each other, too. But have they really received visions from God, or are they delusional, dangerous people who merely found each other online and bolstered each other’s fantasies?
“I tried to twist or mess around with some of the conventions or expectations,” Tremblay says. “Obviously, I wanted the readers to empathize with the family. But I also thought some of the invaders thought that their experience was a horror too. They really felt like they had no choice in what they were doing. And to me that’s a scary thing.”
One of the attackers received her vision when she was compelled to drive down the same canyon road Tremblay and I are traversing (along with his friend, fellow horror writer Sarah Langan).
She ends up on an offshoot of San Francisquito Canyon road. We park where Tremblay will have her park, beside a series of concrete barriers, blocking an abandoned section of road. This part of the journey can only be made on foot, so we climb over the barriers and start walking.
There’s a hush here. A deepening silence as the hills close around us. “You had described it as having this really strange vibe, and you were right,” Tremblay says later.
Ahead of us, the canyon widens and we see the first remnant of the St. Francis Dam. It looks like the front porch stoop for a giant — a colossal chunk of concrete with steep, stair-like ridges. It’s the size of a house. And it sits in the same spot where it came to rest 90 years ago, about a half-mile from the original site of the dam.
It’s immovable, except for that 150-foot wall of water that shattered it and drove it downstream. There are other monuments to the disaster lying beside the road, which is scrawled with bizarre graffiti. It’s very The Walking Dead.
“It definitely felt like after Earth kind of thing, where the road was overgrown,” Tremblay recalls later. “Just looking up and seeing the mountains in between us, and we’re down in this valley, it was…I don’t know, it was really easy for me to imagine the rush of water from the dam. Or even just being there then, an earthquake striking.”
Knowing how many dam workers, ranch hands, farmers, and field workers and their families also died during the disaster gives the site a haunting feeling. The only part of the dam left standing after the collapse was a narrow band from the middle. It was dubbed “The Tombstone,” and eventually was knocked down decades ago to prevent climbers after a curiosity-seeker fell to his death.
Now it rests in the dusty creek, a plate full of rubble, pocked with overgrowth. You can still see the ridges, like teeth in a gigantic, decaying jaw bone.
Tremblay chose this site for one of the invader’s visions because it felt like a warning of things to come.
“I wanted her to be where there was an apocalypse of sorts, right?” he says. “I mean, apocalypses come in sizes big and small. I’ll never forget sort of the feeling of walking through there. It’s a weird feeling. I think it’s why people read end-of-the-world stories because there is that weird thrill of, ‘What would this actually be like to experience?’ Even though it’s the most horrific thing that could possibly happen.”
We leave as the sun sets, as mosquitos come out to feed. The ruins of the fallen dam vanish again. This time, they are swallowed by a wave of darkness.