The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

The Southern Reach is a weird series of novels – part science fiction, part magical realism, part classic horror. I acquired the compilation volume so thankfully I was able to read all three of them in one go. I find the older I get the less patience I have for committing myself to entire trilogies.

That said, I did enjoy the clear tonal distinction between each of these books. Annihilation, certainly, could function as a standalone novel. Authority and Acceptance less so, but they still each have a tangibly different focus.

At the center of the stories, a mystery – a bizarre stretch of landscape where some unspeakable cosmic event took place, now quarantined by a government body. A series of expeditions sent in to attempt to study the area, with results ranging from unexplained death and disappearance to expedition members in zombie-like states of Zen upon returning.

When the novel first introduced Area X I started having very strong flashbacks to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and naturally, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. A bizarre thing has happened, but what exactly occurred is decidedly less important than the lasting effects of the event.

Vandermeer’s decision to withhold the names of most of his characters, having the reader know them instead by their job title, is one that I found really helpful for enforcing that focus on landscape. Characters have their own human dramas, definitely, but always within the larger context of an overarching biosphere of moving parts.

So, Annihilation is incredibly creepy. I will freely confess that it kept me awake for several nights until I finally had to stop reading it before bed. I may startle easily, but it takes a lot to leave me genuinely uneasy in the way that this book did, so I have to give it major points for that alone.

I won’t tiptoe around the Lovecraftian aspects of the story. Spoiler alert: the events of Area X are not of this Earth. Possibly not of this dimension or universe. Indescribable cosmic horror unfolds in a way that’s more believable than most of the explicitly Lovecraftian fiction that I’ve come across.

The entire trilogy leans heavily into that uncertainty, that deep tension between being intensely curious about something, while understanding that you’re probably better off not knowing. There’s an unavoidable sense of despair, as well. Despair over relationships, despair over ones’ own mortality, the despair of realizing how truly powerless we all are.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the way gender and sexuality was employed, (or, successfully ignored) by Vandermeer. Which is to say, gender dynamics are hardly a focal point, and I don’t want to reward mediocrity here, but I still feel the need to mention what a breath of fresh air it was to read a novel with so many believable, fully realized, uncompromised female characters (including the Main Character, at least in Annihilation.)

There’s a gay character, and a bisexual character, both of whose orientations are completely incidental to their roles in the story. There’s even a brief mention of the existence of non-binary individuals. It may not be much but when this kind of thing is as rare as it is, I have to take a moment to offer encouragement for what it’s worth.

For a novel about terror from beyond our galaxy, it’s a story that suffused with incredibly believable human experiences and reactions, one that manages to maintain a small scope despite the immense measure of its primary conflict. The trilogy may be about horrors of the highest magnitude, but serves to remind us that there’s horror inside every one of us, as well.

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Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while keeping this blog, it’s that it’s much harder to be snarky about books I actually liked. Which is why it took me so damn long to write about Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.

But I dug deep, and mustered enough ennui for a small rant, so here goes.

This book is essentially billed as a straight-up sci-fi/horror story – but there’s a lot of nuance to Metro 2033 and that’s exactly what makes it so good. Not only that, but Glukhovsky manages to pull off horror writing that’s actually legitimately creepy.

Quick plot rundown: Metro 2033 takes place, conveniently, in the year 2033, in the metro train tunnels underneath what used to be Moscow. The entire surface of the planet, (presumably; the scope of the story is fairly small and the characters for the most part have no way of knowing what the actual conditions are on the surface of the planet) was rendered uninhabitable a couple decades prior to this by the events of a third world war.

The main character of the novel is a man in his early 20’s named Artyom, who was but a wee baby when they nuked the world, and has spent most of his life in an underground train station, growing mushrooms for sustenance. The Moscow metro is vast – extensive enough that a communist revolution already broke out at some point prior to the events of Metro, with the requisite social upheaval. A number of stations have been taken as territory by the reds, complete with ongoing border skirmishes and prejudice-driven executions.

Aside from humans continuing their grand legacy of being just, so awful, there’s a new threat from the so-called “Dark Ones,” a new race of super-beings that nobody’s really seen but are assumed by everyone to be pure evil and out for blood. Are they horribly disfigured mutants from the surface? The next step in human evolution? Aliens? There’s probably a fan theory about aliens. Nobody knows.

There’s also the threat of a plague and the possibility that Satan himself lives in the tunnels, which are almost certainly haunted by… something, not to mention uncanny numbers of rats. The story makes it very clear how little fun is to be had in the metro.

So a rant: way before I actually picked up this book I watched someone play a demo of the videogame version on the Xbox 360. I was mildly annoyed with the game after only a couple hours’ worth of actual gameplay because it had the player just shooting weird mutant creatures crawling through the tunnels.

Now, I realize the limitations that the developers were working with. Metro 2033 (the game) is a first-person shooter and one of the most fundamental aspects of an FPS is having something to shoot at, and there are a lot of reasons for inserting a non-human foe to fill that slot. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine that sci-fi horror writers of late frequently seem to fall back on “monsters” that, while certainly unpleasant, still appear to be carbon-based life forms with all the accoutrements like skin and some type of blood, and… eyes maybe.

What I’m saying is these things aren’t really that scary anymore because while they might be super strong and have extra-thick skin or plates of exoskeleton or whatever, you can still fundamentally kill them with guns. In some cases you may need to upgrade to a rocket launcher but I believe my point stands.

Also, if this is how you formulate your monster I have to assume that the monster doesn’t actually have any concept of malice or vengeance because it’s basically just a dumb animal, otherwise it might display the trappings of human-level intelligence, namely some form of combat strategy, external weapons, or perhaps an ability to be reasoned with.

Therefore, I posit that this type of creature isn’t really a scary monster, it’s just a large, angry dog. And I know Cujo was a hit but that was the 80s and I think animalistic monsters like werewolves or swamp things have at this point been distilled into tropes of either harlequin romance or cheeseball black and white horror films.

What I’m getting at is that I picked up Metro 2033 fully prepared to be disappointed that the main antagonist was a big ugly dog, or several big ugly dogs.

I was, however, actually thoroughly impressed with the antagonist forces present in the novel. Glukhovsky seems to understand that part of what makes horror horrifying is to have the character, and the reader by proxy, left uncertain about the true nature of the antagonist. Though Metro sits very comfortably in the “plausible” post-apocalyptic dystopia section of sci-fi, the horror elements are presented as mostly paranormal. This could totally fucking destroy all the scientific plausibility of the setting, but it’s executed with such an expert hand that it works beautifully.

There’s no final boss battle with these supernatural forces – they appear throughout the novel and while a number of possible explanations are explored at various point, none is presented as being specifically correct. What is “certain,” as much as anything can be certain, is that the forces are inherently malicious, and the kind of thing that you could never hope to kill with a gun. Maybe it’s a metaphor for human hate. Maybe the metro is actually purgatory, and the forces are just voices rising up from hell. Maybe a bunch of people living in dark tunnels with hardly any food, medicine or running water will eventually become paranoid enough to start giving physical shape to their anxieties. What is clear, is that the bad things happening in the tunnels are comprehensively unsettling.

At its heart, Metro 2033 is a pretty formulaic hero’s quest, wherein our boy Artyom must travel from his home on the outer reaches of the inhabitable metro, into the very center of human civilization and conflict, to kill the Dark Ones once and for all. You could easily re-skin this as fantasy and it would basically be Soviet Lord of the Rings.

But that’s okay. The structure of the plot falls into the background compared to the tight writing and character development. Artyom is such a pure cinnamon bun that you can’t help but root for him, and the occasional really convenient escape from certain doom is somehow improved by your pure love for a Kalashnikov-toting, gas-mask wearing main character who is, at his heart, an adorable and soft little kid.

I think part of what I loved about this book is that it somehow manages to seem somehow optimistic, in a world where you get a free ski mask with your purchase of an AK-47. The clearest available moral of the story is that humanity is irredeemably stupid and awful and that we deserve everything we have coming, and yet it never becomes an existential slog.

That said, I will say to make sure you’ve got your favorite whiskey in the house, because you’re going to need a drink when you finish this book.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes

August was an interesting time to read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t think I know of any other books that so accurately portray the smell, appearance and general feel of autumn, particularly late October when the season is in full swing and the frost is only beginning to set in in the mornings. I know it’s a particularly North American concept of October, but that being the one that I’ve grown up with, it really made me long for sweater weather.

For a horror story, it’s very much a boy’s coming-of-age tale. Not to say that only boys and men can relate to it, I know I found it totally engaging regardless, but the text is rife with nods to apparent shared experiences by men of a certain age who grew up in a certain era. Released originally in 1962, it doesn’t exactly subvert the sensibilities of that era, but it doesn’t fall victim to them, either.

When I say horror in describing the story I definitely mean classic horror. There’s no gore or teenagers being stalked by serial killers here. A supernaturally evil carnival comes to town. No, there aren’t any murderous clowns, either. The carnival itself is something that would probably be passed off as utter camp if it were written into a horror story today, but Something Wicked’s temporal setting makes it totally believable. This is a time where 13-year-old-boys roam free in the middle of the night, escaping through their bedroom windows and are reprimanded only via brief scolding when and if they are ever discovered. There aren’t any cellphones or computers, and travelling salesmen are still a thing. The town is presented as a relatively idyllic portrait of “all-American” life in the late fifties.

Yet the action never feels dated or dull. There’s suspense, bits that are genuinely scary and as a reader I was still able to form an attachment to the characters to the point where I cared what happened to them. The story is tight throughout and never drags. I think this was at least partially a side-effect of Bradbury’s extremely short chapter structure – sometimes a chapter was only half a page long. I’m a fan of this. It means each chapter is a clean divide, describes only one scene, no matter the length, and it really keeps the pages turning. Not to mention that we’re treated to an ending that’s much more than just “the heros win, and the bad guys are vanquished.” It’s thought-provoking, satisfying and most importantly doesn’t feel like a rip-off the way so many happy endings tacked on to horror stories do.
As for gender roles: Bradbury is no Larry Niven, but again, the women in the story are passive objects. Set dressing and plot devices. Arguably the most prominent female characters are the boys’ mothers, and these two “characters” are completely interchangeable. Will’s mother has a few lines of dialogue in which she consoles her husband and son – Jim’s mother is only described from a distance. Basically, the boy’s mothers are on there to act as foils for the maleness of our three heros. Other than that, they don’t affect the story at all. The boys and Will’s father barely seem worried about getting in trouble with their women after running around through the town all night. Also, when do they sleep? There were points at which I got tired just thinking about this. Maybe I was just never a 13-year-old boy.

Aside from the mothers, women are presented in a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re the gullible fools who get eaten up by the supernatural evil presence while the astute young males see through the clever ruse immediately – and isn’t this sort of intuition often a traditionally feminine thing in literature? Men figure stuff out with science, while women are in tune with nature and “just know”?

If not that, they’re a part of the evil, as in the only female member of the carnival – the blind witch. I guess this is our feminine intuition nod – the woman communes with nature, has a sixth sense and is therefore a practitioner of evil black magic. The witch is portrayed as inherently evil, being a part of the carnival, but really all she ever does in the story is smell and feel things, knowing things in spite of her blindness, which we’re supposed to interpret as really creepy.

My short rant aside, there’s a reason Bradbury has been called the greatest sci-fi writer in history. (Link NSFW) This is an engaging story with solid characterization and plot. And for old, classic horror, I found it genuinely eerie. Read this at Halloween! Read it in front of your gas fireplace or with a lamp on under a blanket. Pretend you’re 13 again.