Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Southern Reach (#1)
I read it: January 2015
With this trilogy, I decided to just go ahead and believe the hype. Every angle seemed intriguing, right down to the cover art. Now that I’ve finished the first volume, what is there to say? To those interested, the only helpful message is: put aside my opinions on it and give it a try. Curl up under a blanket and get spooked.
For those who have read it, I’d probably start by elaborating on the comparisons to other works. The television show Lost looms large here. The mystery, the sticky wetness of a vibrant and mysterious landscape. That was a show I really enjoyed despite its flaws, and it’s great to tap back into that feeling.
As far as books go, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves comes swirling back to the surface. The sneakily unsettling plot. The prying apart of the natural order of things. The question of genre. Is this horror? And specifically, a deep tunnel that holds something truly unknown.
And above everything hovers the singular giant shadow of H.P. Lovecraft. By coincidence, I’ve been working through a Lovecraft anthology that I started around Halloween last fall when I thought the mood was right. It’s been a lot of fun, and I feel like whole new corners of dark psychological intrigue are opening before me. Jeff VanderMeer is clearly an honor student in Lovecraftian lore, and his modern take in that vein of fiction is vivid.
But I don’t want to go into plot and character just yet. What I’m wondering instead is, what is the attraction to these survivalist stories? Why is it so fascinating to be on a desert island adventure, where you’re not sure who to trust, and you second guess every shadow that catches the corner of your eye?
We’ve all lived through the pop culture popularity of zombies, which has caused us to discuss the term “zombie apocalypse” in half-seriousness, in broad daylight in front of almost any type of person, with nobody lifting an eyebrow to question our interests. At one job I remember the game of putting together a zombie apocalypse dream team where the rule is you can only choose coworkers. We would snatch at names as if picking teammates in a scrimmage. (My top choice was a hardworking, level-headed mother of two with a good sense of humor and a low tolerance for bullshit. I didn’t know her all that well, but for some reason I knew I would want her by my side with a crowbar.) And in the back of our minds we would wonder: would anyone pick us?
We love playing what-if in the weird alternative universes. It’s safe but thrilling in an almost embarrassing way, because you have to imagine some worst-case scenarios. Your family might be dead or missing. You might never return to a functioning society. You might have to turn against your neighbor, or they might turn against you. What if the entire sum of your past brought you to a very specific physical present, one in which you had no conventional responsibilities and no one to look after? What if it was you versus the universe?
Let’s walk down into that tunnel. Or is it a tower? No one here knows. You’ll have to go with your educated but incomplete guess. So stay alert. Stay present. As it is written: “Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.”