Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons: Clinical tone might put off some readers
Rating: 5 out of 5
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Book One of The Southern Reach Trilogy) is a treasure trove of Lovecraftian horror and madness, written for modern-day readers. It’s written as the journal of the Biologist, a member of the twelfth expedition into “Area X”. This is an isolated beach and the land around it, cut off from civilization by a mysterious border. The Southern Reach is the governmental agency tasked with figuring out what Area X is, and they haven’t had much luck. Some expedition members go mad and kill each other. Some expeditions go mad and kill themselves. Others mysteriously appear at their homes after being gone for months, seem distant and empty, and then die of cancer months later. Advanced technology seems to degrade quickly when it works at all, so the expeditions take only simple machines with them. Each expedition uses different protocols, trying to figure out what might make a difference at the heart of the enigma. Expedition twelve is all-female, and the members’ individual identities are stripped away, leaving them knowing each other only by their job titles. The Psychologist, who leads the expedition, has put each person through rigorous questioning and mental preparation, but it’s entirely unknown whether this will help at all.
The Biologist’s tone is somewhat clinical, which might put off some readers. I found it worked to reinforce the strangeness of the setting and events. It takes very little time for the unusual, maddening effects of Area X to put in an appearance, so you don’t have to wait for long. There’s a lighthouse that seems significant, and a strange tunnel with bizarre writing lining its walls:
“… There shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy that shall bloom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age …”
The tone of Annihilation is very internal, so it’s hard to see how this is set to become a movie next year. Most of what happens is nested within the experiences of the Biologist, and her take on it is integral to what happens and how.
That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.
There are strange creatures that inhabit Area X, and accounts of past expeditions may not have been entirely correct in how they were portrayed to the characters during their training. Despite the odd advanced decay of everything left behind to find, there are some secrets that haven’t been lost to madness and decomposition.
I absolutely loved Annihilation. It’s a fantastic exploration of the madness present in both internal and external landscape, and it’s a Lovecraftian horror built to appeal to modern readers.