I always used to think H.P. Lovecraft was a lazy writer. The first story of his I read was “The Transition of Juan Romero” because it sounded awesome. What I got was a chasm that held things that could not be described. At the ripe age of 12, I thought, “What a gyp.” I wanted monsters, I wanted terror, not some mine worker looking down into a pit and blacking out because he was so startled.
Cosmic horror is all about that, though. It’s about being unable to comprehend what you’re seeing, your five senses becoming useless. The horror comes not from blood and gore, but from the idea that there are things that our brains cannot accept as natural.
Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation, is modern cosmic horror. It’s about a place ominously called AREA X. Cut off from the world for an indeterminate amount of time, Area X is surrounded by an ever-encroaching barrier that is very poorly understood. The book follows a group of four women, not known by name, but by their occupation, their role in the expedition. The narrator is simply “The Biologist” and nothing more.
Area X is described as a beautiful wilderness, with very little suggesting human presence. Animals from all webs live there. There is no pollution, light or industrial. It is pristine and it is disconcerting.
We follow the expedition as it quickly breaks apart and get descriptions of things that aren’t easy to imagine. That’s the cosmic horror here. Ignoring that I despise almost all of the characters, they interact with what is incredibly difficult to grasp. A dolphin with the eyes of a human being, a midnight creature moaning mournfully in the swamp, and a never-ending tower with almost scriptural words written on its walls in fungus.
What makes it great writing is that, unlike Lovecraft, VanderMeer lets us as readers see the cosmic horror in little tastes. It is completely cracker jack to the mind, but he takes us sense by sense. He guides us to a general idea of what we’re supposed to be reading. It’s not a drop on the doorstep with “I cannot describe what’s in front of me.”
On the contrary, it’s “I’m doing my goddamned best to tell you what’s going on. Cut me some slack.”
What Do I Think?
I had mixed feelings about this book. The horror is very much present, keeping me not scared, but uncomfortable with what I’m reading. I hated the characters with a passion. VanderMeer also opens up so many questions and answers none of them. I loved that – it’s the takeaway that not everything can be solved. In fact, nothing can.
Four out of five Cthulhu’s. If you want everything wrapped up in a nice little bow, stay as far away from this as you can. If you’re looking for an updated H.P. Lovecraft, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the way to go. It’s like an episode of Lost (early seasons only), but with much brighter hues.(4 / 5)
Photo Credits: Cover of Annihilation, paperback cover from Amazon.com