Jeff Vandermeer is a name that has been on my reading horizon for a long time now. Funnily enough, his name surfaced when I was doing research around writing workshops and found that Jeff and Ann, the writer-duo conduct a fantastic writing workshop retreat every year. And then of course, his name frequently pops up related to terms like the “New Weird” – a reawakening of the Lovecraftian horror themes with post-modern sensibilities. A new age Legend.
Annihilation, however, was the full frontal page news for me. Hitting me squarely between my eyes with the force of a lightning bolt. It was the real deal indeed and I think I am sufficiently wowed to follow Jeff’s writing career to the very end of the world. (Or whatever weird ends he takes me to as a reader!)
Annihilation probably heralds Jeff reaching out to more mainstream audiences – with this cleverly marketed trilogy called Southern Reach being published one after the other – starting from Feb through September this year – hitting us in quick succession – that gives a quirky creepy twist to environmental decline issues, emphasizing that weakening bond between man and nature. All wrought about in traditional Vandermeer-style creepy horror and claustrophobic prose.
So Annihilation is narrated as the research and survey notes of a biologist (there are no names in the book. Characters are purely referred to by their profession – Jeff probably aims to keep the notes impersonal and focus on the horror that unfurls as we dig deeper and as the narrator claims, “A name was a dangerous luxury here. Sacrifices didn’t need names,”.) – Part of a four-member expedition team into this strange and mysterious area by the coastline – known simply as Area X. This stretch of strangely alluring and pristine landscape has been the focus of investigations by this semi-military agency called Southern Reach since the “Event” happened some thirty years back and now this is the twelfth expedition into Area X. The members of all the previous expeditions have met with similar ends – dead, gone missing or memory wiped clean and succumbed to cancer.
As we follow the narrator, along with an anthropologist, surveyor and psychologist (All females by the way. Another strong statement this!) entering the Area X – we are struck speechless by the beautifully atmospheric ecological paradise that this place turns out to be. Brought alive by Vandermeer’s stark hard hitting prose invoking a deep-seated sense of unease among us as we explore further. The horror unimagined that lurks just beyond the reeds near the water bodies, the human-eyed dolphins tracing twins furrows in the marshy ecosystems, the abandoned creepy lighthouse that stores its own set of macabre blood-soaked tales or the living "breathing" tunnel or “tower” that is set straight in the ground with “white shiny” steps leading down into oblivion and darkness. These are not just the only things that will make you go gob-smack with paralyzing fear – it’s the tense memories of the biologist combined with the mysterious happenings within Area X that really brings on that delicious dread and claustrophobic feeling of impending doom.
As the team goes deeper into the “tower” – following that spiral stone staircase, they discover “written” words on the walls that reads like sermons but no one's ever heard them before. Glowing with some kind of fungi on top of it. It makes no sense and this quickly sets up the tone for an intriguing mystery. It deepens as the first night goes by and we discover that the tower spells the doom for the expedition team members. One after the other. Accidents happen. The fear deepens, Revelations that are startling and disturbing by parts follow. The flashes of the biologist’ life away from the expedition – her past actually forms a powerful subtext to this strange drama being played out in this weird ecosystem. As a first person narrator, the biologist is not necessarily the most cheerful endearing characters. And yet in Jeff’s efficient hands, she turns out to be an engaging narrator who reels us into her macabre single-minded purpose to get to the bottom of the tower and find out the secret behind those glowing fungi-laden words on the wall.
By the end of the book, I had no answers to all the million questions popping through my head like flashbulbs exploding. Who the hell are these guys from Southern Reach? Where is Area X? Who is the Crawler? What is that leviathian monster with its weird cry lurking among the reeds? Why are the previous expedition members coming back as zombies?
And yet I felt like I had lived through an awe-inspiring experience worth remembering every detail of. Not a passage is wasted. The pace is electrifying and you will shiver as the narrative reaches a feverish pitch by the climax within the shadowy dark depths of the “tower”. Jeff Vandermeer is past master at creating that weird smorgasbord – an expert fear-monger but living inside the single-minded biologist’ mind was like having stepped into some pool of liquid gold and then stepped back – without a trace of the molten metal on you and yet you feel all slimy, icky and disgusted.
It’s probably Jeff’s most accessible piece of fiction but one that leaves you burning with questions and reaching for the next two books in the series with trembling heavy fingers. Which by the way – Hooray – are OUT !!