Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of sci-fi / horror novels is contemporary, in some ways even trendy. The cast of characters is multi-ethnic, and the few white males who aren’t explicitly portrayed as gay are secondary characters and villains. In the acknowledgements, VanderMeer credits the the Semiotext(e) Intervention series of radical anti-capitalist and pomo theory tracts for some of his thinking. And with its theme of environmental devastation and its imaginings of a post-human world, one can see these books resonating as much for radical environmentalists as for sci-fi and horror fans.
Fundamentally, though, the Southern Reach trilogy is straight up supernatural horror in the mode of H. P. Lovecraft and other canonical authors of weird fiction. (VanderMeer and his wife have celebrated the continuing fascination of this literary tradition in a couple of anthologies they edited, The Weird and The New Weird.) The classic elements are all here. There is a border area between the “normal” world and the chaos beyond. (Indeed, VanderMeer’s trilogy frequently calls to mind William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, and not just because of the swine-creature.) There is a frightening alien consciousness that peers from its dimension into our world and threatens our very sanity. There is even a tentacled and many-eyed monster that rises from the sea like one of Lovecraft’s Old Ones. VanderMeer’s trilogy could easily take as its epigraph the famous passage from Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu”:
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
In this case, the black seas of infinity lap at the shores of the mysterious “Area X,” a region not dissimilar to the Florida Everglades, which acts as the beachhead for the encroachments of an alien presence into our world. The sciences are those practiced by a shadowy government organization that affects to guard us against the alien presence but may instead be its means of infiltrating our world. VanderMeer stirs a lot into this gumbo, but the deliciously classic stock is pulp fiction, whose cadences, on a few occasions, he sounds for us directly:
it had seemed as if to both sides there lay nothing around them but the terrible blackened ruins of vast cities and enormous beached ships, lit by the roaring red and orange of fires that did nothing but cast shadow and obscure the distant view of mewling things that crawled and hopped through the ash.
VanderMeer expertly merges this tradition of weird horror with a perhaps unlikely partner: nature writing. The result is both creepy and gorgeous. VanderMeer excels at creating both the psyche-peeling anxiety of the former genre and the lush and muscular description of the latter. Moreover, VanderMeer takes the natural world as the template for his uncanny. Rather than a Lovecraftian thing from beyond the cosmos, VanderMeer locates a model for the fundamentally, unsettlingly unknowable in the tidal pools of our own world. A central passage of the trilogy is the description in the first book of a biologist’s encounter with “a rare species of colossal starfish, six-armed, larger than a saucepan, that bled a dark gold color into the still water as if it were on fire.” The biologist gazes, fascinated, at the creature, a type called (perhaps in a nod to the Larry Niven novel of that name) a “destroyer of worlds,” until she finds that she is gazing into an abyss that may be her own:
But the longer I stared at it, the less comprehensible the creature became. The more it became something alien to me, and the more I had a sense that I knew nothing at all—about nature, about ecosystems. There was something about my mood and its dark glow that eclipsed sense, that made me see this creature, which had indeed been assigned a place in the taxonomy—catalogued, studied, and described—irreducible down to any of that. And if I kept looking, I knew that ultimately I would have to admit I knew less than nothing about myself as well, whether that was a lie or the truth.
This passage in turn reminds me of another story which has at times been claimed by the practitioners of cosmic horror as one of their own, Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl,” in which a man exchanges consciousness with a salamander. (The VanderMeers include the story in their Weird anthology, and I first read it as a boy in the wonderfully scary anthology Wolf’s Complete Book of Terror.) Cortazar’s story allows the gulf between the species to be bridged, to the horror of the man who now finds himself trapped in the body of the reptile. Despite the epistemological breakdown described above, VanderMeer also brings the human and the inhuman together by positing the fundamentally alien quality of both. Ironically, because the biologist is just as unknowable as the destroyer of worlds there is a possibility, dramatized unsettlingly over the course of the three books, of some meeting ground between our species and the creepy-crawlies from beyond.
If there is a weakness in the Southern Reach trilogy, I suspect most readers will find it in the length. What VanderMeer conjures for us, working out of the tradition of weird horror, is a moment of seeing. Lovecraft’s investigators see Cthulhu rise above the waves, or see a horrifically recognizable face writ large upon the vast skin of a tentacled monster. Cortazar’s narrator sees himself from the other side of the aquarium’s plate glass. What follows is madness, despair, or a dark exhilaration not necessarily distinguishable from either. This structure suits the short story form well. VanderMeer draws this process out over three books. The second novel, less absorbing than the first, seems to make of the state, the government, a further alien species, unknowable and possibly more dangerous than any other. But the end result is roughly the same: a vision of the fraying limits of the human and the barest glimpse of something beyond. The instant of witness is quick and final, perhaps too much so to justify three books of even VanderMeer’s often hypnotic prose.