How does on describe fear? This is the main problem that dogs every horror writer. How does one begin to explain what it feels like? How does one communicate the experience, the specific flavour of adrenaline and panic on the back of one’s tongue? What words can the writer use to specifically calibrate the level and extent of fear that the reader feels? Compared to that, filmmakers have it almost easy.
Writing horror is a challenge, but horror writers (the good ones, anyway) are capable of something a lot of filmmakers can’t quite get right: subtlety. Great horror writers can create a truly immersive atmosphere, capable of sucking the reader in and holding them there in a way that film isn’t quite capable of just yet. And once they have the reader in their grip, horror writers are capable of weaving truly nightmarish stories – and since there is no better movie theatre than the imagination, the visions they create can linger for days, even weeks. Of course, certain horror writers cater to specific reader preferences – after all, what one person finds terrifying might only be vaguely chilling, even boring, to someone else – but when one finds that particular writer whose writing results in sleepless nights, then one knows that one has a winner.
I, for my part, am something of a picky reader, when it comes to horror. I don’t have any specific authors in mind that I follow faithfully, but I do know what kind of horror I enjoy: the kind that plays around with perception and expectation in unexpected ways – the kind that makes dark things live in the shadows and around unknown corners, and then has those dark things come out to play.
But the thing about that kind of horror is that it can be found in nearly any kind of book. There are some writers, and some books, that are dedicated to that very specific kind of horror (H.P. Lovecraft is the granddaddy of them all), but it’s the sort of thing that sits comfortably in any other genre novel, only to slink out, little by little, until the reader realises – perhaps too late – that they are, in fact, reading a horror novel when they were expecting something else.
That’s what happened to Hope when she picked up Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, the first novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy. By the time she was done with it, she sent it my way, saying it was a mighty fine read indeed, with exquisite language, but with one warning label: it was, to use her own word, “terrifying”. This made me rather curious: as far as I knew, Hope wasn’t as interested in horror as I was. What was it about this book that she found so scary?
A lot, as it turned out.
Annihilation begins with what looks like a simple premise: the Southern Reach, a secretive government agency tasked with understanding the mysterious place called Area X, sends in a twelfth expedition, consisting of four women with different areas of expertise. They don’t have any names, and are only know by their functions: the surveyor, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the biologist. The biologist is the narrator of the story, and what she describes as she and her colleagues explore Area X is equal parts fascinating and chilling, raising questions about what happened before – and what might happen in the future.
At first glance, it’s easy to think of Annihilation as a science fiction-esque thriller of some kind. It contains all the usual elements: shadowy organisation; little-understood frontier; small but specialised exploration team; and the possibility of strange, alien creatures and events. With a setup like that, one can expect action, adventure, and yes, even horror, to a degree, but not to the same extent as what one gets in Annihilation.
Then again, the kind of horror being presented in Annihilation isn’t quite typical, either. It’s more akin to the kind of horror Mark Z. Danielewski inspired in his novel House of Leaves – a fear borne not of blood or gore or even the supernatural, but the kind that breeds in the nest of shadows we all possess in our heads, and which we try our very best to stifle. It’s the kind of horror we feel as children, and which some of us can still feel today: a fear of unlit spaces and shuffling noises, of things that we don’t know – of things we can’t know.
That is my favourite kind of horror – not supernatural horror, and certainly not blood-and-guts horror. Supernatural horror so very rarely scares me anymore – or if it does, I simply read it in broad daylight, and all the ghosts and ghoulies disappear. As for blood and gore, I’m one of those people who can watch some of the more graphic episodes of The Walking Dead and still enjoy my meal, so that sort of thing hardly registers in my brain anymore.
But what VanderMeer does in Annihilation isn’t like that. The writing is very subtle, very low-key, but it builds and builds until it grabs the reader by the throat and never lets go. As soon as the story starts there is a vague sense of unease that goes down to the bone. It’s never really spelled out, but the reader can catch it in the biologist’s choice of words, in the cadence of them as she tells her story (both past and present). It is following the thread of her words, the rush of them as she heads to the frightening and inevitable end of the novel, that really creates that sense of fear.
VanderMeer accomplishes the above with an exceedingly clever use of foreshadowing. Of course, this is something a lot of horror writers are fairly good at doing, but the way VanderMeer uses it cranks the fear factor of the novel up several notches. I personally find this enjoyable in my reading, and Annihilation was a treat in that regard: something small but oddly resonant becomes the cornerstone for something bigger and creepier.
None of this, though, would work without a perfect narrator, and the biologist is just that. I find her detachment from the rest of the world very interesting, along with her ability to turn inwards and view that part of herself with remarkable clarity (though I’m sure a lot of that clarity comes from hindsight, given how the story is told). One would think that her tendency to distance herself from what is happening around her should reduce the novel’s scare factor, but it doesn’t; instead, it seems to refine and enhance it, her observations and remarks making the whole thing even more chilling. Because she speaks so calmly, so rationally, the reader begins to accept that what she is saying is true, has to be true, which means that whatever she is narrating has to be real – and if it is real, then it’s a terrifying reality indeed.
There is also an interesting theme that is threaded through the novel, one that has to do with the setting itself. It’s suggested that humanity is on the brink of some ecological disaster, but Area X is “a pristine environment”. Normally, that phrase is viewed positively, but in Annihilation, it is viewed with suspicion. Why that is becomes clear (after a fashion) as the novel progresses, but it does build on one of humanity’s old fears: the fear that we cannot control nature. Right now there’s a trend towards viewing nature as a positive force, something to be nurtured and cared for – justifiably so, considering what we’re doing to the environment. But Annihilation shows the other side of that coin – and the possibility that maybe, letting nature run wild and destroy our species is the better option, after all.
Overall, Annihilation is a creepy, spine-chilling novel, self-contained in its own way but with enough questions left over to leave the reader wanting to find out more. While horror is a matter of taste, there’s no denying that it is a very well-written, very fascinating story, told in VanderMeer’s exquisite language through a character that is very intriguing to read about in her own right.
But for those who enjoy horror stories that rely on playing with space and perception to create that sense of fear, then this book is guaranteed to scare. Best read in broad daylight, though I can’t guarantee that that will really take care of the fear, because I was reading this in full sunlight on a late summer’s day and I still felt chills up and down my spine, still felt goosebumps rise on the back of my neck and arms. This is the sort of novel that follows one around, day and night – and for me, that’s precisely the kind of novel I enjoy the most.
Since the next book, Authority, is already out, I’ll be getting on that soon enough. Or maybe not – might be best to let the nightmares fade a little, after all, before starting them up all over again.