BOOKS

The Southern Reach Trilogy

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

On my flight back from getting married I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. As many will attest, it’s hard to stop reading the Southern Reach trilogy, of which Annihilation is the opener, once you’ve started. One dynamic that really interested me was how VanderMeer’s writing can be conceived of as a post-DNA-theory, “bio-philic” Lovecraftian horror.

Describing Lovecraftian Horror

“Lovecraftian” summons many images. In order to rightfully merit that appellation I propose these criteria:

The Horror Must Be Big

The Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s mythos are gargantuan figures.

Johansen and his men were awed by the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon of elder daemons, and must have guessed without guidance that it was nothing of this or of any sane planet. Awe at the unbelievable size of the greenish stone blocks, at the dizzying height of the great carven monolith, and at the stupefying identity of the colossal statues and bas-reliefs with the queer image found in the shrine.

and:

the men wondered how any door in the universe could be so vast.

or:

The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.

– Lovecraft, Call of Cthulu

The Horror Must Be Indifferent

In 1927, Lovecraft’s oft-quoted take on cosmic horror appeared in Weird Tales: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”1

The Conditions of Quotidian Experience Must Be Undermined

Lovecraft’s horror is rooted in Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant states that there are two forms of a priori knowledge which all humans are born with: the condition of Time and the condition of Space. All further reasoning (a posteriori) relies on these fundamental x- and y-axes in order to plot the graph of experience. For Kant it is unthinkable that a human could have any sensible utterance of an experience without this knowledge being present (see: Prolegomena Section 11).

“Lovecraftian” has a heavy stake in the denial of time and space as universal ordering conditions of experience. By calling these foundations into question, Lovecraft intended to deepen the horror of Edwardian / pre-War readers.

In “Call of Cthulu” Lovecraft denies time and space’s dominion thus (emphases mine):

…[He] had told me of his awful dreams. He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality…

And later…

It was, … like a great barn-door; and they all felt that it was a door because of the ornate lintel, threshold, and jambs around it, though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar-door. As Wilcox would have said, the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable.

For the average reader (in my case, teen reader) it was hard to slog through these words as intelligible. Were phrases like “the geometry of the place was all wrong” and “non-Euclidean” designed to awaken some eldritch sense of dread? In the case of Lovecraft’s protagonist(s), it is. As recently 3 years ago a Reddit thread asked what was so scary about geometrical surprise.1

However, to cut the Edwardians and Lovecraft a break, to truly reckon with what a subversion of time and space might engender is an empathetic voyage that few are readily able to handle. A non-Euclidean Portal (video game) level serves to make the terror more real:

I found it unnerving when I watched this video. It’s a bit harder to imagine, but it’s still a source, albeit underused, for psychic discomfort. It remained largely untouched (to the best of my knowledge) until it was the driving plot behind Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (previously discussed at length on this site) but again went dormant. The theme returned, with a vengeance, in The Southern Reach trilogy of Jeff VanderMeer.

Jeff VanderMeer as a Modern, Biophilic Lovecraft

In writing my 1Q84 review, I drafted this paragraph:

I suppose that I had a greater tolerance for incompletely-explained mystery because I was coming off reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. There, the world is thoroughly strange, becoming stranger yet by the second, and this strangeness is so vast, so powerful, and so utterly beyond our measly human powers to deal with that it can only be accepted. (Reference climate change?)

In writing this paragraph I had the idea that Jeff VanderMeer’s writing seems to be an evolution of the mechanics of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror. So let us turn to the question of how VanderMeer is a latter-day follower of Lovecraft (albeit without he apparent sexism, misogyny, and racism).

Based on the criteria enumerated above, VanderMeer’s horror features many of the same qualities as Lovecraft’s. However, he makes two very interesting maneuvers to make Lovecraftian horror his own:

  1. The undermining of the animate / inanimate dyad
  2. Biophilia

The Undermining of the Animate / Inanimate Dyad

The third thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall … the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat … and they were not made of stone but of living tissue (pp. 41-42).

To this point the tower has been hypnotically imprinted on the protagonist and her expedition as having been made of stone:

“Do you feel that?” I asked, unrelenting. “Can you feel that?” “Feel what? What are you talking about?” She was scared, of course. To her, I was acting irrationally.

Still, I persisted: “A vibration. A kind of beat.” I removed my hand from hers, stepped back.

The surveyor took a long, deep breath, and kept her hand on the wall. “No. Maybe. No. No, nothing.”

“What about the wall. What is it made of?”

“Stone, of course,” she said.

But the protagonist, known only as the biologist, having broken through her conditioning, is perceiving facts to which she had been blinded and which were feared likely to cause insanity.

The tunnel / tower / whatever is alive.

VanderMeer adds a Levi-Strauss-style dyad to the Kantian boundaries that we think we can be sure of: the ability to discern the animate from non. While not directly terrifying like a jump-scare, it has a fear component that recalls Lovecraft’s abuse of Time and Space.

In The Southern Reach we lack the certainty that we know what is alive and is not. It undermines a core animal preservation instinct. We might not hide, flee from, or fight the thing that seemed inanimate, but is. On top of that, that which was recokned to be inanimate is also of Lovecraftian scale.

In touching this tunnel / tower, we see that the structure is immense, indifferent, and is either a tunnel (or a tower) thus undermining up and down (Lovecraft) while also being alive (VanderMeer).

Biophilic Horror

I’ve used the word “biophilic” a few times here, and I steal this coinage from Bjőrk whose album bears this name meaning “Life Loving.”

VanderMeer’s world is biophilic in a distinctly Schopenhauerian sense: Life itself: alien, familiar, and ungraspable wills to continue and spread mutating whatever or whoever gets in its way.

While the bubble of “Area X” separates “our” Florida from the claimed (and, ulp, expanding) xenosphere of the Area X, Life-as-character is continuing, manifesting, mutating, beautifully, terribly, horrifically, as it does everywhere throughout the universe. The blind god of evolution and change (mutata corpora in novas formas - Ovid) demands that Life-as-character go on consuming the life-that-is for the existence of life-that-wills-to-be. Cold, impersonal, and terrifying.3

As a result of the enemy being Life itself, a Life that’s indifferent to us, its purported crowning achievement, the monster will not as much “end” us like a Michael Myers / Freddie Kruger bogeyman. To be killed by a monster hasn’t much changed over the last several millennia, instead, VanderMeer’s antagonist Life uses us as mis-constructed raw inputs for creating a new, alien, strange, and strangely beautiful output. Through this mechanism, the characters that are “killed” by the Area X’s functions are not dead, but are rather in such a changed state that they invoke a sense of body horror and sadness.

The Function of VanderMeer’s Biophilic, Lovecraftian Horror

As I read The Southern Reach, I had the repeated impression that the books were an allegory for the disastrous climate change that humankind has unleashed and which the ignorant fools of my own country seem Hell-bent (hah!) to deny for short-term capital gain:

  1. The Earth and our foothold on it is in grave peril
  2. The forces that are menacing to end humanity are indifferent in the character of VanderMeer’s Life itself versus as opposed to the weaponized terror (atomic- or biological-weapons) common to post-war sci-fi / horror
  3. “Ending” humanity is not really an end, but it’s so thoroughly strange we have body horror / revulsion / sadness. In this is recalls the elegiac tone of Ray Bradbury
  4. Part of the revulsion is that this mechanism returns us to being an animal (magnificent, strange animal perhaps) that is again in harmony with nature and the sustainable cycles of population dynamic that every other animal understands all too well.

VanderMeer uses his horror tale to remind the audience that you are an animal and Life doesn’t care about you that much and would, in all likelihood, render your deoxyribonucleic acids unto scrap for purposes of recombination in its own designs that you have no standing to speculate about.

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, the protagonist biologist of VanderMeer doesn’t view Life’s xenoformation as a regression since she is free of the chauvinism that homo sapiens is a better animal or immune from meriting the label “parasite.”

It’s a humbling and awesome form of horror and I applaud the weirdness and immenseness of VanderMeer’s expansion of the old Lovecraftian tropes.

Miscellaneous Quotes

Here were a few quotes I clipped (from the second book, Authority, my least favorite) :

How could a superstition be true? Control pondered that late, as he turned his attention to his trip to the border along with a cursory look at a file Whitby had pulled for him titled simply “Theories.” Maybe “superstition” was what snuck into the gaps, the cracks, when you worked in a place with failing morale and depleted resources. (105)

Because our minds process information almost solely through analogy and categorization, we are often defeated when presented with something that fits no category and lies outside of the realm of our analogies.” control imagined the PowerPoint coming to a close, the series of marbled borders giving way to a white screen with the word Questions? on it…the first astronomers to think of points of light not as part of a celestial tapestry revolving around the earth but as individual stars had had to wrench their imaginations - and thus their analogies and metaphors - out of a grooved track that had been running though everyone’s mind for hundreds and hundreds of years. (113-114)

Footnotes

  1. House, Wes. “We Can’t Ignore H.P. Lovecraft’s White Supremacy.” LIT Hub, 27 September 2017, https://lithub.com/we-cant-ignore-h-p-lovecrafts-white-supremacy/.
  2. Perhaps this is what’s best about VanderMeer, he describes the horror of Lovecraft effortlessly: “That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”
  3. H. P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark”, The Dunwich Horror and Others, p. 110. The biophilic xenoforming Area X “machine” is profoundly personal, present, menacing, and unstoppable in VanderMeer.