I’ve just finished the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. Where the hell did this series come from? I had no idea this existed until I picked up on an oblique reference to it on Reddit and I am so glad that I did. I like to think that I’m pretty engaged with new novels, especially genre fiction, but this one completely escaped my notice. Being a huge fan of Lovecraft, and cosmic horror and having recently finished Bloodborne on the PS4, this series could not have come to me at a better time.
The novel is short, around 200 pages, but it doesn’t disappoint. The book surrounds the exploration of ‘Area X’ an undisclosed and quarantined location of mysterious and unexplained origins by a team of experts trained and conditioned by an agency called Southern Reach. Things go from idyllic to weird and elliptical rapidly, and the psychological and physical wellbeing of the expedition declines appallingly.
It’s the Biologist of the expedition that constructs the narrative and it is her musings and observations that colour it. This shoehorns the reader into a position of participation in the unnerving and strange nature of the world. There is no omniscient or objective narration, simply the flawed and subjective interpretations of an individual in an unbelievable situation. I love it. It accentuates the suspense, confusion and terror of the situation. You feel the oppression of the area as the expedition falls apart through the confusion, misinformation and manipulation on the part of the agency of Southern Reach, and the location of Area X itself; it is tangible and tantalising.
The book doesn’t go for jump scares, it elects the far more laudable device of dread, slowly built, interspersed with equal parts of hope and desolation. The book is unapologetically light on explanations or exposition. It is singularly observational and that is the key to its success in my opinion. It leaves the reader wanting more. There are so many questions and so few answers, but it is all for the better. My opinion here may be coloured by my relief to know that there are already two follow up books available, I admit. If I had come into this as a new book I might be a little more frustrated by the lack of answers; there is nothing worse than waiting with bated breath for the new release in an ongoing story, but happily for me I came to this with an established trilogy already completed. Now is the perfect time to pick it up.
If you’re looking for a modern, slow burning novel coloured by cosmic and truly alien horror, this is one of the best I’ve read.