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Our narrator works as an editor and writer for a magazine specialising in bringing oddities to light. Her mysterious publisher sends her exploring through a city that becomes by degrees ever stranger. From a sunrise of automated cars working in silent precision to a possible vampire, she discovers that people are both odder and more ordinary than they might seem. Especially if you’re earing datura seeds. Especially when the legendary Voynich Manuscript is involved.
Leena Krohn is a writer the VanderMeers, through their small Cheeky Frawg publishing imprint, seem to be working hard to bring into more prominence among Anglophone readers of the Weird; they brought out Datura in 2013, and have since released a Complete Fiction volume. I decided to start with the slimmer option…
Datura is a very strange book, although for readers familiar with publications like Fortean Times, it is perhaps a little less strange that for those less familiar; after all, the fictional New Anomalist magazine of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the fabled Fortean Times and its quest to catalogue and publicise the weirder reaches of humanity. What makes Krohn’s novel slightly weirder, though, is that it is largely a collection of meta-articles; pieces about the writing of pieces for the New Anomalist, so we don’t learn much about the subjects themselves so much as how our narrator felt about them, an interesting twist.
That leads to a slightly disjointed feel about the book, though. Datura very obviously has something of a through-line, of the disintegration of reality around the narrator and the way her reality has separated out from that of the rest of us, and a lack of clarity as to where those divides are. However, the way that throughline is constructed is in a series of snapshots; there’s little linking each of the short episodes, although some things do carry through and a couple of characters appear multiple times, but on the whole there’s no sense of chronology to the episodes and the book as a whole.
Oddly, that doesn’t detract from the strangeness of the whole experience. Krohn presents each of these weird encounters, real or delusional, without judgement, and without enough framework around them to really separate out which is which; Datura is, in that sense, a fascinating exercise in breaking down the barriers of the real. That Krohn also mixes real fringe groups, such as Otherkin and kinksters, with wilder fringe science ideas that also have a hold, and with actual delusions such as slipping into other realities, and never makes it clear which are which necessarily, really adds to the slightly unreal and disjointed feel of the book.
Most of the episodes are hung onto a single character with whom our nameless narrator is interacting, and one of the greatest strengths of Datura is the brief thumbnail sketches which come out of these encounters. Every character pops off the page in a believable and real manner, with a whole interior life implied by their brief appearances; interactions with the narrator imply a lot about their life beyond their interactions with representatives of the New Anomalist, and the way the world receives them and their ideas. Indeed, having someone so determinedly not fringe as the narrator of Datura really throws the ideas of the other characters into highlight, and works to make the strange things that happen to her even stranger by her mundane, albeit confused, reactions.
In the end, Datura is a brilliant book, although I remain a bit on the fence about the level of disjointedness of it; Leena Krohn really has created a marvellous work of the Weird here.
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Deacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can’t escape, and music that won’t let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.
The mad ravings chase Deacon to his next gig. His saxophone doesn’t call up his audience from their seats, it calls up monstrosities from across dimensions. As Deacon flees, chased by horrors and cultists, he stumbles upon a runaway girl, who is trying to escape the destiny awaiting her. Like Deacon, she carries something deep inside her, something twisted and dangerous. Together, they seek to leave Arkham, only to find the Thousand Young lurking in the woods.
The song in Deacon’s head is growing stronger, and soon he won’t be able to ignore it any more.
Khaw has written, over the last year or so, weird noir, in the first Persons Non Grata novella Hammers on Bone; culinary horror in the form of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; and supernatural romance, in Bearly A Lady. So coming to the second Persons Non Grata novella, one might expect to get another slice of weird noir… one would have to think again, though.
Instead, A Song For Quiet is much closer in kind to Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated A Ballad For Black Tom; historically set, Khaw engages with the racial background against which much of the early weird fiction was written, and takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. Much of the narrative is driven by the way oppression and violence have manifested in the life of Deacon James, and Khaw doesn’t pull punches there. Not only is segregation in full effect in the South, subtler racisms in the North also affect Deacon, and the fear he had to live in in the South isn’t easy to escape.
Khaw uses that to drive the plot; like LaValle in A Ballad for Black Tom, she is concerned with why oppressed and marginalised people might be driven to think the destruction of the world might not be so bad. A Song For Quiet combines the alienness of a Lovecraft story with the everyday horror of man’s inhumanity to man to make the reader, as much as the characters, rethink what would otherwise seem obvious; saving the world is a less easy choice when that world is determined to break you and destroy you. Khaw balances different perspectives and attitudes on this brilliantly, and the final resolution of A Song For Quiet is brilliant, sad, and lyrical all at once.
This is a very intense and personal story, and as such, would not work without strong characters to really make the reader feel the complexity. A Song For Quiet once again demonstrates that Khaw’s greatest strength is very quickly creating a character, and then making them complex and whole; Deacon is brilliantly realised as a black man with the tragedy of grief in his immediate past and permanently confronted by racism, while Ana’s scarred past of abuse and horror at distinctly human hands shows us a different view of hell. The relationship between the two is brilliantly realised and burns slowly into a mutual respect and understanding that Khaw writes with an excellently delicate touch.
Finally, we need to talk about plot. Khaw’s weakness in the past has been carrying a single plot through a whole work of this length, rather than making it feel bitty. In the case of A Song For Quiet, much like Hammers on Bone, though, this weakness is something she has wholeheartedly overcome. Different elements of the plot at first can look a little disparate but she draws them together with an amazing confidence and skill, to come to a very sharp point at the conclusion of the story, one aimed right at the heart with perfect skill.
I hope we continue to see this level of plotting from Khaw moving forward, just as we continue to see excellent characterisation from her; A Song For Quiet is yet another level up from one of this generation’s great new writers.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com. Cassandra Khaw is a friend.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.
Before we go any further, a public service announcement for UK readers! Today is election day here! If you can vote, do! Today is your chance to cast a vote which is going to irrevocably effect the course of our country going forward!
Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.
But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’
Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.
John Darnielle is best known as the primary (on occasion, only) member of the Mountain Goats, an indie-rock/folk band that focuses on concept albums. He has lately started making forays into prose fiction too, with Wolf In White Van in 2014 and now, Universal Harvester in 2017…
Universal Harvester is an incredibly strange novel, and a hard one to pin down. Darnielle mixes elements of horror, the Weird, and literary fiction together, with some fascinating psychogeographical observations; to pin just one genre on this novel would be very reductive, because while it draws on the tropes of each, it is not entirely of any of those genres. Darnielle uses a mounting horror of something he keeps out of view throughout the novel, an unknown that is strange and bizarre, to take what seems otherwise entirely mundane into a stranger realm; but at the same time, a lot of the novel is concerned with the ordinary everyday lives of its characters, and especially Jeremy, its protagonist, in a very literary way.
This contrast is heightened by the slow series of revelations that Darnielle allows the reader into what the horror and strangeness at the heart of the novel is; Universal Harvester doesn’t do a simple reveal, but shows corners of the sculpture, and the vague shape of it under a tarpaulin, until the reveal at the very end, which gives the reader a completely different sculpture to the one we had previously expected.
One of those revelations is as to who the narrator is; what seems at the start to be a simple omniscient third person narrator breaks in to the narrative to interject comments and questions directly to the reader, and to throw in some foreshadowing. The most fascinating way Universal Harvester does its foreshadowing is by giving alternate paths the novel could have gone; Darnielle, at certain key points, tells us about the alternative routes characters could have taken that would have totally derailed the novel, highlighting the key moments in the book, and the key decisions, especially those which look less central. It’s not a subtle approach but, because of the way Darnielle controls his narrative, it’s an effective one, and a well-accomplished one.
Universal Harvester essentially concerns a very small cast in a Midwestern town in Iowa; the whole book is written as a kind of nostalgic haze for a very specific late-90s in a very specific kind of place. The book would not work without the technology of the home VCR, and the institution of independent video rental stores; both of which have now become, fundamentally, obsolete. There’s a real concern with ensuring the reader understands exactly what small-town Iowa is like, and repeatedly, the narrator breaks off to give a kind of psychogeographical overview of the town Universal Harvester is set in. It’s an approach which occasionally meanders and goes on too long; and some of these sections feel like Darnielle is deploying special pleading, without looking at the problems of those places (the world of Universal Harvester is very straight and very white).
There’s also a nostalgia for a certain kind of person that Universal Harvester seems to think has maybe vanished; Darnielle centres the novel on Jeremy, the son of a blue-collar worker who lost his mother in his teen years, and who seems at the start of the novel to be drifting through life and somewhat emotionally repressed. It’s an interesting portrait and a very generous one; indeed, Darnielle is generous to all his characters, who he seems to have a huge amount of empathy for. The idea of that kind of youth seems to be one Darnielle has huge admiration for, and sees as a mixed blessing: the emotional repression of characters is one of the things at the heart of Universal Harvester, and the different directions it can take – positive or negative.
Universal Harvester is brilliantly written, incredibly empathetic, and doing fascinatingly strange and Weird things; but Darnielle’s nostalgia occasionally takes over the book too much, leading to some frustrating bumps in the road.
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A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all; a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.
But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel – and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.
Jeff VanderMeer, perhaps now best known as an anthologist in collaboration with Ann VanderMeer and for his Southern Reach trilogy, has produced a strange new novel, Borne.
VanderMeer’s very public concerns with environmental issues and his approach to humanity’s impact on the world, so evident in The Southern Reach, are doubled down on in Borne: this isn’t a novel of climate change as it will be, but a blended mix of the metaphorical – strange, experimental creatures, wrecked cities ruled over by biotech, a ruined world, and a skyscraper-sized flying bear – and the literal: climate refugees, rising sea levels, poverty and chaos. VanderMeer uses these elements in Rachel’s past and present to create his world, his strange, slightly off-kilter world, with its secrets and lies and dangers, and brings home with it the consequences of climate change in making our world unrecognisably strange to all of us.
The story of Borne doubles down on that; it’s essentially in two parts, although VanderMeer divides it into three. The first part is that in which Rachel finds, and arguably raises, the creature she finds while scavenging in the city, which she names Borne; and the complexities that doing so, and that life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, involve. The second part comes out of a distinct break that happens at the end of this first part (or rather, the first two parts); it would be, unfortunately, rather a severe spoiler to discuss specifics. Borne marries the two parts together well and keeps a singular narrative voice throughout, with Rachel remaining Rachel; VanderMeer’s real strength is that the plot of the is for the most part barely a plot, in terms of actual dramatic events, and a lot of time is spent in emotional reflection and personal introspection, but VanderMeer writes this well, rather better than most literary fiction writers. Those points when he does put in moments of hard action, including combat and dramatic elements of Rachel’s explorations, are fast and brutal; Borne treats its violence much like its sex, as something to be included but not pornographised, to be discussed from the emotional, more than physical, aspects.
The core of the book is questions about personhood, and what being a person means; Borne therefore relies on its characters. There are really only three proper characters in the whole thing, plus a number of background individuals who appear and disappear; our narrator, Rachel, her fellow survivor and partner, Wick, and the strange being Borne. Each is approached very differently as a character, even while they’re only seen through Rachel’s eyes, because she views them each very differently, and the consequences of that are fascinating. Part of that is about VanderMeer’s view of character: rather than being a solipsistic thing, Borne treats character as centred on relationships between people. How one treats and is treated by others defines one, in this metric; for a time, Rachel is thrust into a position of not being around anyone else, and becomes essentially an unperson, in a fascinating way, and the development of Borne especially is so shaped by Rachel and Wick that it’s a fascinating way to raise children.
In the end, Borne has a similar kind of approach to weird and environmental themes as Southern Reach, but a very different approach to narrative itself; and VanderMeer proves his versatility by continuing to carry it off excellently.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
The Southern Reach has been lost. With no choice but to trust each other, Control and Ghost Bird have formed an uneasy alliance and crossed over the border. One purpose binds them: To finally uncover the true nature of Area X.
In the same place and yet a world away, the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans protects the lens. For Saul, the Forgotten Coast was a safe harbour, an escape from his preaching past. But something long-buried is resurfacing, and Saul’s guardianship augurs a dangerous and inexorable change.
In the conclusion to the strange, luminous Southern Reach trilogy, we press deeper into the unknown, to arrive at a new understanding of what gives us our humanity. As the brightness consumes all that lies in its path, those who remain must choose whether to resist or accept a fate nearly beyond comprehension. Area X may at least reveal its terrible secrets, but the consequences will be as profound as they are terrifying.
VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy reaches its climax in Acceptance, sequel to Annihilation and Authority; the title of each book revealing its theme, or the theme of its character-arcs. It’s rather impossible, from that standpoint, to discuss the last in the trilogy without spoilers for the prior volumes, so BEWARE THE SPOILERS!
Acceptance declares its theme with its title; a coming to terms with, an understanding of Area X and the Southern Reach. All the threads of the trilogy are tied up in this volume – or at least, all the smaller threads; the existential ones are, in fact, largely left for the reader to sew up themselves. We follow, separately and on the whole alternatingly, the director of the Southern Reach who had previously only appeared as the psychiatrist in Annihilation and a subject for mental autopsy in Authority; Control, the protagonist of Authority; Ghost Bird, protagonist of Annihilation (sort of) and lynchpin character of Authority; and Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper at the start of it all. In the hands of most authors this might feel messy and repetitious but VanderMeer keeps his threads and characters both separate and, thematically, tied together; each not only has a distinctive voice but also distinctive character arcs, from placid acceptance through defiant resistance.
This finale volume also marks the Southern Reach trilogy’s greatest degree of queerness; while in Authority we learn of Grace’s homosexuality, here, Saul’s relationship with Charlie is not only shown (with all the problems brought by the treatment of and social attitudes towards homosexuality in 1960s America), but is actually instrumental to the plot and to Saul’s character development. Acceptance in fact only shows one romantic relationship, and it is this one; VanderMeer paints it gently, sensitively, and lovingly, and I as a queer reader am very grateful for that.
Acceptance is perhaps most notable for its use and presentation of the Weird ideas that have permeated the Southern Reach trilogy. VanderMeer’s avoidance of outright horror continues in this volume with a chilling, creeping sensation of something wrong increasing throughout, alongside a Kafkaesque treatment of government and especially secret agencies; this sense of unreality, of smokiness, is achieved through both the language used in the novel and through the events themselves, which are sometimes very explicit about this feeling. The different timelines in the novel also add to this, seeming somehow slightly unmoored from each other, unconnected even though they are intimately connected; it’s a strange feeling and one that should detract from the novel, but instead adds to the air of the numinous, strange and inexplicable.
For a novel that is sold as revealing secrets, Acceptance does very little of that. Instead, it unravels history and theorises; VanderMeer doesn’t give the reader answers about Area X, or rather, he gives answers, but never just one. As we see the different timelines unfold and roll out before and behind the characters, we see the development of Area X and of the Southern Reach, both separate and commingled. VanderMeer doesn’t tell this in a simple narrative structure, but rather through the experiences of Saul and the director, people both peripheral and central to these events; what Acceptance never does is embrace the viewpoint of a character who really understands everything going on, or who has a full grasp on the world and on Area X.
Acceptance is all about the intrusion of Area X into reality, the interactions between the two, and the human responses to that. It’s exactly the conclusion the Southern Reach trilogy needed, and marks absolutely the status of VanderMeer’s trilogy as the ultimate Weird story; numinous, beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.
Black Helicopters is Caitlín R. Kiernan’s first SF novella since 2004’s The Dry Salvages. Certainly one of her most ambitious tales to date, a narrative spanning one hundred and eighty-six years exposes a labyrinthine underworld of global conspiracy, secret societies, synchronicity, chaos theory, and interdimensional apocalypse. As a horrific plague unfolds on the shores of New England, two shadowy agencies are pitted against one another in a race to understand the consequences of a psychiatrist’s bizarre experiment involving a pair of albino twins. In this “game of chess,” even the most minute act sends infinite ripples through eternity, the struggle shaping the history of the future.
Kiernan is best known for novels like The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl – very queer, very strange psychological novels that focus on queer characters and encounters with the supernatural at the edges of sanity. The companion volume to The Ape’s Wife, Black Helicopters certainly deals with the edges of sanity, but it’s less markedly queer than those brilliant works.
This is a complex, slightly confusing novella; Kiernan jumps around in her timeline, revealing things and how they interconnect only slowly, allowing the logic of the story to unfold at its own pace and bending the mind of the reader while she does. Black Helicopters uses a chess motif an awful lot, and each chapter can be seen as another move in the game, drawing it towards a conclusion but at the same time in dialogue with the rest; that the focus alternates between the two different sides of the game heightens this impression.
The characters are surprisingly clearly drawn; Black Helicopters has a small but excellent cast of characters from Ptolema to Sixty Six, all very different, all somehow outside the cognitive mainstream, and some very far outside it. There’s a certain autobiographical element here, as Kiernan notes in the Acknowledgements; one of our viewpoint characters is a paleontologist, as Kiernan is by training. These are surprisingly extensively drawn characters for the short space Kiernan has available to tell us about them.
Black Helicopters may be confusing and strange, may verge on conspiracy theorism and Lovecraftiana, but is essentially a fun and strange novella with some brilliant ideas well worth your time.
Following the troubled twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy raises the stakes with the introduction of John Rodriguez, the government agency’s new head. He finds the Southern Reach in complete disarray. Area X, the strange terrain beyond the invisible border, remains a mystery. But, as instructed by a higher authority known as ‘The Voice’, the self-styled Control must ‘put his house in order’.
From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the mysteries of Area X begin to reveal themselves – and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he has promised to serve.
Undermined and under pressure to make sense of what happened to the twelfth expedition, Rodriguez retreats into his past in a search for answers. Yet the more he uncovers, the more he risks, for the secrets of the Southern Reach are more sinister than anyone could have known.
Even the blurb above contains some spoilers for the first novel I reviewed on this blog, Annihilation, a creeping horror novel of the strange and uncanny that really showed off VanderMeer’s talents for the weird. As such, this review will contain more, and I urge you to read Annihilation before this review.
Authority is a very different kind of book to Annihilation in many ways, but its organic, creeping, unknown and unknowable horror is a shared feature; VanderMeer transports it from the physical to the intellectual and emotional realm, putting it at one remove from Rodriguez, who is trying to analyse Area X from outside rather than explore it from within. Rodriguez is, as in any good spy novel whether an action thriller or a gritty intricate espionage piece, dropped in to head Area X as a temporary director to replace the one who joined the twelfth expedition as a psychiatrist, without adequate support or information; what he is given proves misleading and more than he bargained for, as the novel goes on. It’s as much this Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire, fighting colleagues on all sides and trying to guess their loyalties even while dealing with the existential threat of Area X, that makes this novel a horror story par excellence; every character is believable, someone you might meet in an office block, someone you might run into at work, and yet arching over all of this is the utterly alien.
VanderMeer builds both elements up simultaneously, and tangles them increasingly together; the assistant director, Grace, is blocking Rodriguez as much because of office politics as any affinity to Area X, while the seemingly-helpful Whitby has more on his mind that just undercutting Grace. Every character has these two layers except Rodriguez, who is therefore lost in trying to navigate his way between them; increasingly Authority follows a rudderless, purposeless protagonist going through the motions for their own sake having lost sight – if he ever had it – of what he is doing in the first place.
Authority is also a novel I feel comfortable putting into the Queering the Genre project, for one line if nothing else. Rodriguez, considering the series of eleventh and the (only) twelfth expeditions into Area X, all gender-segregated into male or female, wonders “What about someone who didn’t identify as male or female?” (page 115). In one line, VanderMeer acknowledges the reality of non-binary individuals in his America, their employability by the government and their role as prominent individuals in a number of fields; despite not then having any (visibly) non-binary characters in the narrative, this line addresses and acknowledges their existence and situates this as a world welcoming of them. That he also includes a section on Grace’s personal life, which reveals in passing that she has had relationships with women in the past as a fact not judged by the narrative or Rodriguez, is another brilliant, small and simple moment by which Authority acknowledges and recognises the queer community.
In the end, Authority is a book that doesn’t stand alone, but when read alongside Annihilation and presumably Acceptance shows the breadth of the command Jeff VanderMeer has of the Weird and the uncanny; a truly creepy novel that won’t let you go.