Psychological horror/sci-fi is an under-appreciated genre.
Think back to Films like “The thing” or “Videodrome” and how effective they are at building tension. They are also pretty good when it comes to scaring the shit out of you!
Sci-fi horror isn’t really a sub-genre I tend to go for when looking for a good read but when Jeff Vandermeer’s “Annihilation” was recommended to me by a close friend and as the subsequent trailers for Alex Garland’s movie version of the book appeared, I knew I had to get on board the hype train.
I purposely didn’t search for any detail on the book before I read it and I also avoided watching the film or any trailers. I went in pretty much blind.
I initially just thought it was a straight sci-fi novel, despite the Stephen King quote on the front cover "Creepy & Fascinating".
Even if you have watched the film, it's well worth reading the book too because there is so much more to it, they feel separate from each other in my opinion.
I am going to do my best to talk about it spoiler free but even just talking around certain mysteries and descriptions in the book feel like it could take away from the experience of reading it for the first time.
You have been warned!
What is Annihilation about?
Annihilation is the first part of the Southern Reach trilogy. There is an environmental conspiracy controlled (badly) by a shady government agency. It sounds cliched but it is anything but.
My thoughts on what the book is all about still aren’t really clear and that's part of the pleasure for the reader. I love how open it remains on its many mysteries.
I had the same feelings of "What the fuck" (I mean that in the best possible way) at the end of this book as I do at the end of the David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive.
The plot surrounds a mysterious place called Area X, a zone surrounded by a strange, sort of invisible, all-consuming border that may or may not be expanding.
A team of women, each referred to by their profession/specialism, have been sent into Area X. They are the 12th expedition and are there to find out what happened to the previous expedition and to conduct more research on the area.
The book is written from the point of view of the biologist in the form of journal entries. Apart from that, it’s hard to really write too much about the plot.
What I can say about it is that there is an amazing poetry to the book. Area X is described with such rhythm that you dream about it, you look for meaning everywhere. There are things in Area X that defy description and instead, you are presented with meandering sections of whimsical but creepy metaphors and suggestions of what things could be.
I got the impression that Area X is a lush paradise gone wrong, or right depending on your viewpoint.
The effect is really chilling. I have rarely read a book as atmospheric as this. There are dozens of moments in Annihilation that gripped me and have stayed with me for their dreamily nightmarish qualities.
There is a moment in the book where, following a particularly intense section, the weight of something is implied. I don't want to say to much more but I found it to be profoundly effective, even horrifying.
The genius of Jeff Vandermeer was to write from the perspective of one of the lead characters journal entries, allowing the effects of the zone to take hold subtly, leading to the suggestion of many possibilities and themes.
Nature is at the centre of the story, maybe aliens, maybe fungal spores, maybe alternate dimensions maybe Ai, maybe a lot of religious undertones!
I kept being reminded of parasitic Cordyceps fungi, the way the spores overtake insects minds, taking them over and turning them into these once living statues, sprouting new growths, projecting new spores and taking over more insects...
As a standalone novel, it works incredibly well and I almost don't want to know what the answers are, I am hoping the next two books don't give up all of Area X's secrets (at the time of writing I have just finished the second book).
Even before I finished the book, which is a quick but by no means a light read, I was thinking about creating drawings based on it.
Spoiler alert – I was immediately drawn to the topographical anomaly, the Tower (or Tunnel). There is such a significance attached to this place, its mysteries yet to reveal themselves.
I wanted to capture a luscious natural environment with a feeling of isolation, madness and foreboding from the Tower. My idea was to show the Biologist returning, obsessed, back to where she feels she must go (seriously, read about cordyceps fungi).
Another part of Area X I have developed an attachment to is, of course, the Lighthouse. It is based on a real lighthouse called St Marks lighthouse in Florida. Vandermeer was apparently influenced by a 14 mile hike he took through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Florida.
I have been messing around with ideas in my sketchbook, one particularly inky effort has stuck out so far, although I am keen to do a piece based on the actual St Marks Lighthouse and the surrounding area.
Beyond that I have also been refining my ideas of nature overtaking technology, combining mechanical and man-made structures with fungus, lichen and plant life. Some of my inspiration has come from recent countryside walks, one recent trip to Yorkshire gave me plenty of ammunition for future artwork.
I don't want to be influenced by the film, which I have now seen, so need to make sure I allow Alex Garlands version of events subsides from my imagination.
Continuing to delve into the trilogy will no doubt shape what is to come from this little project I have set myself...
You can follow my progress on my Instagram or here on my website.