Jeff VanderMeer: An Aesthetic Catastrophe

by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)

The literary career of Jeff VanderMeer (b. 1968) has been highly peculiar. He began by writing idiosyncratic works of short fiction that could best be classified as surrealist or absurdist. Somewhere along the way he veered toward science fiction, writing novels and tales set in an imaginary city called Ambergris. He has edited a fair share of anthologies, including a doorstopper of a book called The Weird (2012; co-edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer), which attempts to mask its mediocre selections by sheer bulk. (For example, he selected H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”—widely regarded by scholars as one of the poorest of his later narratives—over such scintillating tales as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour out of Space”; and of course he could not resist inserting one of his own tales in the book.) He has also been a proponent of the subgenre called the New Weird, although he is as hapless as its other practitioners in defining exactly what this subgenre actually is and how it differs from any other sort of weird fiction.

Recently VanderMeer apparently made a conscious decision to reach a wider audience by writing a trilogy of novels that melded weird fiction and science fiction. The result was the Southern Reach trilogy; the three novels were initially published separately in 2014 and then gathered in an omnibus under the title Area X. In all frankness, this trilogy is a farrago of confusion and irrelevance that only the critically naïve or inept will mistake for even a modest contribution to the literature of the weird. One can only hope that the film version—itself planned as a trilogy—can bring some sense or coherence to the overall scenario, but the likelihood is slim.

The first-person narrator of Annihilation is a biologist, and she is part of an expedition—consisting of exactly three other members (all, implausibly, women), a surveyor, an anthropologist, and the leader, a psychologist—into a region of the United States called Area X. This sounds suspiciously like Area 51, a secret U.S. Air Force facility in Nevada that has for decades been the locus of conspiracy theories among UFO enthusiasts. There are in Area X some elements of Area 51 and also of the fabricated UFO site in Roswell, New Mexico; the hackneyed and contrived nature of the setting, and of the general ambiance of the trilogy, is enhanced when we learn that the area is under the control of the Southern Reach, “the clandestine government agency that dealt with all matters connected to Area X” (7). This trite conception has been used ad infinitum and ad nauseam in popular weird and adventure fiction, whether it be Stephen King’s Firestarter (1981) or the dreary potboilers of Jonathan Maberry. VanderMeer has done nothing to enliven the idea.

No actual names of characters are provided in Annihilation, because, as the biologist informs us, “We are meant to be focused on our purpose, and ‘anything personal should be left behind’” (7). The unwitting result of this decision is that none of the characters in this novel—nor, in fact, in the entire work—ever become vital and distinctive; the biologist in particular, in spite of VanderMeer’s repeated attempts to describe facets of her prior life in random flashbacks, remains a wooden and utterly bland figure. Moreover, not a single element in her portrayal, nor in that of her companions, in any way renders them believable as women as opposed to men or, indeed, mere marionettes carrying out foreordained actions at the behest of their author.

We learn that as many as eleven previous expeditions to Area X over the past thirty years have taken place, but we learn relatively little about what these voyages accomplished or discovered in this inscrutable region. At one point we learn that the biologist’s own husband (also nameless) had been on the eleventh expedition, as a medic. After being in the area for some weeks, he suddenly showed up at home, apparently saddled with partial amnesia; six months later, he was dead of cancer.

Almost immediately, the expedition is beset by all manner of strange events and entities. At the outset, what appears to be a wild boar bears down upon them, but seems to get pulled out of their path by some invisible force. (This creature reappears sporadically throughout the trilogy, to no apparent purpose.) Then the expedition finds what some believe to be a tunnel, but which the biologist is convinced is a tower submerged in the earth. On one wall are some words in green (possibly “a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism” [17]), presumably in English. Throughout the entire trilogy, fragments of this writing are repeated like some kind of ponderous mantra, although its significance is never clarified. Here is a sample: “Where lies the struggling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that …” (31). There is considerable religious imagery in the text; although how an extraterrestrial creature (for it is suggested, almost from the beginning, that the words are being fashioned by such an entity) would have any inclination to mimic a human religion is not immediately apparent.

At one point a nodule in one letter bursts, and some spores end up going up the biologist’s nose. We have learned that the psychologist has given the other members of the expedition a post-hypnotic suggestion, but the spores conveniently allow the biologist to be immune to it. In any case, as the biologist explores the tower, she becomes convinced that it is as if “we were descending into an organism” (28). The italics suggest that VanderMeer thinks this is a momentous conclusion, but in fact nothing is made of the matter throughout the rest of the trilogy. What the biologist—who sees more of the writing as she descends, describing it evocatively as “a kind of dark, incomprehensible sermon” (33)—senses is that an extraterrestrial creature is at that very moment in the process of continuing to write the text.

The expedition now finds the body of the anthropologist on a lower level of the tower, strangely mutilated:

There wasn’t much left of her face, and odd burn marks were all over the remaining skin. Spilling out from her broken jaw, which looked as though someone had wrenched it open in a single act of brutality, was a torrent of green ash that sat on her chest in a mound. Her hands, palms in her lap, had no skin left on them, only a kind of gauzy filament and more burn marks. Her legs seemed fused together and half-melted, one boot missing and one flung against the wall. (40)

Very creepy—but I am forced to note once again that not a single one of these curious details is ever elucidated in the rest of the trilogy. The biologist believes that the psychologist led the anthropologist to this spot to “take a sample” (42) of the entity (which she begins to refer to as “the Crawler”) writing the words on the wall, and that the Crawler then killed the anthropologist; but we are never given any detailed description of the entity such that the bizarre features on the anthropologist’s corpse can be accounted for. It is as if VanderMeer has just chosen at random a certain collocation of baffling and repulsive elements to engender an emotional response in the reader, regardless of the sense or coherence of those elements.

When the sample collected by the anthropologist is analysed, it is found to look like human brain tissue, “with some irregularities” (48). (What irregularities these might be is, I hardly need add, never explained.) At this point the biologist wishes to explore a lighthouse some distance away. She had seen light emerge from it, and so it is obviously of some interest. The lighthouse, which appears to be fortified, is surrounded by a deserted village. In the lighthouse, there are bloody traces of violence:

My imagination could only reconstruct what might have happened in the broadest, crudest terms. Here stout oak tables had been overturned to form defensive barricades. Some of the tables were full of bullet holes and others appeared half-melted or shredded by gunfire. Beyond the remains of the tables, the dark splotches across the walls and pooled on the floor told of unspeakable and sudden violence. Dust had settled over everything, along with the cool, flat smell of slow decay, and I could see rat droppings and signs of a cot or a bed having been placed in a corner at some later date …. although who could have slept among such reminders of a massacre? (67)

The biologist finds a trapdoor in the floor of the top level of the lighthouse; the trapdoor reveals a hidden space where there are an immense number of journals, apparently by members of previous expeditions; but there are far more than can have been made by these expeditions. The narrator (conveniently) finds her husband’s journal. But now the biologist finds the psychologist, who had disappeared earlier, lying on the beach. Evidently she had been at the top of the lighthouse, sensed the presence of some entity, and jumped over the railing. She is still alive, but in her (apparently) dying breath screams, “Annihilation!” (83). I hate to sound like a broken record, but the import of this single utterance is also never clarified. Is it that the extraterrestrial entity is intent on annihilating the human race? Who knows? The psychologist does manage to clarify the death of the anthropologist. She had in fact led the anthropologist down into the tower, and the latter had gotten too close to the Crawler and had been killed. I am obliged to state that the dialogue between the biologist and the dying psychologist is so lacking in realism and emotive resonance that it has not the slightest effect on the reader aside from conveying certain random elements of the plot.

As the biologist is leaving the village, she hears a moaning sound and flees. She seems to be pursued by some entity, but it is never specified whether this is actually the case. She now notes that “My skin gave off a faint phosphorescence against the darkness” (96), but why this should be the case is not explained. As she returns to the camp, the surveyor for some reason shoots at her and hits her twice—but the phosphorescence somehow mitigates these injuries. The biologist, in turn, shoots and kills the surveyor.

The biologist now reads her husband’s journal. Among other odd things, it informs her that at one point the man had seen some doppelgänger of himself descending into the tower—it never came back up. The biologist, now alone, decides to take another look at the tower. Descending it, she goes down to levels lower than she had visited before; the writing there seems fresher. Then she sees a light, and finally sees the Crawler. VanderMeer makes mighty efforts to portray the creature in cosmic terms:

Then it became an overwhelming hugeness in my battered vision, seeming to rise and keep rising as it leapt toward me. The shape spread until it was even where it was not, nor should not have been. [If there are those who can make sense of that sentence, they are doing better than I.] It seemed now more like a kind of obstacle or wall or thick closed door blocking the stairs. Not a wall of light—gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum—but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it and textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it like soft tadpoles, but at the limits of my vision so I could not tell if this was akin to those floating dark motes that are tricks of the eye, that do not exist. (117)

There is more, but that is enough to suggest, once more, that the various features of this entity really do not cohere into a comprehensible whole; they are merely meant to alarm the reader with bizarre details.

Annihilation ends (mercifully) with the narrator somehow managing to escape the notice of the Crawler and vowing to continue her exploration of Area X.

There are some suggestive details in this first instalment of VanderMeer’s trilogy that could have been fruitfully expanded upon—and, more crucially, actually elucidated—in the remaining two volumes; but, in spite of the fact that the second volume (Authority) is nearly twice as long as the first, and that the third volume (Acceptance) is also somewhat longer, very few of these details are ever resolved. Authority opens jarringly with the author’s bland assertion that the surveyor, anthropologist, and biologist are all alive and in virtual imprisonment in the Southern Reach headquarters. This sudden resurrection of two characters who were thought to be dead raises immediate questions, chiefly as to whether the entire account in Annihilation is either a fabrication on the part of the biologist (in which case she is an utterly unreliable narrator) or, perhaps, the biologist was in fact functioning under some kind of post-hypnotic command by the psychologist and thereby taking part in events that did not occur. The psychologist (who, it is now revealed, was actually the director of the Southern Reach) is in fact dead.

One obvious solution to this conundrum is that the people who are assumed to be the anthropologist and the surveyor are actually doppelgängers of the sort that were described in the biologist’s husband’s journal. This in fact appears to be the solution to the difficulty, although strangely enough VanderMeer never even hints at it; in any event, the two characters are soon whisked away by Central (the government agency apparently supervising the Southern Reach) and are never heard from again.

Instead, what takes up the great proportion of Authority is an all but endless—and largely futile or inconclusive—series of interviews of the biologist by the new director of the Southern Reach, who actually has a name (John Rodriguez) but who throughout the novel is referred to as Control. The problem is that the biologist cannot or will not remember many of the details of her time in Area X; she explicitly declares that she has no recollection of the tower, which in the Sothern Reach’s reports is euphemistically referred to as the “topographical anomaly” (191). The mind-numbingly tiresome succession of tedious, repetitive interviews makes Authority a staggeringly excruciating excursion into boredom that would tax the patience of even the most indulgent reader. When, at a late stage of the novel, the biologist actually denies that she is the biologist, it does not at all surprise us when we learn, in Acceptance, that she is not the original biologist from the twelfth expedition but a copy (380).

About the only other things we learn in this interminable novel is that there have been many more than twelve expeditions to Area X—perhaps as many as thirty-eight. What is more, the psychologist had herself engaged in an unauthorised solo expedition just prior to what was earlier referred to as the eleventh expedition; she had been there for three weeks. It doesn’t help that VanderMeer has put on stage a contrived personality conflict—another hackneyed trope of action films and novels—between Control and the assistant director, Grace Stevenson, who repeatedly (and for not entirely comprehensible reasons) seeks to thwart him at every turn in his attempt to get at the bottom of what is going on in Area X.

We also learn that the words written by the Crawler in the submerged tower are likely to have been written by one Seth Evans, the last lighthouse keeper. It would appear that Evans was once a preacher. Well and good; but the critical question of why the Crawler would copy his words remains unanswered. Much later, Control, seeing an old photograph of Evans with a little girl, realises that the girl is the psychologist. But Control doesn’t have much time to think about that, for it now appears that Area X is insidiously expanding: “the border was coming to Southern Reach” (328). Omigod! Control decides to skedaddle. He first stops at his mother’s house, and she (who works for Central) tells him ominously that Area X’s “border” may be uncontrollable. Meanwhile, the biologist (i.e., the copy thereof), who had been taken to Central, has escaped. Control heads to a place called Rock Bay, where the biologist (the real one, presumably) had lived; he finds the biologist’s house surrounded by many operatives staking it out. Continuing along the shore, Control comes upon the biologist (copy). There is now some suggestion that access to Area X may be available by water, and they both jump in. And that is how Authority ends.

Acceptance is narrated in three separate strands: one focusing on the life and actions of Seth Evans, at some unspecified time in the past, where he has befriended the little girl (whose actual name is Gloria); one focusing on the actions of Control and the biologist (copy); and one (narrated pretentiously in the second person) on the psychologist when she was still alive and on her solo expedition to Area X. But if readers are hoping for some kind of resolution to all the strange manifestations of Area X and other anomalies that VanderMeer has haphazardly thrown out throughout the previous two volumes, they will be in for multiple levels of disappointment.

Let us consider the Seth Evans story. At one point a sliver from a mysterious plant enters his thumb, even though he is wearing heavy gardening gloves. We are led to believe that he has been infected somehow—but by what? Meanwhile, he is plagued by the annoying presence of Henry and Suzanne, two members of what is called the Séance and Science Brigade, who are exploring the lighthouse for some unspecified purpose. There is eventually a violent conflict between Henry—who has already killed Suzanne and his own double (nobody can say why)—and Seth, with the result that they both fall over the railing of the lighthouse.

Gloria, the psychologist, on her solo expedition (although in fact she took along another fellow, one Whitby Allen, from Southern Reach’s science division), at one point encounters a human being in the tower: it is Seth, who says ominously, “You shouldn’t be here” (398). When she returns from her expedition, she is grilled by Jim Lowry, the only surviving member of the first expedition to Area X and now apparently a person of considerable authority at Central. She is also taken to meet Jackie Severance (Control’s mother). She recalls how Whitby, in the lighthouse, had encountered his own copy.

As for Control and the copy of the biologist (now referred to as Ghost Bird, even though this was a nickname devised by the real biologist’s husband), they emerge from the waters and now find themselves in Area X. We now learn that she (the copy) was created by the Crawler at “the moment of the biologist’s death” (384), although for what purpose is never clarified. Later, the two of them go to an island where there is a ruined lighthouse; they encounter Grace Stevenson there. Grace tells Control that there is no “door” to get back across the border anymore. She has also found an account by the biologist (the real one) about what she had discovered on her own solo expedition (the one that was alluded to at the end of Annihilation). First she encountered a “beast” (471), which proves to be that pig-like creature we have encountered from time to time. Grace now informs Control and the biologist (copy) that the real biologist is still alive (it appears that no one is really dead in VanderMeer’s world) and is coming back. She does so—and manifests herself as a huge and otherwise strangely transformed entity:

The great slope of its wideness was spread out before Ghost Bird, the edges wavery, blurred, sliding off into some other place. The mountain that was the biologist came up almost to the windowsill, so close she could have jumped down onto what served as its back. The suggestion of a flat, broad head plunging directly into torso. The suggestion, far to the east, already overshooting the lighthouse, of a vast curve and curl of the mouth, and the flanks carved by dark ridges like a whale’s, and the dried seaweed, the kelp, that clung there, and the overwhelming ocean smell that came with it. The green-and-white stars of barnacles on its back in the hundreds of miniature craters, of tidal pools from time spent motionless in deep water, time lost inside that enormous brain. The scars of conflict with other monsters pale and dull against the biologist’s skin. (493)

Very impressive; but how (and, more vitally, why) did the biologist become so huge and transformed? We are left searching for answers—but it hardly matters, for the biologist wanders off and is never heard from again.

Control and Ghost Bird now descend into the tower and at last have an encounter with the Crawler. By merely touching it, Ghost Bird now establishes some kind of mental communication with it that allows her to ascertain that the creature is indeed extraterrestrial:

She saw or felt, deep within, the cataclysm like a rain of comets that had annihilated an entire biosphere remote from Earth. Witnessed how one made organism had fragmented and dispersed, each minute part undertaking a long and perilous passage through spaces between, black and formless, punctuated by sudden light as they came to rest, scattered and lost—emerging only to be buried, inert, in the glass of the lighthouse lens. And how, when brought out of dormancy, the wire tripped, how it had, best as it could, regenerated, begun to perform a vast and preordained function, one compromised by time and context, by the terrible truth that the species that had given Area X its purpose was gone. (555)

Okay, if you say so. I am not sure that this passage clarifies much, aside from the brute fact (which any reader will have suspected from the beginning) that the Crawler is in fact an extraterrestrial entity. In any event, Control now proceeds further down the tower, is somehow transformed, and “jumped into the light” (573). Grace and Ghost Bird trudge back to the Southern Reach compound, finding that Area X appears to have taken it over.

And that is how the trilogy ends.

I suppose one should not expect, in a work that purports to be some kind of fusion of weird fiction and science fiction, a neat tying up of all loose ends in the manner of an orthodox detective story, but the number of unresolved issues in the Southern Reach trilogy are beyond all endurance. I have alluded to some of these, but let us review the more essential ones:

1) Chief among them is the very reason why the Crawler writes Saul Evans’s words on the walls of the tower. What purpose is served by this act? Even if we are led to believe that Evans has had some kind of Vulcan mind-meld with the Crawler, what is the point of the ponderous, pseudo-theological writing? The text of the sermon (if that is what it is) has little or no bearing on the actual plot of the trilogy; it is merely designed to provoke the reader’s curiosity by the mere fact that an extraterrestrial entity can write words (using strange plants to do so) in the English language.

2) What was the nature of the conflict at the lighthouse that resulted in the gunfight and apparent massacre? Who was involved in this conflict?

3) What purpose is served by the Crawler’s creation of “copies”? Although VanderMeer never says so, the anthropologist and the surveyor, who were presumably killed in Annihilation, magically come back to life in the early pages of Authority. They are presumably copies. Well and good; but why? Why are there copies of other human explorers of the area?

4) Why did the real biologist become huge and transformed in her fleeting and largely irrelevant reappearance in Acceptance?

5) What is the significance of the swine-creature who pops up every so often, and not to much purpose, throughout the trilogy?

6) How are we to understand the state of things at the end of the trilogy? Is the entire world in the process of being taken over by Area X? This point creates the dreadful possibility of more novels—or, still more appallingly, more trilogies—set in the world of Area X. VanderMeer’s newest novel, Borne (2017), is mercifully not related to the trilogy, but I suppose the likelihood of his returning to this realm remains—and that prospect is more terrifying than anything he has ever written.

I trust I shall be pardoned for the mundanity of some of these queries. But if an author, either by oversight or design, fails to account for such basic aspects of his narrative, then readers and critics are within their rights to question exactly what the precise purpose or intent of his narrative is. It begins to seem as if VanderMeer throws out these elements from time to time as a way of jolting readers awake from the somnolence to which they are in grave danger of succumbing.

Some attention should be directed toward the titles of the three books of the trilogy. Their significance is not at all apparent. I have already stated my own puzzlement at what the title Annihilation could signify. Evidently it refers to the annihilation of the extraterrestrial entity’s realm, although that point is not elucidated until the third volume. Authority presumably refers to the Southern Reach facility itself (or, perhaps, more broadly to the shadowy entity that controls it, referred to as Central), even though it is abundantly plain that neither agency has much “authority” over either the human protagonists or the spread of the constantly spreading taint or blight from Area X. And as for Acceptance, does this signify Control’s “acceptance” of the ubiquity of Area X as symbolised by his self-immolation? Who knows? I sense that VanderMeer was merely looking for a trio of alliterative words, somewhat in the manner in which the parents of Ambrose Bierce, when devising names for their thirteen children, managed to find names all beginning with the letter A.

It is worth pondering the literary influences on the trilogy. It is quite evident that VanderMeer has pilfered key elements out of the work of William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft. Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland features the narrator’s chilling encounters (much more cogently and logically expressed) with creatures he calls the “swine-things,” and these seem to be a clear influence on the swine-creature that we find now and again in the trilogy.

As for Lovecraft, there are several obvious borrowings of specific features from his tales. Four such borrowings can be identified:

1) An early suggestion that “the border [of Area X] is advancing…a little bit more every year” (104) is a clear borrowing from “The Colour out of Space” (1927), where a meteorite carrying an extraterrestrial entity (or conglomeration of entities) lands on a hapless farmer’s property; and even though the entities apparently shoot back into space at the end of the story, their effects linger: “the blight is spreading—little by little, perhaps an inch a year.”

2) At the end of Annihilation, the biologist, heading back up the tower, takes a “single glance back” (123) at the Crawler. This is a manifest borrowing of the “final, desperately fearful glance backward” that the two protagonists of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) take when they see the shoggoth bearing down on them.

3) The previously quoted statement that the Crawler had made its “passage through spaces between” is an unquestionable ripoff of “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), where the extraterrestrial entities that Lovecraft calls the Old Ones are said (in the ponderous quotation from the Necronomicon cited in the story) to exist “not in the spaces we know, but between them.”

4) The fact that the Crawler is writing words in the English language may be an echo of the underlying premise of “The Shadow out of Time” (1934–35). In that scintillating novella, a man named Peaslee of the present day becomes mentally displaced into the body of an extraterrestrial entity from the distant past, where he writes a history of his own times. Coming upon this document, which he knows must have been written millions of years ago, Peaslee is appalled to see “the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.” This scenario is uncannily similar to the Crawler’s melding of minds with Seth Evans so that it writes out words in English.

Indeed, the general notion of extraterrestrial invasion as propounded in the Southern Reach trilogy clearly seems an echo of Lovecraft, who pioneered this type of horror/science fiction hybrid in tale after tale in the last decade of his career. And VanderMeer’s sporadic and superficial attempts to evoke cosmic terror fall well short of the genuinely chilling cosmicism in Lovecraft’s most representative tales. All these borrowings from Lovecraft are a trifle amusing. VanderMeer, like so many other self-righteous individuals, now finds it fashionable to disparage Lovecraft for all manner of perceived personal and literary derelictions; but he is evidently not above snatching critical elements from his revolutionary work when it suits his purposes.

It is, however, a pity that VanderMeer could not have duplicated some modicum of Lovecraft’s compelling readability or his meticulous craftsmanship. Area X is excruciatingly dull, slow, ponderous, and tiresome. Its characters are flat and undistinctive; the development of the plot (if such it can be called) proceeds at a glacial pace and often leads to irrelevant digressions and opaque denouements; and its prose, whenever it does not descend into solecisms (“My heart felt like an animal had become trapped in my chest” [29]) or jarring sentence fragments, is almost entirely lacking in affect, resembling a droning monotone that is utterly devoid of emotive resonance. Toward the end one character states: “Don’t you get tired after a while?…Of always moving forward but never reaching the end?” (566). This is a lamentably exact description of the reader’s dismal plight in slogging through this excruciating hodgepodge of incoherency and pointless verbiage.

It is amusing to note that among VanderMeer’s characters are a black woman (Grace Stevenson), a Hispanic man (John Rodriguez), a gay man (Seth Evans), and a lesbian woman (Grace Stevenson). All very proper according to the canons of politically correct multiculturalism. The only problem is that these figures are all so indistinguishable from one another that their ethnic or sexual characteristics are of little relevance to their overall personalities and have no bearing upon the actions that their author mechanically forces them to carry out. In particular, the scenes with Seth and his lover are so mortifyingly wooden and clumsy as to seem like parodies of gay lovemaking.

Area X is, in short, an aesthetic catastrophe that would make any self-reflective author consider taking up another line of work, but it is unlikely to have that salutary effect upon this writer, whose high opinion of himself is well attested.

Works Cited