The fiction that truly disturbs me, that causes me nightmares, that stays with me, that chills me to the bone all have one element. Beauty. Gore and splatter punk can gross me out and causes a short, sharp shock. But evil beauty, or weird beauty—that stays with me for the long haul.
The first book in the projected Southern Reach Trilogy is a kind of ecological horror novel. It takes the form of a field report of an unnamed biologist who enters a region called Area X, which is a kind of pocket universe or dimension that suddenly appeared one day, killing off the residents of a sparsely populated area. The landscape is pristine and beautiful, save for a couple of anomalies. The first person narrative is full of meticulous descriptions of the natural world. As a result, when the counter-factual appears, it is truly creepy and insidious.
The supernatural moments are all shot through with a weird, textural (and textual) beauty that entices as it disturbs. The images and effects VanderMeer achieves are lush and lingering, at time recalling the landscapes conjured by the surrealist artists. As a counterpoint, the story of the biologist’s past and her own agenda are subtly woven in the tense narrative. This a dense, interior multilayered horror/thriller full of mystery and dread. The novel is atmospheric and open-ended, and most importantly, hauntingly beautiful. Reviews have been popping up about the ‘Lovecraftian’ nature of the work. To me, it’s more reminiscent in tone to the philosophical dark fiction of Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti.