Genre is a tricky thing. In movies there are the obvious audio and visual cues that let you know if the story about aliens you are watching is sci-fi or horror, or if the romance between a vampire and his victim is intended to be romantic or terrifying. In books, these cues are absent, and the result can be stories freed of the prescribed conventions that often serve as a shorthand for the audience.
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer lives at the intersection of genre. It’s a sci-fi book where science doesn’t matter; a horror story where the monsters barely show up; a travel-tale from a place that couldn’t possibly be real. All of this mashes together into a hallucinatory experience that will leave you wondering what, exactly, just happened.
Vandermeer is often compared to Lovecraft, and refers to his own style as “The New Weird”. I think this is the most accurate way of describing the experience of reading Annihilation. This isn’t horror in the vein of Stephen King or Peter Blatty. This is a tale of strangeness, of disquiet, of unrelenting weirdness so profound it leaves you uncomfortable in your own skin.
I’ve not seen the recent movie adaptation of this book, but from what I saw in the trailers the movie takes a much more sci-fi, creature oriented tack. The novel is a more atmospheric experience. There are very few moments of overt horror. The story relies on a pervading sense of dread.
Right from the beginning we are confronted with the inherent unreliability of our narrator. She tells us right up front that she won’t be using names, because she doesn’t care about anyone else inside Area X with her. She also tells us she’s been hypnotized, and is subject to potential post-hypnotic triggers. This establishes the recurring theme of the unreliability of memory right from the get go, and this theme is slowly ratcheted tighter and tighter.
While I found the novel overall enjoyably tense and unsettling, it did seem to drag a bit at points. There is, throughout, a feeling that more could happen, or that more sense could be made of the things that do happen. Without spoiling anything, there are several shocking events that are ultimately left feeling like isolated moments, unmoored from any particular root causes.
But, when all is said, I think this is the point of the novel. We can’t rely on the things we think we know. We can’t be sure where who we are ends, and our reactions to the environment we’re in begin. And in real life, shocking, horrible violence is often pointless, purposeless. Or if it is part of a greater plan, it is a plan we can’t even begin to comprehend.
All things considered, I would recommend this book to fans of Lovecraftian horror. If you’re looking for a splatter-fest, or a haunted house, this book isn’t going to work for you. But if you want to get pulled into a slow-burning tale of unease and uncertainty, give this book a read. I think you’ll find it hits the spot.