A Compelling Paradox of Clear Language and Uncertainty:
Surreal, dreamlike, but damn concise, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a rare piece in the science-fiction genre. His language is tight and terse, as should be expected since it is written as a series of journal entries from a biologist, and this very precision is one of the things that make the book so memorable. Namely, because this measured writing is used to tell a story of progressing ambiguity. As the events unfold, the edges grow hazier, the reader’s understanding of what is truly occurring blurs with the increased confusion of the narrator: the aforementioned, unnamed biologist.
Horror to Put Hollywood Horror to Shame:
Annihilation reads like how a horror movie should play. There is a repetition of unsettling motifs, a constant reminder of things just beneath the surface, outside of peripheral vision, lurking somewhere…and we don’t know what they intend. Vandermeer does this masterfully with the calls of the unseen creature who/that makes its domain among the reeds, in small reminders of the hypnotic suggestion the characters could be under, of the strange rhythms and events that take place in the tower beneath the ground. The unknown is ever-present, and building, even as the familiar world becomes less and less so. At times growing closer, and at other times fading.
No Shortcuts to Fear:
There are no jump scares, the cheap crutch of uninspired horror cinema through the decades. Anyone can give anyone a thorough, sudden, and forgettable fright by making an unanticipated appearance. Hell, a bunny rabbit could hop out from behind a door, fluffy ears flopping, and startle simply on the merit of being unexpected. A true mastery of horror lies in subtlety; suspense is built, and you only break it, capitalize on it, once or twice in a story. Horror is just as much about the build-up as it is in the event of wielding those cardinal moments.
Quality Horror Hints at What is Beneath the Veil:
Horror is executed well when the narrative shows us that somehow our normal understanding of the world is woefully wrong, or at least inadequate. That there lurks something beneath the layer of normal, a presence or an entire world that operates by rules we do not know, and may not even be able to fathom. Vandermeer seems to understand this quite well, as demonstrated by my heart choking on its own beats at what I consider the two major points of the story wherein he brings forth the culmination of his carefully constructed suspense. And one of these two instances is even welded together with some core events, a brilliant weave of plot with form.
Brief and Potent:
Though the characters are exploring a wide realm in Area X, there is a constant sense of constriction, a claustrophobia that manifests despite the open wilderness in which the story is set. Add this to the fact that the story is less than 200 pages and you are left with a polished, well-executed dance with the Other. Compact, concise, and sharp, Annihilation comes highly recommended. On that note, I also recommend the (very loose) film adaptation starring Natalie Portman. Though it demonstrates a divergence from the disciplined horror of the novel, it still has its merits, though that is for discussing at perhaps another time.