I’ve had the good fortune to read many good works of weird fiction since starting this blog — in fact, one of the major motivations for starting the blog was to “force” myself to get back into reading strange and creepy stories such as those that had captured my imagination as a youth. Every once in a while, though, I come across a work so wonderful and fascinating that it will permanently haunt the depths of my psyche. Case in point: I was absolutely blown away by Jeff VanderMeer’s recent novel, Finch (2009):
The novel defies easy characterization: it is part detective novel, part science fiction novel, part war novel, part fantasy novel — and part horror novel. Even with that mixing of genres, VanderMeer manages to tell a very serious, intricate, and mesmerizing tale.
The novel is set in the fictional city of Ambergris. For centuries, it was an independent city-state with sufficient military strength to defend its borders and wage war on its neighbors, but it is now under brutal occupation by the Gray Caps, an inhuman fungal race that surged up from subterranean caverns six years earlier and seized control. The Gray Caps maintain control as many occupiers do — violent suppression of open rebellion, work camps for dissidents and undesirables, active collaborators in the form of “partials” (part human, part fungal), and an investigative service that roots out resistance.
John Finch is a “detective” in this investigative service, though his constant refrain to himself is, “I am not a detective.” He collaborates with the Gray Caps simply to survive — and survival is the only hope of the citizens of Ambergris. A case in point is his long-time investigative partner and friend, Wyte, who got ambushed one night and was infected with a fungal disease that is slowly transforming his body and seizing control of his mind. Finch lives alone in a room in a run-down hotel, visited occasionally by a girlfriend whom he knows almost nothing about, including her home and job. Finch is not particularly forthcoming, either; he has a past, and a former identity, that could get him killed by not only the Grey Caps but also any number of human factions whose pre-occupation rivalries still lurk within the city.
At the beginning of the novel, Finch is called in by the Gray Caps to investigate an unusual crime scene. A human and a Gray Cap have been found dead together in an apartment; neither has been identified. Strangely, the Gray Cap is missing the lower half of its body; even more bizarre is the realization that both bodies show signs of having fallen from a great height.
The case is clearly an important one, and the Gray Caps are showing particular interest in its resolution. They are not the only ones with interest: as his investigation continues, Finch will come into contact with a number of powerful organizations, each of which has its own motivations, and all of which are willing to sacrifice him to achieve their goals. Adding to the tension are the shadows of two towers the Gray Caps are building in the city’s harbor; no human knows their purpose or what will happen when they are completed.
Knowledge is dangerous, and Finch fears that, regardless of whether he solves the case or not, he will learn too much to be allowed to live. VanderMeer heightens this tension for the reader brilliantly; at the beginning of each chapter, we are presented with transcripts of a future interrogation in which Finch is being tortured for information about the rebels’ plans. We know his eventual gruesome fate; the only question is, when will it happen?
The occupied city of Ambergris is beautifully and hauntingly depicted. It is a city in ruins, overrun with not only the Gray Caps but fungi and spores of unspeakable nature. The Gray Caps themselves are mysterious and menacing; they have fungus-based technology that includes weapons that can dissolve a human into spores almost instantaneously, as well as “memory spores” which can capture and replay some of a deceased person’s memories when ingested. The Gray Caps are cruel and inhuman, and recall effortlessly the monstrous behavior of real-life occupiers such as the Nazis.
There is a lot of detailed history of Ambergris nestled into the novel, making the dying city really come alive. This is in fact the third book VanderMeer has written about the city, giving him a lot of material to draw from. The first book is a collection of stories entitled, City of Saints and Madmen, and the second book is a rather unusual novel called, Shriek: An Afterword; both cover events in Ambergris prior to the Gray Cap invasion. CoSaM includes “The Hoegbotton Guide to Ambergris,” an irreverent description of the early history of Ambergris by historian Duncan Shriek which is alternately humorous and horrifying; it gives more depth to the history of the city and provides context for a lot of the events in Finch. For instance, we learn that humanity is not quite an innocent victim of the Gray Caps: the founders of the human city massacred and drove out the original fungal residents of the land. The earlier books are written in a less “conventional” storytelling style, and may be a little less accessible to the casual reader.
I read Finch without having read CoSaM and SaA, and am glad I did: my ignorance of the backstory made the events of the novel seem even more creepy and mysterious. If one is patient and willing to just go along for the ride, eventually the necessary events are all explained. For me, CoSaM and SaA are now serving as the Silmarillion to Finch‘s Lord of the Rings. Many readers, however, will find it easier to read the novels in order.
The novel is filled with moments of genuinely beautiful cosmic horror; I suspect Lovecraft himself would have been quite fond of it! There are many scenes that still haunt me as I think back upon the book: the final evolution of Wyte, the evocation of “Ambergris Rules”, a view of a city no longer alive but not quite dead. The book is a treasure and one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.