Consider inaccuracies, confusing readings, garbled transmissions, things that are made more unknowable by the incompleteness of the things we can perceive about them. Annihilation is a novel about inaccuracies. It won a Nebula Award, traditionally given to American-published works of fantasy or science fiction, yet neither of those broad terms is precisely accurate.
It has been described as a book that “reads as if Verne or Wellsian adventurers exploring a mysterious island had warped through into a Kafkaesque nightmare world,” by Kim Stanley Robinson. Consider the source: widely recognized as one of the foremost living authors working in science fiction, Robinson has won the Nebula, as well as the Hugo and Locus, and his 22 novels have been translated into 24 languages.
When a writer with that pedigree name drops three writers renowned for speculative fiction frequently tinged—or imbued—with the horrific, one is inclined to take notice. Verne’s works, in dire need of modern translations, predicted submarines, helicopters, and the moon landing. Herbert George Wells’ collected works presaged now-familiar things like aircraft, tanks, nuclear weapons, space travel, satellite television, bioengineering, and in 1937, something he called a “Permanent World Encyclopaedia,” which we would know as Wikipedia.
And of course, Franz Kafka focused on themes of alienation, disassociation, isolation, punishment, and how the comfortable and familiar can become suddenly and horribly different. He was so adept at this juxtaposition of the known and the terrible unknowable that his name has become a descriptor for anything with “oppressive or nightmarish qualities.” Disturbingly, the use of this term has been steadily growing since it was first coined in 1939.
With such an imagined lineage, Annihilation must inspire feelings of trepidation in anyone picking up the book for the first time. The first in author Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the work defies easy classification or explanation. It focuses on Area X, part of the North American continent isolated for decades by a shifting, chaotic border that encloses anomalies that surpass comprehension and morph into strange and even more enigmatic forms the moment we think we understand them.
For the sake of those who haven’t read the works of the author the New Yorker called “the weird Thoreau,” we will leave the bulk of Annihilation to be discovered, breathlessly and with an unsettled imagination. For those who have read the story of the paramilitary scientific expedition that tries to map and understand the lands behind that barrier, we offer the following list of motion pictures, books, and podcasts that focus on similar themes and comparable tales of the horribly alien that suddenly and without warning or explanation becomes distressingly adjacent to our fragile and precious understanding.
Written on the Walls
When this novel was first published twenty years ago, its unorthodox design and experimental typography drew almost as much praise as the equally unusual story. In it, Will Navidson, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist, moves his family into a new home. The mystery introduces itself in a singularly unsettling way
when, during the course of settling in, Navidson discovers that the house is larger on the inside than its outside dimensions would account for. This is just the first startling and disconcerting impossibility, with many to follow over a story that changes narrators, locations, and worlds. Like the house where much of the narrative takes place, the story is larger than the book that contains it. Read here.
This collection of short stories portrays the lives of ordinary people living in decidedly unordinary and troubling times, where nothing is exactly as it seems and reality overlaps with possibility—and with that which should be impossible. McHugh won the Story Prize Notable Book award for Apocalypse shortly after its
2011 publication; it isn’t hard to see why. With troubling, compelling, and character-driven stories about workers who cannot leave their jobs, an artificial intelligence alien and terrible in its vastness, and tales of plagues, medical trials, and uncertain cures, the stories here juxtapose the familiar and the horribly different in ways that will remind readers of the fractured world of Annihilation. Read here.
he eponymous protagonist of this novel is the namesake of an 18th-century Italian archaeologist, architect, and artist who produced eerie and evocative etchings of fictional carceri—ancient ruins converted into fever-dream prisons filled with strange scaffolding and horrifyingly puzzling implements of torture.
His world is the house he lives in, but this is no tale of cloistered agoraphobia. The foundations are obscured by the swells of an unknowably vast ocean, and the highest stories are lost in clouds—which he will sometimes pierce for a glimpse of the stars beyond. He loves the house and its thirteen other inhabitants, whom he visits to recount what he has learned and to tell them the names he has given to the stars he has seen. They listen, but we can’t know how intently—they are the skeletal dead, mute in their long and silent waiting.
A strange and strangely beautiful story, Piranesi will leave you wondering about the world in which you find yourself and your place in it. Read here.
Like Annihilation, the narrative focuses on a small band of soldier-scientists trekking across a transformed and troubling landscape in an effort to understand the chaos that has changed their world and, by understanding it, return it to order. Led by a fifteen-year-old boy whose genius is hard to see under his
response to the trauma he has endured, the group travels steadily through a wasteland ravaged by creatures, themselves ravaged by a mysterious and deathless plague. As they race to discover the origin of the fungus which ended the world they will never again know; they—and the reader—will see more than they can easily understand. Read here.
Scoutmaster Tim Riggs has been leading troops of boys into the wilds of Canada for so long that the annual trip has become a tradition, a yearly landmark event by which he measures the passage of time. This year, things would be different.
Tim and the boys who make up this unwitting children’s crusade must welcome a
stranger to their fireside retreat. Terribly gaunt, wan, and horribly hungry, this unforeseen guest brings a gift for his young hosts and their leader that none could have ever imagined in their wildest or darkest dreams. Penned by Craig Davidson (who writes under the nom de plume Patrick Lestewka as well as the Cutter pseudonym used here), The Troop has inspired a movie currently under production to be directed by E.L. Katz known for the films Cheap Thrills and Channel Zero: Dream Door. Read here.
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Seen in the Skies
No less a personage than Stephen King is on record as saying that all modern horror stories are, on some level, a retelling of the H.P. Lovecraft short story upon which this film is based. It’s not hard to see his point—and the parallels to Annihilation. One day, a visitor from the stars crashes down to earth and .
changes everything and everybody feckless enough to be within its rapidly growing sphere of transformative enigma. Not for the faint of heart, this Nicholas Cage vehicle features some genuinely gruesome and grotesque sights. More disturbing still are the thoughts with which it will leave its audience. Watch here.
If you’ve ever wanted to watch a movie that inspired a series of cult-classic video games that in turn inspired foolhardy explorers to brave the real-world Chornobyl Exclusion Zone in now war-torn Ukraine, here’s your chance. This Russian-language nightmare was brought to a world perhaps unready for its message by
Andrei Tarkovsky, the Soviet-era director, screenwriter, and film theorist. It is a fractured, demanding, but ultimately rewarding film for those brave enough to venture into the wasteland it depicts.
What we perceive, remember, and ultimately come under intense and disturbing scrutiny in this film. From Shane Carruth, who brought us 2004’s Sundance Film Festival’s top prize-winning Primer, this tale of mind control, shifting timelines, and deconstructed narrative is challenging to comprehend but wonderful and
This 1982 John Carpenter remake of the 1951 The Thing from Another World features an isolated and alienated group of American research scientists preparing for a long dark winter at their remote Antarctica research station. The monotony is disturbed by a careening helicopter, piloted and crewed by frenzied
and frantic men, faces hidden under cold weather gear. The pair are trying to intercept—and kill—a fleeing husky and shout faintly heard Norwegian warnings before their singular focus on their quarry results in a fatal crash. Those who know, know … and those who don’t will be horrified, mystified, and thoroughly entertained in this cult classic, which stands up over time—and was followed by a 2011 prequel also worthy of a watch. Watch here.
The title of this Swiss-German film means “Bright,” a simple and terrible descriptor of a world scorched by heat so intense that civilization has collapsed under its brutal, relentless, sweltering pressure. Light is almost a character in this film, as invasive and ruthless as any slasher villain and just as immortal and
invincible. The film follows a small group of survivors as they try to make their way into the mountains, where they hope to find all-too-scarce water and relief from the ever-present and enervating heat. They’re not alone in the terribly illuminated wilderness … which is yet another trouble they must face in this already troubling tale. Watch here.
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Whispered on the Wind
1. Ink Heist
Though not explicitly focused on horror, this podcast is home to conversations about the darker corners of literature and the disturbing truths contained within it. The hosts call it “Dark Genre Fiction,” and it encompasses work that existing genres are perhaps too small to contain. The blended oeuvre that makes up
Dark Genre Fiction can be horror, but just as readily fantasy, science fiction, true crime, or even dark and deadly romance. Definitely worth a listen.
2. The Outer Dark
Focusing on the works of writers, publishers, filmmakers, and more within the world of “weird fiction.” The results of authors and other artists like H.P. Lovecraft, David Cronenberg, and Neil Gaiman—and films and books like every entry on this list—are the topic of insightful, informative, and entertaining
conversation time after time.
3. The Wicked Library
Reminiscent of the radio shows of yesteryear, this podcast presents the delightfully horrific to a rapt audience, showcasing a new piece of original short fiction in every performance. Read by host Daniel Foytik and a roster of voice actors supported by a score of original music created for each episode, the
stories presented here are each followed by an interview with their creator. The massive backlog of episodes will keep even the most voracious listener sated and satisfied for a very long time.
This podcast focuses on the fictional Tennessee town of the title, home to 326 souls until one dark day, it wasn’t. Join reporter Lia Haddock as she seeks the truth behind the mass disappearance and discovers that (as is the case in so many tales, fictional and true) the worst horrors are the ones we inflict on each
Though this podcast is overall indeed interesting and likely to hold even the liveliest of attention, we direct you here to a specific episode, number 115, focusing on “New Weird Fiction,” a proto-genre that is still being defined, detailed, and discussed at fascinating length by the hosts, who concentrate on
works reminiscent of the otherworldly stories presented above. VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy made Entertainment Weekly’s Top Ten the year it was published—as well as over thirty “year’s best” lists. The film, starring Nathalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is as eerily entertaining as the books. Whether the other two tomes of the trilogy will be made into movies is anyone’s guess. However, VanderMeer’s 2017 novel Borne will likely follow—Paramount Pictures optioned the film rights before the book was even published. Listen here.