July 2006

Maureen McClarnon


Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer spent seven years writing Shriek: An Afterword, and while he was writing he listened to the same music, giving themes to certain subjects in the book. It’s an interesting idea/technique, but all I could think was, Wow, he listened to the same music for seven years. Then I thought he should’ve put some of the performers in his book, even if it does take place in an alternate world that seems a bit like the U.K. geographically, but with both tropical and cold regions. After all, if one can put David Bowie into The Last Temptation of Christ, certainly Nick Cave would be right at home in Ambergris, the setting of this novel.

Shriek isn’t the only thing VanderMeer’s been writing, so presumably he’s listening to other music, as well; he’s published a couple of novels, and many short stories that take place in Ambergris. Shriek, however, is an afterword to a fictional book (as opposed to a book of fiction): a history of Ambergris, written by Duncan Shriek, with the afterword written by his sister, Janice, who thought him dead at the time. This book-length afterword is annotated by Duncan, who has returned only to find Janice missing. Got that?

I have to admit, I like my Sci-Fi/Fantasy with a bit of humor, however wry. Shriek? Not particularly funny. Dark. Dark enough to grow fungus. And fungus is, in fact, growing in vast networks underneath Ambergris, which is controlled by the mysterious and dreadful Gray Caps. You want some of that funny fungus? Poor Janice was an addict. The place is lousy with an assortment of spores that can effect any number of changes in the environment or people. And the Gray Caps, who sound like some sort of subway vigilante group formed by the Gray Panthers, are violent, creepy spore people with big, shiny teeth (although I couldn’t help imagining them as black-and-white versions of Dumb Donald from Fat Albert).

Shriek in a nutshell: the life and times of Duncan and Janice Shriek, their separate paths to and falls from fame, a bit of Shriek family history, and the mysterious past of Ambergris itself, which was Duncan’s obsession and downfall. The bits about Ambergris and the Gray Caps were the most interesting and kept me reading. Janice got annoying very quickly, focused as she was on the high society to which she’d once belonged, and on her hatred of its current head, the love of Duncan’s life who completely ruined his career (while he continued to carry a torch for her). Janice loves her brother, but she’s bitter enough for the both of them and then some, and she doesn’t know him very well at all, according to Duncan’s commentary.

Maybe this book is more wryly humorous than I recall -- VanderMeer’s website shows a man with a sense of humor -- but I read it for the mystery, rather than the writing or the characters. Shriek is, to mix media, less Hitchhiker’s Guide than Brazil, but more Requiem for a Dream than anything else. (Apparently, a short film based on Shriek is forthcoming, with a score by The Church, so I feel safe in crossing the book-film divide.)

What does one listen to for seven years? Here’s a sample: Afghan Whigs; The Church; Nick Cave; Songs:Ohia; James; Spoon; Murder City Devils; and a few others.

Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer
Tor Press
ISBN: 0765314657
345 pages