“Let me tell you what happens when you burn a person’s body, pull out all of his teeth, glue his head to a plate, and shove a bomb in his ear. You become that person’s object of undying hatred.”
Jeff VanderMeer’s first published novel, Veniss Underground, returns to print in a new twentieth anniversary edition, which also features five short stories and a new foreword by Charles Yu. Veniss Underground is considered one of the definitive novels of the New Weird movement of speculative fiction, combining aspects of science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror.
The novel takes place in the futuristic metropolis of Veniss, a city of decadence where artists create Living Art through a bizarre recycling of living organisms. But the real terror lies in the labyrinthine underground world of crime and body horror ruled by the mysterious Quin.
Veniss Underground is told from three points of view: twins Nicholas and Nicola and their friend Shadrach. VanderMeer employs first, second, and third person styles of narration for these three characters, respectively. In each case, VanderMeer succeeds at establishing strong emotional connections with the point of view character. The second-person perspective of Nicola works remarkably well at identifying you, the reader, with Nicola. The complex relationships among the three lead characters are also well developed, providing motivation for journeying to the underworld.
Oh, and there are meerkats, including a genetically engineered assassin meerkat. When considering the depravity of human beings, the meerkats might, in fact, consider themselves to be the superior species.
In a novel so unique, it is difficult to pin down specific influences. Perhaps the greatest influence is H.G. Wells, the pioneer of science fiction from a century prior. Like the 1895 H.G. Wells masterpiece, The Time Machine, Veniss Underground features parallel civilizations above and below ground, where the greatest terror is underneath the surface. The engineering of new animals certainly recalls work by the titular character from The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).
Beyond H.G. Wells, there is also a strong connection between Veniss Underground and ancient Greek mythology, particularly the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Quin playing the role of Hades, lord of the underworld. VanderMeer’s descriptions of the underworld also recall the various circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
VanderMeer’s writing is dense yet accessible. The story is a page-turner, drawing the reader in from the first pages and leaving them wanting more. Fortunately, the twentieth anniversary edition provides exactly that: another 150 pages of content set in the same world, including four previously published short stories and one all-new story. Each of the stories provides another slice of life in the city of Veniss. However, the short stories are more like fragments, none of them reaching the same level of storytelling as the main novel. Nevertheless, readers may appreciate having these additional perspectives on the world.
Veniss Underground is the quintessential New Weird novel, deeply unsettling yet strangely compelling. As in his subsequent work, Jeff VanderMeer truly astounds with the inventiveness of his world and storytelling.