Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

Published in the US in September 2005 by BantamSpectra
ISBN 0-553-38356-6

With the publication of Veniss Underground, Jeff VanderMeer’s phantasmagorical story completes a winding-road of a journey to major publication. Parts of this book were published in periodicals/magazines, a limited, small-press edition was published in 2003 and again in 2004. Now, this strange and unsettling book is getting the widespread publication it deserves. While the story of how Veniss Underground came to be published by BantamSpectra is intriguing, how do the stories inside the book rate? The answer is very well, indeed. The roads the stories wind through are more interesting, and more fantastic, as one would suspect. Indeed, Veniss Underground is a novel that is not easy to describe, but in a very good way. Perhaps the only way I can rightly describe my experience with Veniss Underground is dreamlike, or at times, like a nightmare. This is a startlingly fantastic journey through not only a dark world, but a journey through odd people.

The world of Veniss Underground is a wonderful, dark place you would never want to visit, which at times seems like a scientist’s experiment, and others like the darkest visions of humanity’s nightmares. Nicholas, Nichola, and Shadrach form the triptych of protagonists who lead us through the labyrinthine world of Veniss. While three primary characters connect the proper story of Veniss Underground, the world itself is a character, too. Nicholas and Nichola are brother and sister with a strange relationship. They are connected by Shadrach, Nichola’s former boyfriend a man still friends with Nicholas. Both Nicholas and Shadrach become associated with as strange man known only by the name of Quin. Quin is famous for his Shanghai Circus and the genetically engineered meerkats he created.

For all the darkness that otherwise pervades this book, there is some fun to be had, as well. Among the many things VanderMeer does so well in this book is drop occasional odes to other works of literature and the fantastic, almost like little Easter eggs for the reader to discover. In addition to the little treasures for the reader, the novel blends elements of fantasy, of horror, of science fiction into truly a unique and singular work of wonder. VanderMeer is one of the growing contingent of writers who successfully blend and/or blur the lines others have set up to define the intricacies of genre. Where the novel works best is at the intersection of these lines, when it elicits something between the fantastic sense of wonder and the horrific sense of dread and “Oh My God!”

One mention of meerkats thus far does not do justice to how unsettling VanderMeer’s imagination has crafted this otherwise “cute” animal. While Quin’s genetically engineering creatures aren’t limited to the meerkats, they are the most predominant and possibly the most frightening. These creatures are eerie mirrors of humanity, with a savage streak of animal. Of course monsters with such qualities have been present in many other works of fiction, but not always as terrifyingly believable as in Veniss Underground.

The prose is wonderful, too. VanderMeer puts the reader in the head of each character, providing three different views on the strange and terrible world of Veniss. In terms of Literature and Fiction on a larger scale, I could not help be reminded of Faulkner’s rotating viewpoints in As I Lay Dying. Within the genre, Jeffrey Ford’s equally wonderful sequence of novels begun with The Physiognomy were also brought to mind. Like Ford’s work, the prose in Veniss Underground is dreamlike, or rather nightmare like, and surreal. This great strength of VanderMeer’s writing was on display in his wonderful, World Fantasy Award-winning City of Saints and Madmen, and is at the forefront of this novel as well. One gets the sense that Mr. VanderMeer has fun creating the monsters in his stories.

The subsequent stories in this book serve to further flesh out the dark world of Veniss Underground and its history. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I am very happy to see that Mr. VanderMeer’s work is starting to see a large base of publication. If there is any justice in the world of fantastic literature more people will begin to read wonderful writers like Jeff VanderMeer and experience how broad the spectrum of imagination truly is, when a skilled writer of fantastic literature like Jeff VanderMeer is crafting the stories.

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© 2005 Rob H. Bedford

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