Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

 Tor hardcover 2006

“Sometimes – only sometimes – I wonder who I am writing this account for. Who will read this? Will they care?”

The answers to this question vary depending upon the person asking it.

When asked by the narrator of Shriek: An Afterword, Janice Shriek, once a mogul of the city of Ambergris’s “New Art” movement, now bitter and forgotten, the answer would seem to be “no one.” Her star having fallen years earlier, Janice is writing an afterword to The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of the City of Ambergris, a tourist pamphlet written by her brother Duncan Shriek. Duncan is a once prominent historian who has also disappeared into obscurity, both figuratively and literally. Why would anyone be interested in a self-indulgent autobiography of a has-been purporting to be the biography of another has-been, let alone one appended to a tourist pamphlet?

When the same question is asked by Jeff VanderMeer, the author of Shriek: An Afterword, the answer is “devotees of fantastic literature, and with much anticipation.” The Hoegbotton Guide is the second piece in the collection that introduced readers to Ambergris, VanderMeer’s acclaimed City of Saints and Madmen. The Hoegbotton Guide details the early history of Ambergris and its citizens’ relations with their predecessors, the mysterious mushroom-like people known as the gray caps. City of Saints and Madman exemplifies the allure of fantasy, leading the reader on a journey of discovery that amazes as it reveals. A story returning to Ambergris is fraught with delight and peril, delight in once again traveling with VanderMeer along its shadowy paths, and peril in staying too long, seeing too much, such that the romance of the exotic and the mysterious fades with familiarity.  In Shriek: An Afterword, VanderMeer avoids this pitfall only to be caught in another.

Shriek: An Afterword expands upon The Hoegbotton Guide‘s footnotes, which discuss points of contention between Mary Sabon, Ambergrisian historian and Duncan’s former lover, and Duncan, who attributes his own views to friend and fellow historian James Lacond. The footnotes also reveal Duncan’s dissatisfaction with the downward turn of his career that has forced him into writing such a professionally demeaning guide. Shriek: An Afterword explains how he got there, telling the story of Duncan’s lifelong investigation of the gray caps and Ambergris’s hidden history, the rise and fall of his career, and his relationship with Mary. Janice (who appears in the City of Saints and Madmen story “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” winner of the 2000 World Fantasy Award for best novella) narrates the afterword because Duncan has vanished, but from the start she focuses on her own life more than that of her supposed subject. When Janice completes the manuscript, she too disappears and Duncan reappears. Upon finding the manuscript, he inserts {bracketed} editorial comments into Janice’s text, resulting in a partial dialogue revealing the dynamics of the siblings’ relationship.

VanderMeer is an excellent stylist, as in City of Saints and Madmen he employed a variety of storytelling techniques, all with great success. In Shriek: An Afterword, he shows that he has mastered the style of a mediocre (auto)biographer, but this does not mitigate the difficulty of being at the mercy of such a narrator. Shriek: An Afterword is a frustrating reading experience, akin to visiting a scenic city for the first time and having one’s enjoyment of its many landmarks marred by an attention-seeking tour guide who is compelled to share with you a life story that is far less interesting than she thinks and whose skills as a storyteller unfortunately match the quality of her story. {Even Duncan tires of Janice’s purple prose ramblings and complains about her narcissistic narrative focus.} Janice comes across as pretentious when reminiscing about her days as a hedonistic leader of the artistic elite and self-pitying when complaining about her downfall, the result being that the reader neither likes her nor sympathizes with her. Janice would be unbearable but for Duncan’s intervention, as he is much more interesting and sympathetic and his comments flesh out Janice’s thin story and give depth to its flat characters.

One must work hard to get through Janice’s self-obsession to piece together Duncan’s more enjoyable story involving the mysteries hidden beneath the city of Ambergris. Unfortunately, this portion of the story is underdeveloped due to Duncan’s reticence in both his comments and notes (Janice quotes freely from even Duncan’s most personal journal entries, much to Duncan’s embarrassment and indignation). Interspersed throughout Janice’s autobiography are hints from Duncan of an impending catastrophe that will dwarf the historic tragedy known as “The Silence” (recounted in The Hoegbotton Guide), but just as the reader appears to be on the verge of discovery, Duncan reverts to a Janice-like state of self-absorption in which he analyzes in great detail how his underground journeys have changed him emotionally, intellectually and physiologically. For all of Duncan’s discussion of his methods and the toll they have taken upon him, the reader gets little more than a taste of the fruits of his research. Few that they are, Duncan’s earliest revelations about the hidden history of Ambergris show great promise. However, the story’s conclusion, in which Duncan reveals to both Mary and Janice the true nature of Ambergris, is both nebulous and anticlimactic.

Despite these problems, Shriek: An Afterword is a intriguing thematic work, and the reading experience is akin to Duncan’s investigative aims: to go beyond surface appearances, narrative perspectives, and the categorization and classification of perceptions that help one to order experience while at the same time preventing one from grasping that unfathomable truth underlying experience. It is unfortunate that VanderMeer does not provide us with a narrator, who if not more likeable as a person, is at least more enjoyable to read, and that when the reader peers through the doors of perception opened by Duncan and VanderMeer, the prospect is underwhelming.

I would recommend Shriek: An Afterword with some reservation as a well-written and imaginative but flawed work of fantasy. For readers who are unfamiliar with VanderMeer’s work, I would recommend City of Saints and Madmen before recommending Shriek: An Afterword, as City of Saints and Madmen is the superior work. It is not necessary to have read City of Saints and Madmen to be able to follow the events in Shriek: An Afterword, but a great deal of my enjoyment in the latter was derived from the familiarity of the world due to having read the former. Unfortunately, so was a great deal of my disappointment.

© Arthur Bangs 2006

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