All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures in exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
– Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places
Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘weird’ short story from 1931, ‘The city of the singing flame’, presents the journals of Gilles Angarth (also a writer of weird fiction) and his accidental discovery of a portal to another dimension near the California-Nevada border – a place of lush vegetation surrounding a strange and cyclopean city. At the heart of this alien metropolis, Angarth discovers the titular flame, a vast column of light surrounded by a multitude of strange and unknown species (of which the human narrator is just one of many), all in moth-like supplication to the flame and the intoxicating music it emits.
Although the implications of this flame are immediately clear – ‘the thought of how marvellous and ecstatical it would be to run forward and leap headlong into the singing fire’ – Angarth’s reactions are not those of horror or unease. Rather, his journal records impressions that are rapturous and filled with awe:
The fire was white and dazzling, it was pure as the central flame of a star; it blinded me, and when I turned my eyes away, the air was filled with webs of intricate colour, with swiftly changing arabesques whose numberless, unwonted hues and patterns were such as no mundane eye had ever beheld. I felt a stimulating warmth that filled my very marrow with intenser life.
From this encounter with the city comes a great change in the narrator. Having witnessed the flame, his thoughts are coloured by it, to the point that the ‘real’ world ‘seems hardly less improbable and nightmarish than the one that [he has] penetrated in a fashion so fortuitous’. Eventually, Angarth and a companion return to the ‘amber heaven’ of the flame, where his companion wastes no time in immolating himself. At the close of the story, Angarth finds himself envying his friend’s fate, ‘and wondering as to the sensations he had felt in that moment of fiery dissolution’. His new sensations having grown stronger than his human instincts for self-preservation, he signs off his journal for the last time and returns to the city and to the flame.
Smith’s story is remarkable in several ways, but none more so than the sustained sense of beauty and wonder throughout – beauty and wonder in the face of extreme internal change and external strangeness. Angarth’s shifting priorities from the individual/self (and self-preservation) towards the communal (rapturous immolation, ‘the exultation and triumph of a momentary union with … elemental essence’) is treated not as a sickness or insanity, but as the inevitable consequence of such an extreme encounter with a vast, incomprehensible otherness. While there are occasional intonations of nightmare or horror (‘man’s instinctive recoil before the unknown’), the mood here is overwhelmingly one of acceptance, excitement and wonder.
The lingering sense of Angarth, abandoning his human life to join the singing flame, is not that of a man driven mad or someone that needs to be saved, but is instead one of a natural course taken and a great joy being fulfilled. The change that occurs in Angarth’s priorities, in his very essence, is not one to be feared or checked, but rather one to be embraced and accepted. If this leaves the conventional notion of the human or the individual behind, then so be it.
‘The City of the Singing Flame’ is a worthy precursor to Alex Garland’s Annihilation (an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel), 2018’s strangest and perhaps most brilliant film. Annihilation also depicts a physical landscape – the clandestine Area X on the Atlantic coastline – that brings about deep-seated change in those who traverse it (in this case, a team of explorers) – change not forced from without, but, as with Angarth, inevitable in the face of a miracle. Area X functions as a kind of refraction chamber, where physical and mental states of humans, animals, plants and even the inanimate are scrambled and reassembled in endless flux and combination – a ceaseless and purposeless reworking of assemblages and rhizomatic potentialities: not only physical form, but thought, language, meaning and so on. It’s a deeply materialist conception of physicality and psychology and the link between the two, one that questions any predetermined notion of self. The anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing poses the question, ‘[what] if our indeterminate life form was not the shape of our bodies but rather the shape of our motions over time?’ In Area X, this question is reaffirmed: conventional categories break down, and life surges without limit.
In Area X, like in Smith’s story, change and the loss of self are not things to be fought or feared, but accepted as a natural thing that has already happened. Witness the character of Josie Radek, who discovers she no longer has a desire to leave Area X. In a lesser film, this could have been portrayed as a taking-leave of senses, an obstacle to be fought against. In Annihilation, the audience’s sense is instead one of agreement: why fight for a feeling that is lost, for a thing we used to be? If the danger of change is only recognised from the standpoint of the person we used to be – the very thing that has already changed – then does the danger even exist anymore?
The starkest example of this comes as the final member of the exploration team, a biologist, comes across a video of her husband, Kane, thought previously to be lost within Area X. ‘I thought I was a man …’, the video begins, before making clear this is no longer something that can be believed in. Area X has wrought its change, and the old signifiers of self and separation have ceased to make sense: the demarcation of the individual has revealed itself as an arbitrary divide. As if to prove this, the video ends by showing two things – first, Kane’s self-immolation, and second, moments after the detonation, Kane again walks into frame to examine his own charred corpse.
Once again, Annihilation sidesteps easy interpretations: what we are witnessing here is not simply a case of madness and imposture, but something much stranger. Neither the destruction of the body, nor the loss of self, nor the replication of forms is seen as inherently bad here – frightening, yes, but only as the shock of the new. What is ultimately invoked is an understanding of the place of the human in the world as intricately bound with other natural processes, both visible and invisible – strange assemblies, endlessly acting and reacting, forming and reforming. To quote Tsing again: ‘Thinking through self-containment and thus the self-interest of individuals (at whatever scale) made it possible to ignore contamination, that is, transformation through encounter.’ Tsing does not mean contamination pejoratively. Rather, this is a sense of naturalism that foregrounds constant connection, encounter, and change.
I am not arguing for an ideal of naturalism that can align nature writing with fascist thought (which usually upholds the human as outside or divorced from nature) or antihumanism, but instead one of nonhumanism, where humans are placed squarely within nature, without partition.
The effect is twofold: the breakdown of a human/nature divide, and also recognition of the unfamiliarity of where we now find ourselves – in a place without signposts or significance of what we traditionally identify as human. ‘Little is said publicly about these encounters’, writes Robert MacFarlane, referring to moments when the artificiality of this partition becomes evident: ‘those who experience them feel no strong need to broadcast their feelings.’ This is mirrored in the book and film versions of Annihilation, where survey teams drift away from their purpose towards symbiosis with their environment. Recording and categorising is no longer useful or relevant. Not only does it no longer say anything useful about the world, but even if it did, is there any need to say it?
Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (from which the above quotes are taken) explores this kind of interlinked relationship between species and organisms via an investigation into the matsutake mushroom, and how ecological categories – including humanity – are not easily (or realistically) separated. Tracing fungus, weather, supply chains and human mismanagement (and much more), Tsing masterfully shows the artificiality of distinct categories of organisms, and how the human and nonhuman intersect beyond the point of meaningful distinction. While this makes comprehending our relationship with the natural world overwhelming – to some extent because it becomes a matter of comprehending ourselves – it also allows for a realistic and workable sense of our place within nature. It’s an understanding miles away from the alienation that can be found in writings from Thoreau to Plato.
It’s useful to contrast this kind of nature writing to the more common way of depicting nature – as overwhelming. HP Lovecraft (Clark Ashton Smith’s friend and correspondent) is usually the go-to comparison for fiction that hints at the cosmic, at cycles outside our comprehension that reduce human concerns to irrelevance and meaninglessness. However, in this often lazy comparison, the similarities are foregrounded and the differences sink into the background. This is particularly relevant in the case of Annihilation. In my copy, Lovecraft is invoked three times in the blurbs, and nearly every review of the film I’ve seen finds a way to mention him at least once. When it comes down to it, though, there’s not much of Lovecraft’s ‘contre le monde, contre la vie’ to be found in either book or film. In Annihilation, the dwarfing of human concerns and the morphing of the conventionally defined mode of humanity does not come with Lovecraft’s horror. Yes, there is the shock of difference – the ‘annihilation’ invoked by Robert Macfarlane. But beyond this lies wonder.
A good point of comparison is Lovecraft’s classic tale, ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’. It concerns the antiquarian Robert Olmstead’s journey to a dead port town, where he uncovers a race of ‘fish people’ and their generations-long inbreeding with the native residents of the town. But beyond his escape from Innsmouth lies the real horror: Olmstead’s genealogical investigations lead him to the Oedipus-like discovery of his own family’s complicity in this breeding. He, too, bears the (in Lovecraft’s terms) tainted DNA that will one day transform him into the hated aquatic creatures, and at the story’s close, he has lost the sense of dread of this prospect and longs for the ‘wonder and glory’ of the ocean realm.
Even with this final declaration and the narrator’s joy, there is no mistaking Lovecraft’s authorial sense of horror in this prospect: Olmstead, unlike Josie Radek, has lost his humanity for the worse, and has become something he is not. While the narrator has ebbed away from his human psychology (as in ‘The City of the Singing Flame’ or Annihilation), there is no beauty in this transformation or loss of self – only the horror of the other, in line with Lovecraft’s (well known) racist notions of degenerecence, and his fear of mental decay and bodily corruption. The larger force that Olmstead becomes subsumed in not only dwarfs humanity – it mocks it, and the sense we are left with is one of evil and wrongness.
This is where Annihilation most sharply breaks from any meaningful comparison to Lovecraft. Where, for Lovecraft, the awareness of patterns outside of and indifferent to human activity is horrific, in Garland’s film it is exhilarating – terrifying in its shock of newness, and annihilating in its power, but ultimately electrifying. It is not the sense of being pitted against something that makes mockery of individual reason, but being part of something that does the same.
In Annihilation, beyond the shock of the unknown – the annihilation of the sense of the people that we thought we were – there is nothing of the monstrous in the discovery that we are part of a vast, churning nature. At the film’s close, the remaining member of the expedition into Area X is asked what she believes the entity that she confronted (the cause of the great change within her and within Area X) wants. ‘I don’t think it wants anything,’ she replies with wonder. Here, reason and purpose (or the sense of an enemy) has vanished. Things turn without an end goal or a sense of finality, and are no less rich for it.
To trace the thread from Smith, to Tsing, to Garland and VanderMeer and beyond is to trace it away from Lovecraft, away from finding terror in the loss of self. He is a useful starting point for dislodging the centrality of humanity and reason, and we can follow him away from humanism, but must break ways at his disgust. For it is there, in his recoil, that human-centricism reasserts itself, albeit in distorted and (to use a favoured Lovecraftian term) grotesque inversion – with the meaninglessness of self, reason and civilisation a cause for abject horror. As reasoned human reference points ebb away – temporal, historical, or existential – the final line of defence they present is mourning their absence. This is something Annihilation does not allow. In VanderMeer’s book, the narrator speculates on the tendrils of genetic change and intermingling that spread from Area X into the world and into her: ‘The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing.’ Terrible, yes, but only when seen from our side, from the perspective of the human separated from our surroundings. On the other side of destruction waits wonder.
Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ famously opens with the assertion that too much knowledge, the knowledge of our own lack of meaning, will require either madness or a dark age to conceal us from this ultimate horror. But what if we choose neither? What if we were to walk even further from the fires, where even meaninglessness has no meaning: to the place where vines seethe, where stars glimmer and die, where corpses rot and flowers bloom and all swirls endlessly, without beginning or end or sense? What strange matter mixes and mingles …?
Image: still from Annihilation.