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Mar 5

Shriek: An Afterword

Category: Opinions

I recently finished one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read, Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. Shriek is the follow up novel to City of Saints and Madmen, but it’s definitely not a sequel. I wrote about City of Saints…

“The book is a collection of stories and historical guides that center around the city of Ambergris, a city of religious fervor and political corruption. It’s home to eccentric artists and strange creatures. It’s a city that brims with life, and so much death. None of the stories are tied together in a linear fashion, the first story doesn’t flow into the second. I think each piece of writing easily stands alone, but as a whole they create a fully realized world.”

City of Saints and Madmen is a brilliant piece of world-building, it introduces us to Ambergris and its inhabitants. Shriek: An Afterword is an intimate look into the lives of two such inhabitants, Duncan and Janice Shriek, brother and sister. Duncan is an historian and the writer of The Early History of Ambergris, his last published work. Janice, a once prominent art gallery owner, turned journalist, turned tour guide, is writing the Afterword to Duncan’s Early History. She’s writing the Afterword because Duncan has vanished and is presumed dead, lost to his obsession with the Gray Caps. The Gray Caps are a race of child-sized mushroom people, forced to live underground after the founding of Ambergris. Duncan’s entire troubled career is based on studying the Gray Caps and their mysterious, often dangerous influence on the city. He knows they’re dangerous, yet his theories are constantly dismissed as eccentric at best. Reading Janice’s writing we learn that Duncan is not wrong, that bad things are happening in Ambergris. We also quickly learn that Duncan is not dead, and that Janice, in fact, disappeared after writing her Afterword. We know this through notes written by Duncan on her finished manuscript. Duncan returns to find Janice gone.

Now, the thing that makes Shriek: An Afterword so amazing is that the characters are just so real. Their world is very surreal, but Duncan and Janice, their core experiences are common to so many. Love, love lost, obsession, addiction, success, failure, loneliness, pain, we’ve all been touched by some of these things. Some of us have been touched by all of them. Shriek is the story of two lives, seemingly promising lives, that just don’t work out as one would want. It’s a sad idea, but it’s honest and there’s beauty in that kind of honesty. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but even if things go horribly wrong, we keep going, until we can’t. The fact is, life isn’t one straight and happy line. Life is a crooked, terrifying, spectacular, beautiful, fucked up mess. We write our stories for as long as we can, while others scribble little notes on our pages. Maybe it all adds up to the ending we want, maybe it doesn’t, we never really know until the last page. That’s the essence of Shriek: An Afterword.

I haven’t been so moved by a book in quite some time, it really resonated with me.


5 Comments so far

  1. Calley March 5th, 2009 3:01 am

    I read Shriek a few months ago, and I’ve got to agree with you entirely. The emotions are so striking and real that you’re right there with Janice, missing and worrying about your brother.

    Hm… We shall have to compare books again. 😀

  2. Alex Carnegie March 5th, 2009 9:43 am

    I think it was the Duncan/Mary affair and how it crashed and burned that affected me most in the book. I suppose we all draw parallels with our own experience, it’s part of the power of literature, but it reminded me of something in my own life and felt emotionally real.

    Reading ‘Shriek’ was one of those moments that made me remember that ‘Fantasy’ fiction can still be real in the sense that the people within it, their lives and situations and reactions, can still feel true and relevant to us. In a sense you’re getting the best of both worlds there: wild flights of imagination and psychological realism. I’ve said it before but nobody does what Jeff does in exactly the way he does it, combining the aforementioned along with formal experimentation and lush prose. One of the most exciting authors I’ve discovered this decade.

  3. Ormolu March 5th, 2009 12:03 pm

    Your last twitter is my Quote of the Day.

    Or… I should say, the twitter after “@”.

  4. michael March 5th, 2009 1:27 pm

    Calley: e-mail me and we’ll trade booklists.

    Alex: You’re exactly right about Jeff, he’s a genius. I also really identified with the Mary Sabon disaster, and so much else in the book.

    Ormolu: Which tweet?

  5. Ormolu March 5th, 2009 9:40 pm

    You saw it. 😉