In 1911, the young survivor of a small-town plague and his Eugenicist aunt make their way to a Utopian community founded by a wealthy industrialist (such things still existed in early twentieth century America). The strong opening puts us at the scene of a lynching in progress. The targets are an Afro-American doctor and an alleged rapist. We learn that the things "that loitered and whistled and kicked at the mud on this dark hillside in northern Idaho... were not ghosts, nor were they devils, nor duppies, nor spectral things of any kind"(13). They're wannabee Klansmen with ropes. Yet the supposed rapist himself doesn't quite seem human, and the doctor sees things that shouldn't exist. Both hint that this won't be strictly mimetic fiction. Something less commonplace and even more dangerous than ignorance and prejudice haunts the settlement. We uncover pieces of the plot in conspiratorial whispers and mysterious doings. The suspense is considerable. Old-time America, the Eugenics movement, and Lovecraftian horror get surgically grafted in David Nickle's first solo novel, with disturbing results.
Of course, a writer takes a chance juxtaposing real-world horror with invented boogeymen. We have in this book both a lynching and a plague. Several characters express and act on the most disturbing of Eugenic principles. All of these things have happened, and some readers may have a hard time reconciling them with the dark-ride mystery at the novel's center. The clash of elements, at times, jarred me, but I'm more impressed with how often Eutopia succeeds.
Conspiracy thrillers, science fiction, and horror all must make their worlds understandable. As a result, such books often get bogged down in explanation and exposition. Nickle's book juggles all three of these genres, and in the second half, he does not entirely overcome this difficulty. Overall, however, he writes effectively, with images often graphic but not gratuitous, and I admire his prose style. He shows with clarity both realistic settings and the more bizarre corners of his fictional world.
The story owes a substantial debt to Lovecraft. The title of the ninth chapter, "The Quarantine Obscenity," acknowledges as much. Nickle's views on eugenics and race differ sharply from those that informed many of Lovecraft's stories, however, and the results, like Nickle's style, are his own. He writes with economy and he invests even minor moments with drama:
The whistling enveloped him, and Jason felt an odd queasiness in his belly. Things moved close to him, nipping at his heels like cattle dogs-- moving him forward. And he found that although it was dark, he could see-- and that the giant that stood in front of him was opening itself up, as though preparing for an embrace.
He realized then that his hand was wet. Warm and wet, where he clutched the scalpel at his chest (101).
I would quote some of the novel's medical details here, but they're really rather disturbing. The horrors in the novel frequently involve period procedures and implements.
I found the characters believable, but not particularly memorable. Our protagonists, Jason and Andrew endure— I suppose people in their positions, with their backgrounds, would. The novel's good rustic folk were too obviously, well, just good rustic folk, but the story does not really allow them to be developed, and I could accept the limitation. Certain other rural dwellers also had limitations placed upon them by the story, and I have no quarrel there, either. They are flat characters who serve specific purposes. But, even granting that our two main human antagonists act under certain influences, they came a little too close to comic-book villainy, especially in their later appearances. Of course, fanatics and ideologues sometimes do.
Nickles has scribed a gripping story with a number of fleshy layers. Blind faith and believer's ecstasy-- whether based in religion or secular social movements-- come under examination. Sometimes, the cure for social ills can be a disease itself. I recommend Eutopia to readers of horror and dark fantasy– though the stronger portions will not suit all tastes, and the ending may leave some readers dissatisfied.
Author: David Nickle
ISBN: 1926851110, 978-1926851112
First published: 2011.
1. While the use of "disrespect" as a verb has a long history, its widespread use as a verb is recent, and it jumped out at me in a novel set one hundred years ago. It felt anachronistic even if, strictly speaking, it is not. A petty point, to be sure.
2. Poul Anderson and Alan Jacobs also have written novellas with the title "Eutopia."