Rape, lynching, botched abortion, murder. That’s chapter one of David Nickle’s sprawling cosmic historical horror novel Eutopia. This is not a book you read to cheer yourself up. However it is, refreshingly, a book you can read in public without making children cry.
(A lengthy, but necessary, aside: While reading Nickle’s previous book — the incredible short story collection Monstrous Affections — on the subway, I was asked by the mother of a whimpering toddler if I would mind putting my book away as the cover art was scaring her child. Another reader reported having been approached by security while reading Monstrous Affections at an airport. “Sir,” the guard said. “I’m going to have to ask you to put away your book. It’s bothering the other travellers.” The reader looked around and asked who specifically was being bothered, thinking that perhaps he could apologize, choose a different seat out of line of sight of the squeamish individual, and continue reading. “Sir,” the guard said. “It’s everyone.” In fact, I’ve actually placed a large sticker on the front cover of my copy, obscuring Erik Mohr’s distressingly effective art, because more than once I’d looked at my bookshelf, considered pulling down Monstrous Affections to bathe in its depravity, and then decided against it because to do so would mean confronting that face.)
Eutopia, which has been nominated for a Prix Aurora, is Nickle’s first novel. It does stretch at the seams somewhat; he is not yet as adept at this form as he is at the short story. But that is hardly a harsh criticism since, quite honestly, David Nickle is one of the most talented Canadian authors working in short fiction today. I suppose I could have included the word “genre” in that last sentence somewhere, but it’s really superfluous.
With Eutopia, Nickle takes us back a hundred years to 1911 and drops us in the middle of a plague, an eldritch awakening and a race riot. Tangled up in each of these is the Eugenics Records Office, an institution which readers less familiar with early-twentieth-century American history would be forgiven for finding so comic-book-evil as to break suspension of disbelief. The Eugenics Records Office’s day-to-day business consists of the forced sterilization of the less desirable but, in the company town of Eliada, Idaho, they’ve gotten involved in darker business yet. Germaine Frost and Dr. Nils Bergstom, the two Office agents in Eliada, are up to their elbows midwifing something entirely new. Their scion, the enigmatic Mister Juke, rescued as an infant by Bergstrom, may just turn out to be humanity’s next evolutionary leap forward. If he is human at all.
It is left to Jason Thistledown (Frost’s orphaned nephew, the son of a gunslinger, and no small genetic anomaly himself) and Dr. Andrew Waggoner (Bergstrom’s colleague and the only black man in Eliada) to probe beneath the surface and unravel the real story of Mister Juke, Eliada and the strange singing from the woods. And it is a twisted tale.
Waggoner, despite his Paris education, his undeniable charm and his skill as a surgeon, is having a rough time in Eliada. The Ku Klux Klan, though dormant in most of America at the time, is alive and well in the secluded Idaho town. I’m only going to use the word “nigger” once in this review. If seeing that word spelled out by a white dude like myself distresses you then you may have trouble reading Eutopia, in which Nickle, another white dude, uses it extremely liberally, though almost exclusively in dialogue that is true to the novel’s period setting. Nickle does such an effective job of evoking the casual racism and mob-sanctioned violence of the time that one may wonder if the story even needs its literal monsters.
Thistledown’s problems at first seem less pressing. Though he has recently lost his mother (and long ago his father), he seems to have found a relatively secure sanctuary under the wing of Aunt Germaine. Aside from grief, Thistledown is troubled mostly by issues of propriety and teenage romance. Upon arriving in Eliada, however, he finds himself promptly drugged, quarantined and strapped prone to a table while some sharp-toothed, infant-sized, humanoid thing climbs up his leg intent on devouring his genitals. It’s that kind of book.
Eutopia is existential horror directly descended from H.P. Lovecraft by way of Stephen King. It’s no accident that Nickle takes us back to 1911 for this story, or that race and miscegenation are such prominent themes. It’s unclear at times whether Eutopia’s relationship to Lovecraft is more tribute or send-up but, frankly, I have no problem saying that, either way, Nickle does Lovecraftian horror better than Lovecraft ever did. The world of Eutopia is harsh, fecund, virulent and uncaring. At a certain point in reading this book you find yourself wondering why and from where. For what purpose these atrocities? With what cause? And yet, by the time the curtain is pulled back, you know full well that you will gaze not on an absurd and vulnerable man but rather the abyss itself. The answer is that there are no answers.
Eutopia is an intensely satisfying book, provided you have the stomach for exquisite horror, but it’s not without its faults. For one, Thistledown and Waggoner are too perfect to be relatable. They are strong and multidimensional characters, but Nickle seems reluctant to let them be merely human — as though he fears the world he has created might eat a flawed man whole. It’s the supporting cast that really shines in this book. Fortunately, Nickle does such an expert job of bringing the doomed inhabitants of Eliada to life that it becomes easy to forgive the (surely intentional) avatar-like nature of the protagonists.
It must also be said that, given three hundred pages to evoke a monster, Nickle loses some of the nightmare-pure refinement he brings to his short fiction. There is a certain similarity between Eutopia’s Mister Juke and the Sloan Men of Monstrous Affections, but we look on Mister Juke too long and the spell starts to fade in a way that it never did with the Sloan Men. To complain about this, however, is to some degree akin to complaining that novels are not short stories. Eutopia is a fantastic read, a frighteningly good first novel, and a solid and worthy contender for the Prix Aurora.
Voting for the Prix Aurora is underway from now until July 23. David Nickle's next novel, Rasputin's Bastards, is being released by ChiZine Publications on June 15th.