Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and the Mystery Box

We’ve all felt it before, the anticipation as we watch numerous characters in a movie fall victim to an offscreen monster. Wondering what exactly this monster looks like and how horrible it will be. It’s a play on our fear of the unknown, which most of you already know because you are excellent writers. Which, before we go on, you should go check our latest issue instead of reading this garbage.

The ability to create tension with the unknown, when done correctly is a wonderful tool that leaves the audience somewhat satisfied. I say somewhat because we’re not naturally happy with living with the unknowable. We build giant metal rockets and hurl them into the darkness of space in search of answers, or we build giant metal submarines to dive deep into the ocean to find out what exactly lurks in the murky depths. Hint: ITS CTHULU, DON’T WAKE HIM UP.

The magic of mystery is just that; it is a mystery. When you talk to most about a movie where the monster is revealed in the last scenes, their excitement drops a little and sometimes you’ll hear them say that they were a little disappointed. Usually this happens when they discuss the monster in The Thing or IT. There’s just something about the storyteller playing with our imaginations that makes it better than any reality ever could.

J. Abrams has been a believer in this forever. I must talk about him for a moment because I should introduce the concept of a mystery box. He has this idea that if you create a mystery box within a story, it will drive the audience to follow along in hopes to find an answer. He then goes on to explain that once the mystery box is opened, then the magic is destroyed. So, what we’re supposed to do as writers, is preserve the mystery box if possible. And this, folks, this must be one of the hardest thing that anyone has ever tried to do.

I’ve already talked about Stephen King’s The Mist and this is what he does in that story. But I have never come across someone that was able to keep the mystery box intact throughout the entirety of the story. And I don’t mean there are answers and reveals at the end. Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation does something completely unexpected with this idea and it works.

Just to give a brief overview of how he starts it out I’ll summarize the opening. If you don’t want it ruined (which it clearly won’t ruin anything) please just wander off somewhere else. The story has four characters including the main character. The entire thing is told in first person and there are no names, only titles that define their jobs. On top of that, the location takes place in Area X which is surrounded by an unknown boundary that is talked about never mentioned.

Everything that is delivered to the audience is wrapped in a thousand questions that Vandermeer doesn’t ever promise to answer. And though the characters discover things, it only brings up more questions and the mystery box becomes stronger. There were times when my imagination ran rampant during a scene where there was something that the main character had to deal with.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that the answers were never fully given. They were delivered just enough for me to fill in the rest with my imagination. There’s even a scene that reminds me of a twisted version of Dante’s Paradiso, which makes me always happy.

But if you’re struggling to keep that tension with a mystery box; Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a perfect lesson on what to do. From beginning to end.