On The Southern Reach trilogy, by Fiona Stewart

‘The Lighthouse and the Architectural Uncanny in Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy (2014)’


The Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) is a futuristic science-fiction series, in which the protagonist, the biologist, embarks on a scientific study of Area X: an area of ‘pristine wilderness’ where human life has transformed and/or disappeared. Jeff VanderMeer’s portrayal of a transformed world serves to advance the environmental debate by presenting what might transpire if humans continue to abuse the planet with pollution from industrialisation: digital technologies, warfare and terrorism.

VanderMeer evokes a sense of the ‘uncanny’ in his depiction of an architectural structure, the lighthouse, that marks an interface between nature and technology, and between land and sea. Freud defines the “uncanny” as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (1919: 825). An ‘uncanny’ feeling arises when something that is familiar and comforting because of its familiarity becomes unfamiliar; and a frightened and ostracized feeling occurs. He uses the German word “Heimlich” to identify its multiple meanings: on the one hand it means, ‘belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc’ (1919: 826), and on the other, ‘concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others’ (1919:827). In light of these ambiguous meanings, Freud introduced the word “Unheimlich” in an attempt to clarify an aphorism that Schelling initially used in his Pholosophie der Mythologie (1835): “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light” (Vidler,1996: 26).

According to Vidler (1996: x), architecture is well suited to demonstrate the way in which the two meanings ‘heimlich’ (homely) and ‘unheimlich’ (unhomely) can slip in meaning from one to the other. The sense of the familiar and homely can soon change to unfamiliar and unhomely. For Freud the uncanny is grounded in a domestic ‘heimlich’ space, which reveals problems of identity concerning self and other in relation to surrounding spaces, whether a dwelling, landscape or city. Vidler points out, however, that the “uncanny” is not a property of the space itself: it has an aesthetic dimension which is ‘a representation of a mental state of projection’ that omits the boundaries of the real and unreal to arouse a ‘disturbing ambiguity’ and the potential for a slip between a state of ‘waking and dreaming’ (1996:11). Vidler argues that buildings and spaces act as representations of estrangement, and are full of uncanny qualities; for example, darkness that causes disorientation; silence; relics from the past and things that are hidden. It is the role of the author to identify architectural space as a cause of the fear of estrangement (1996:12). I will draw on these points to examine how VanderMeer provokes a sense of ‘the uncanny’ in the architectural structure of the lighthouse, and why it is pertinent to the environmental debate.

VanderMeer draws on the trope of the isolated lighthouse on the lonely coastline in full knowledge that this is a familiar narrative, found ‘in old horror movies […] stories of odd salvagers, and false beacons, and the hundred legends that accrete around a lonely coastline and remote lighthouse’ (2014b:155). His narrative diverges from former storylines by evoking the uncanny which in part draws on haunting but also conveys transformation and potential supernatural powers. The lighthouse is invested with characteristics of the uncanny, namely: strangeness, darkness, silence, and emptiness. It contains a secret chamber, a photograph of past lives, and a sense of haunting. VanderMeer’s portrayal of haunting raises a chilling awareness of the aftermath and consequences of war which obliterates both human life and nature. Freud recognised that the uncanny was an aesthetic category that lay within the traditional sublime, but he set out to identify “what this particular quality is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things within the boundary of what is ‘fearful’” (Vidler, 1996:21). He held the view that the uncanny evokes a sense of lurking unease, rather than any clearly defined source of fear. VanderMeer creates this feeling of unease in his depiction of the interior of the lighthouse as a labyrinthine space where something might lurk. The darkness of the interior has the effect of making the biologist cautious, and the trope of haunting is pervasive: ‘No one stood on those steps to watch me, but I had the impression someone could have been there a moment before’ (2014a:100). The biologist contrasts the gloom of the ‘graying interior walls’ (2014a:101) to the phosphorescence of the Tower, which suggests the Tower has a power of its own set against the dereliction of the lighthouse. Vidler states that hauntings are emblematic of the uncanny as the cultural signs of estrangement in both Victorian gothic novels and contemporary literature (1996:12). In postmodernism, authors draw on theories of the uncanny to explore the individual’s relationship with his or her environment, and the reasons behind feelings of alienation, loneliness and fear. VanderMeer creates a feeling of estrangement for the biologist: a pervasive silence evokes a deathly atmosphere, and she explains that ‘the sense of devastation, of loneliness, grew and grew’ (2014a:100). The effect is one of disturbing unfamiliarity around the familiar.

An uncanny sense of strangeness is evoked when the familiar slips to the unfamiliar. As the biologist approaches the lighthouse, her expectation of the familiar slips because the lighthouse is transformed into a ruin of a fortress. The aspect of the lighthouse is strange: it has a circular wall to protect it from attack with crenellations for rifles, and its locus is changed from a beacon to protect the coastline to one of fortification as an instrument of war. The lighthouse pretends to offer security as ‘an illusion of a safe refuge’ (2014a:116) while opening itself to the intrusion of terror. It is scarred with the marks of the horror of war – ‘bloodstains, mostly thick smudges…Sometimes dribbles of blood’ (2014a:102). The former inhabitants, living in terror, have left their marks which ‘stank of bravado to drown out fear’ (2014a:101). This account does not portray the glory of war but instead evokes the horror of massacre, fear, and desperation, as well as the courage to defy a ‘foreign’ force that came from the sea.

The lighthouse stands as a symbol of strength and represents an industrial age when countries traded by land and sea, exporting and importing food, materials and technology. It retains an ‘authoritarian’ presence as master of the landscape with the uncanny quality of a beacon with ‘large panoramic windows’ to gaze onto land, coast, sea and sky (2014a:98). This is matched by the power of the lighthouse keeper’s gaze in a photograph on the wall: he has ‘sharp eagle eyes’ (2014a:103) which gaze out to the sea. VanderMeer gives animate qualities to both the lighthouse as a structure and the photo as a relic of its keeper. The lighthouse is depicted as being ‘bright and sharp’ in the photo which suggests a special power: it is considered by the biologist as ‘a kind of reliquary’ (2014a:138) which suggests it is associated with holy relics.

VanderMeer explores another aspect of the uncanny by reference to the religious symbol of the crucifix (2014a:102). Nietzsche also used the term ‘uncanny’ in The Will to Power to describe the paradox of ‘European Nihilism’: he states ‘Nihilism is the uncanniest of all guests’ (1887, Book One: p.2). He posits that Christianity is a remedy against nihilism and meaninglessness; however, in the movement towards truth in Christian practice, he finds that it is a construct and not the truth, and suggests that this will lead to its dissolution. In this sense, such a response to Christianity is ‘uncanny’ because it once was something established and familiar, but with this new meaning, it is destabilized, in danger, and possibly dangerous to its subjects. The removal of the crucifix from the wall in the novel suggests that the invaders or visitors had no regard for the sign of the Cross, suggesting they came from an age of nihilism. Later in the novel, however, at the anthropologist’s grave, a wooden cross is constructed which gives evidence that Christianity is worshipped in the world outside Area X (2014a:153).

Finally, VanderMeer creates a parallel between the political focus of Central and that of the United States’ Government: Central ‘spends most of its time crushing domestic terrorism and suppressing evidence of impending ecological destruction’ (2014b:390). Warnings of environmental disaster are given less priority than terrorism, when in reality, the force of nature can also annihilate human life as witnessed by flooding or the force of an avalanche. Science fiction is one tool of activism to draw readers’ attention to the fact that our planet is being destroyed by human greed, and that people in power are choosing not to listen to scientific evidence which underlines the fact that our planet is reacting to pollution.



Freud, S. (1919) ‘The “Uncanny”’ In: Leitch V. B., ed. (2010) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edn. London, Norton, pp. 824 – 841

Nietzsche, F. (1887) The Will to Power [Internet] Available at: http://hinduonline.co/DigitalLibrary/SmallBooks/TheWilltoPowerEng.pdf [Accessed 10 July 2016]

VanderMeer, J. (2014a) Annihilation, FOURTH ESTATE, London

VanderMeer, J. (2014b) The Southern Reach Trilogy Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

Vidler, A. (1996) The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. The MIT Press


fyona stewart

Fiona Steward is Welsh, and she graduated from Swansea University with a BA degree in History. After graduating, she moved to London where she worked in Local Government. After ten years, she moved to York to start a new career with a national agency. She enjoys the study of history and literature, and she holds an MA from York St John University in Contemporary Literature.