From the author of Borne and Annihilation comes the one-volume hardcover reissue of his cult classic Ambergris Trilogy.
Before Area X, there was Ambergris. Jeff VanderMeer conceived what would become his first cult classic series of speculative works: the Ambergris Trilogy. Now, for the first time ever, the story of the sprawling metropolis of Ambergris is collected into a single volume, including City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch.
Shriek: The Movie, The Untold Story
Attending the Annihilation movie premiere and walking down the red carpet and having one guy shout out “Love your work, man!” while everyone else stared behind us toward the next movie star was surprisingly similar to my first experience with movies and my work. One I funded myself: A short film based on Shriek: An Afterword, the second novel in the hardcover Ambergris omnibus out this month from MCD/FSG.
Even more similar: standing in front of a green screen after the red carpet while Annihilation “shimmer” drenched us for a brief funny video. It was startlingly similar, that shimmer, to the strange clouds in the Shriek movie meant to depict “the Shift,” an odd meteorological occurrence in my fantasy city meant to speak to climate crisis. (Less, odd, I suppose, that this manifested again in my forthcoming eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander as a “green-gray sky”.)
There, though, the similarities between Annihilation and Shriek the movie end. Rather severely.
I guess I realized things might not be going as well as planned when I got an email while in Berlin about to debut the Shriek movie from the organizer of a Shriek movie event in Portland, Oregon. He was excited to tell me that there would be squid available. Live squid? I asked, with some consternation. No, dead squid. Now, it’s true a Festival of the Freshwater Squid figures prominently in the Ambergris books, but I hadn’t expected the olfactory immediateness of that to be used as an audience draw… At that moment, in the middle of a six-week European book tour, I began to think about the life choices and single-minded focus that had led to the film’s creation. A film I’d only seen a trailer for until a few days before the Berlin event. A film that, despite many efforts that had been anti-cloud…was still narration over a lot of video of strange green-tinted clouds. Which, for most viewers, would not signify “the Shift” from the novel, since most folks had not yet read the novel. Nor was there context sufficient to overcome this deficiency.
Berlin loved the film. Or, at least, they were polite enough to say they did. Especially one guy dressed all in black who, I’m sad to say, read like a cliché of a German nihilist. But as we walked out of the venue into the night for some beers, I wondered if it had ever been a good idea to try to compress into a short film…a 130,000-word non-linear family history set in a fantastical city named after the weirdest part of a whale. Well, at least there would be beer soon.
Of course, maybe I also shouldn’t have scheduled a book tour across six countries in Europe at the same time I had a novel coming out in the US. That now seemed like an error that had led to a lot of other errors. For example, this occurred to me while otherwise preoccupied crawling across ten rows of lashed-together houseboats on the Danube in Romania because the Romania navy had forced our hydrofoil off the river after a book event. And especially as we arrived in Finland for another Shriek film debut, one I dreaded as I was unsure the Finns would be as kind as the Germans…
In theory, the idea had been a good one: Use some of the advance money for Shriek: An Afterword to approach one of my favorite bands The Church, to do a soundtrack for the novel and also contribute voice-overs to a short film being done by an acquaintance who I thought had a lot of short-film-making experience.
Then the film could be shown at various venues across the U.S. to generate interest in the novel, even though I would have fled to Europe by that point. And, indeed, by the publication date over 20 of these viewing parties had been set up by friends and fans, including in small theaters. We had Shriek beer coasters. We had our bookmarks. Copies of the books for sale. Smashing Todd’s beer, mentioned in the novel, with a wonderful beer label by my frequent collaborator Eric Schaller.
With the Shriek movie as a centerpiece. A voice-over by Janice Shriek, the narrator of the novel, careened into the voices of members of The Church playing the characters of people in the pub Janice is typing her account from. Speculating on what she’s up to.
It had seemed like an interesting intro into a short film when I’d thought of it, but in practice it added another level of surrealism to the already broken-up, surreal images. The grainy footage. The Ambergris knife made by a fan who created knives for a living. Held by a local Tallahassee actor who wound up getting cut except for a still image and about a second of moving footage. We’d even had a funny/disturbing casting call for dead bodies that consisted of fans sending in photos of themselves looking pretty deceased.
The wonderful writer Elizabeth Hand had recorded something for the movie, as I recall, but it had to be left out, leaving only an image of Hand in the scene where Janice Shriek looks in a mirror. But, mostly, it was clouds in the rough cut. Lots and lots of images of clouds.
Which, when my wife Ann and I saw it…was alarming.
“Did you expect there would be so many clouds? In this film set in a huge metropolis?” I asked her.
“No, but they’re nice clouds,” Ann said, because Ann always tries to see the positive side of things.
Her punishment for which was helping out by shooting additional footage in and around Tallahassee so that the filmmaker could swap out some of the clouds. At this point, with movie viewings booked, we were committed no matter what. So the film no matter what needed to be pushed a little closer to an approximation of something watchable.
Ann and our daughter Erin, along with Erin’s boyfriend, took the camcorder and drove to a cul de sac with an abandoned warehouse at the end. Erin was pregnant with our grandson Riley, so technically Riley should’ve gotten his first film credit, too.
They planned to film a scene from the book where the edible fungal bullets supplied by the notorious underground mushroom people are being picked out of a corpse and eaten by folks who are trying to exist in the rubble of a bloody civil war.
“We had just set up the shot, with Erin pretending to pull bullets out of her dead boyfriend, when a cop car pulled up,” Ann recalls. “At first, I didn’t understand why the cop was so concerned, but then I realized it looked like one of us was looting a dead body and the other person, me, was filming it.”
Worse, Ann had forgotten her ID.
“Officer, we’re just filming a scene for a short film by a local author in which one character eats bullets out of another character’s body. Sorry—I don’t have my driver’s license.”
Somehow, she got away with just a warning that she needed permission from the city to shoot footage.
Later, she was shouted at by a Publix employee for shooting footage of a Publix grocery store rooftop for the rooftop scene in the movie (and novel) where mushroom people break into Janice Shriek’s apartment during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid.
Clearly, I have a lot to answer for, even though the fact we’re still married must prove something…
The soundtrack by The Church was pretty amazing. There are tracks from the album that still give me the chills today. I was also stunned by their generosity in contributing to the voice-overs in the film. Equally stunned by the fact that they played film on the screen at Madison Square Garden for their gig there and had songs from the soundtrack on their play list. (Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Shriek movie experience was meeting The Church on Bondi Beach for what was supposed to be one hour to convince them to do the soundtrack and winding up spending the whole evening talking and drinking with them.)
Especially because by then I knew the novel had tanked, badly. It was a sad, fast tank, cruelly undercut by false hope when the publisher told me they’d had to go to a second printing. Apparently on bad intel—at least that’s what the 700 copies I bought when it was remaindered cry out to me from closets and under the bed. It’s not so much a shriek as a continual whimpering. (Why did I buy 700 copies? When you’re all-in you’re all-in, and I was delusional enough to be convinced some miracle would occur and those 700 copies would one day be like gold bars buried in the backyard.) The thing about a novel tanking when you’ve planned public events across the whole country is that any of those events not on the pub day begin to take on a surreal “What is this?” quality. Especially when the title of your novel is close to “Shrek,” so that many folks who saw the film advertised on marquees may have made the quite logical assumption it was a certain famous animated feature. Certainly, some of the advertisements misspelled Shriek as Shrek, which did not help matters.
The most hilarious thing is that since the book tanked–bad–no one really understand what these cultural items meant, some of which were quite spectacular. They just existed out in the world with mysterious intent, divorced from visible anchor.
So I crawled from the wreckage of what had been a really ambitious multi-media project, spanning the whole US, thinking my career was over. For about six months I was very depressed… until I realized no one knew the book had tanked. Not readers, at least, and that the disconnect between my vision in my head for the film and its actual execution wasn’t as wide and deep for some as for me. All of which taught me something valuable: if you don’t admit publicly to failure, sometimes no one realizes.
But what happens, too, is, long after the short film was forgotten by everyone, long after Shriek had been remaindered in hardcover, I continued to get some of the most personal and passionate feedback about the novel, from readers all over the world. Several readers got married using wedding vows that included quotes from the novel. Others created art or music around it. In the end, the novel even inched toward earning out the author advance.
In the end, those Shriek movie parties created an even more intense bond between me and my most devoted readers, too. I’m sure many of them had their doubts about the film, but they’d gone ahead with the events in earnest appreciation and I loved them for it. When the book tour for the next Ambergris novel, Finch, came around, they were there for me and some even starred in the “I Blame VanderMeer” promo video (not film) we shot. Finch, thankfully, sold much better and made it possible for my next novel, Annihilation, to find a publisher.
As for the movie, all that remains is the trailer. The film itself resided on a site that expired, with no one remembering to pay the rent. I suppose I might still have a copy on a CD ROM somewhere, if I were inclined to step into the past and take a peek. But somehow the trailer is enough for me. It makes me think of what might have been and what actually was.
And now, of course, MCD/FSG has released Shriek, the novel, as part of a beautiful hardcover omnibus of the Ambergris novels. Something that, surrounded by boxes remaindered Shrieks back in the day, I never ever thought might be a possibility.