Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination by David Nickle
ChiZine Publications (October 2017)
376 pages; $11.75 paperback; $6 e-book
Reviewed by Chris Hallock
No one, not even the author himself, could have predicted the timeliness of David Nickle’s Volk. Yet, here and now, the world is (once again) on a steady march toward unparalleled terror and fascism at the hands of arrogant rulers. Nickle’s follow-up to 2011’s acclaimed Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism is set in an early-to-mid-twentieth century Europe still reeling from World War I, but speaks of our contemporary landscape to a frightening degree.
His novel expands upon the themes explored in Eutopia: fascism, racism, zealotry, and the deceitful promises made by oppressive leaders. Once again, Nickle pits the survivors of the Eliada massacre against the deistic parasite called the “Juke,” a creature that embodies those qualities; seductive despite its revolting form, offering release from suffering.
Nickle transports the reader from the intimate confines of Eutopia‘s insular nightmare and into a backdrop where chief officers of Hitler’s Nazi Party hope the resurrection of a captured Juke will help them achieve genetic world domination. Here we find Nickle doing what he does best: engineering a terrific hybridization of science fiction, historical fantasy, and horror; subverting the works of H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, and Nietzschean philosophy; and paralyzing the reader in the process.
Twenty years after Jason Thistledown escaped the “perfect community” of Eliada with his adopted family of survivors (Ruth Harper, Annie Rowe, and Andrew Waggoner), they still cope with the traumatic fallout of their encounter with the Juke’s powerful evil. They are forced to navigate the labyrinthine underworld of Europe, reuniting to once again stop its hallucinatory threat. Jason, now a mercenary pilot, is hired to fly a mysterious group to Africa. The flight is diverted to the Bavarian mountains where a vast compound houses German eugenicists and their youthful subjects. The research of Eliada’s late Nils Bergstrom continues under his brother Johannes, whose failed operation to foster a race of “perfect” superhuman Übermensch holds terrifying global implications once the Juke takes hold.
Within this ambitious framework, Nickle creates an atmosphere of deep paranoia, with characters unable to trust one another or their own minds for fear of being breached by the vast reach of the Juke’s illusionary poison. Nickle’s penchant for espionage, cultivated masterfully in Rasputin’s Bastards, works exceptionally well here, serving up some delicious plot twists and sinister characters. Nickle also gives the reader a glimpse into the ancient origins of the Juke, as well as its ties to an intriguing new villain calling itself “Orlok.”
Nickle has carved a path for himself as a pre-eminent author of speculative fiction. He covers a vast literary cross-section, but does so free of clutter. While this work is certainly a political treatise against oppressive entities and their dreadful acts, Nickle never loses sight of the dark poetry inherent in the genre, nor does he overlook simply spinning a good yarn. For all the expanded scope and complexity of ideas and story structure, Volk remains accessible. His character Dr. Waggoner’s chilling description of the Juke best exemplifies the horrific simplicity Nickle offers throughout:
It is mouths. All mouths. And always hungry…That, in the end, I think, is all the Juke is—all any of us are. Organic machines for eating, and… and copulating… and eating some more. That is man. That is God.
It’s these passages that remind us of the potency and relevancy of horror fiction to reflect upon the chaos of the world and churning within ourselves.