David Nickle, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, ISBN 9781926851112, ChiZine Publications, May 2011.
Reviewed by Leah Bobet.
In the spring of 1911, freshly orphaned Jason Thistledown comes down from his mother’s log cabin to find himself the only survivor of a town-killing plague, and is plunged into a different world: a city aunt he never knew, her secretive mission for the newly-formed Eugenics Records Office, and the utopian mill town of Eliada, Idaho, brainchild of a wealthy industrialist, where his aunt has an appointment to keep.
The second doctor hired to man Eliada’s state-of-the-art hospital, Dr. Andrew Waggoner is the only black man in the isolated experimental town. So it’s not surprising when the men in white sheets come to hang him; what’s surprising is the man from the quarantine barn who they hang before him, and how the man from the quarantine barn does not die.
Because there are monsters in the hills above Eliada. And even they might not measure up to the monstrousness men are capable of in pursuit of their perfect utopia.
Horror author Nickle’s first novel sums itself up neatly in its own subtitle. Eutopia is a novel of terrible optimism: a facet-by-facet exploration of how terrible, how damaging, how horrific the eventual consequences of optimism can be. Written in prose just as clear — and dryly flippant, and deathly serious — as that subtitle, Eutopia takes an almost science-fictional tack to the construction of a horror novel: sets up an experiment made of American frontier utopians, eugenicists, social climbers, Klansmen, abortionists, monsters that prey upon men’s ideas of perfection instead of their worst nightmares, one young black doctor, and one teenaged backwoods boy, and collides them all with a dispassionate, subtle hand.
The result is immensely readable: a quick-paced mountain stream of a novel, cool and sharp and intense, and terrifically adept at drawing a reader in. It’s also meticulously constructed. Nickle has a definite thesis in mind, and even what may seem the most wandering branches of thought tie tightly back into a nuanced examination of ideology and blind faith.
Eutopia accomplishes what the best horror fiction strives for: gives us characters we can care about and hope for, and then inflicts on them the kind of realistic, inescapable, logical sufferings that make us close our eyes a little at the unfairness of not the author, but the world — and all the while with something more to say for itself than the world is a very bad place.
Thoughtful, accomplished, and recommended.