Book Review: Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by David Nickle

9802336Title: Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism
Author: David Nickle
Genre: Literature, Horror, Suspense, Adult, Historical Fiction
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Publication Date: May 3rd 2011
Rating: 4 stars
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Review copy provided by the publisher through Netgalley.

The year is 1911. In Cold Spring Harbour, New York, the newly formed Eugenics Records Office is sending its agents to catalogue the infirm, the insane, and the criminal – with an eye to a cull, for the betterment of all.
Near Cracked Wheel, Montana, a terrible illness leaves Jason Thistledown an orphan, stranded in his dead mother’s cabin until the spring thaw shows him the true meaning of devastation – and the barest thread of hope.
At the edge of the utopian mill town of Eliada, Idaho, Doctor Andrew Waggoner faces a Klansman’s noose and glimpses wonder in the twisting face of the patient known only as Mister Juke. And deep in a mountain lake overlooking that town, something stirs, and thinks, in its way: Things are looking up.
Eutopia follows Jason and Andrew as together and alone, they delve into the secrets of Eliada – industrialist Garrison Harper’s attempt to incubate a perfect community on the edge of the dark woods and mountains of northern Idaho. What they find reveals the true, terrible cost of perfection – the cruelty of the surgeon’s knife – the folly of the cull – and a monstrous pact with beings that use perfection as a weapon, and faith as a trap.

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism is horror in its purest form. It takes us to the darkest corners of the human mind, to our never-ending thrive for perfection, our feeble search for heaven on earth, and the many traps we encounter by doing so. It explores the parts of our mind that are searching for our own Utopia, and exposes this as our true weakness. With an accurate and beautifully displayed historical setting (early 20th century America) and interesting main characters, David Nickle offers a novel that turns the horror genre upside down, not only featuring evil supernatural creatures, but also madness and insanity, gruesome murders and perhaps the most frightening thing of all: how humanity manages to hide all of that behind the justification of an Utopian world.

Eutopia focuses on two protagonists. The first is Doctor Andrew Waggoner, who we first meet when he’s nearly killed by the local members of the Ku-Kux Klan in the small community of Eliada. Although he manages to escape thanks to some well-aimed gunshots by Sam Green, he does witness the hanging of a man named Mr. Jukes, who is accused by the Ku-Kux Klan members for raping a girl who died a couple of days prior due to some complications with a self-inflicted abortion. Or so, Andrew thought at first. By the actions of the Klansmembers and the miraculous survival of the man referred to as Mr. Jukes however, he is not so certain of that anymore. While he must fight his own personal wars with Dr. Bergstrom, the senior medical staff member who seems to dislike black people like Andrew, and who has an own set of morals that both scare and digust Andrew, the latter must also try to figure out what exactly is going on in Eliada.

In the small town of Cracked Wheel, Montana, young Jason Thistledown is forced to witness the death of his mother, his last living relative, or so he presumed. He stays in the mountains, and close to his mother’s grave, until one day a strange woman arrives at his home and tells him she’s his aunt Germaine. Although Jason hasn’t heard of any aunt before, he is willing to accept this explanation as she offers to take care of him, and take him out of this place. Furthermore, she lets him know that not only did his mother die due to this mysterious illness, but so did the entire town. Every single person in Cracked Wheel is dead. It’s a terrible revelation for Jason, and one he can barely grasp as he leaves with his aunt to go to this mysterious little town called Eliada.

While arriving there, and getting a less than proper treatment by Dr. Bergstrom, ending up in Jason spending a night at the quarantaine quarters of the hospital, the young man immediately knows something is going on around here. Something evil. What he sees in that quarantaine room might just change his life forever. While struggling with who to trust and who not to trust, and trying to fight the evil thing that is slowly taking hold of Eliada, Jason might learn a lot of things he never wished to learn to begin with.

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism starts out promising enough. Both Dr. Andrew Waggoner and Jason Thistledown are very interesting character. Whereas the doctor is a man struggling with his position of being both a doctor and a black person, and not being accepted in the community he wanted desperately to be a part of, Jason is the opposite. He couldn’t care less about what other people think about him, he’s honest and straight-forward, and not afraid to look danger in the eye. He’s independent, perfectly capable of relying only on himself to get things done, and a very rational person. That’s what makes it so interesting to see this strong, intelligent man’s reaction towards the irrational, the impossible, the unimaginable. I instantly felt a connection with both main characters, and I liked them from page one, especially Jason. I felt sorry for him for losing his mother, which made me feel instant sympathy towards him.

The setting is probably one of the best things about this novel. Eutopia takes place in the small town of Eliada, Idaho in the year 1911, a good thirty years before World War II and before the world finally learned that things like eugenetica and the breeding of the perfect race of people, was a horrible utopy that could only lead to madness, pain and devastation. What is going on in this small community, is basically a crazy doctor working on his own race of super-people. If a person is simple-minded, they should be sterilized so they cannot procreate and give birth to other simple-minded children. If someone is black, like Dr. Waggoner, they should be killed. That’s the view of Dr. Bergstrom on things, and I must say that he is by far the most interesting character. Not because I support his views – of course I don’t – but because he actually has these opinions and is crazy enough to act upon them. In Dr. Bergstrom we see the true idealist at work, the true eugenetist, practically one of Hitler’s camp doctors long before Hitler or those camps even existed. And what the insane doctor hides in that quarantaine room, is probably the most horrible thing of all. But I cannot help it that I hardly feel Mr. Juke is as scary as Dr. Bergstrom is. The first one is an imaginary being that sprung from the mind of the author, and lives like a parasite, feeding on humans and impregnating human women. The latter is an actual human being with a messed-up mind and the ability to act as his mind is telling him to. He can get away with those actions, which is more fearsome than an imaginary creature, in my opinion.

I have to say that I didn’t like the general idea of the Jukes. First of all, I thought Eutopia could have been scary enough with the mixture of eugenetica and utopia, rather than adding any supernatural creatures to it. The Jukes children feeding on the human woman after they gave birth to them, or even when in the womb, didn’t frighten me in the least. So it might have been disgusting, but the really scary part was when those Jukes got into the human’s minds, and whispered things to them. Now that’s scary, because it could be real. It could be real hearing voices in your mind telling you what to do, telling you what to believe. I always think that the true horror is in what could truly happen: in madness, insanity, in humanity’s ideas of evolution, utopia and procreation, rather than in made-up creatures, no matter how horrendous they are, and no matter how evil and vile their intentions.

I must say that I found the title very stricking. Eugenetica is basically the science of striving to create the perfect human being. Utopia on the other hand, is striving to create the perfect community, state or country. In both of these things lies our own thrive for perfection, or own desire to reach it. Mixing those two together indeed provides you with a terrible optimism from our side, and a terrible sense for perfection that can only go wrong.

Eutopia was beautifully written, and David Nickle’s writing voice is definately something I could get used to. Although he doesn’t linger on details, he does manage to create a beautiful, vividly painted environment and an accurate historical setting. He also strikes me as a very brave author, for daring to go where no one dares to go anymore. With the horrible things that happened during World War Two, and Hitler’s own battle for his own Utopia and his dream to create the perfect people, hardly anyone dares to go back to the time before we learned how terrible this optimism can be, and to the time that everyone was still seeing the benefit of it.

There were two things I didn’t like about this novel. The first one is that at times, the plot dragged. I literally skipped pages here and there only to get the book moving a bit. There’s a lot of explaining going on, a lot of talking, and not always that much action. Secondly, I found the storyline containing the Jukes to be quite boring. Why bring religious faith and some old God returning into this? If this is for the purpose of creating the feeling of a general psychosis in the community of Eliada, then I can see its purpose, but somehow I doubt that. If it’s for the horror element, then take it from me that ancient gods, no matter how many women they impregnate and murder by doing so, aren’t exactly what I would call scary. I find ordinary doctors gone crazy, or people working for Eugenetics Offices a whole lot scarier, to be honest. I would have preferred it if David Nickle had stayed with the original plotline, and worked out the insanity and madness of some of the characters more, than focusing on make-believe monsters. It could be that I’m entirely missing the point of the Jukes here, but then again that’s probably because I only skimmed through the pages that involved them.

And a third point, I immediately knew about aunt Germaine. That’s a big no-brainer, since it was quite obvious. That said, she’s the second interesting character next to Dr. Bergstrom, and I would have liked to learn more about her personality, and about why she did the things she did.

The writing style is bold, straight-forward and highly addictive. The storyline is well-thought-through, innovating, refreshing and at its core, deeply terrifying. Although I wasn’t actually scared while reading this novel, it did make me think about perfection, and the high cost of it, and how ignorant and stupid we all are at times. I loved all the characters, even the villains (well, not really “loving” them, but I thought that David Nickle did a marvellous job at portraying them), but I have my doubts about the addition of supernatural creatures to a novel I believe is scary enough without any supernatural occurences. Sometimes the plot felt boring and a bit dragging, but once you get through that, you’ll notice that at its core, Eutopia really is an intriguing novel, that will take you to the darkest corners of the human mind, and beyond. What we all wouldn’t do for perfection…


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