Book Review : Scott Nicolay - Noctuidae (2016)
I was invited on an interview panel for book reviewing last week. My colleague Renee Asher Pickup raised a great point about genre fiction: the more you read it, the less satisfying it gets because you become awfully familiar with the tropes every writer deliberately uses to fit his stories into their desired genre. This is also how great stories emerge from the slush pile: they are great independently of the tropes they use. Scott Nicolay's novella Noctuidae is difficult to classify: it has elements of cosmic horror, existentialism and Greek philosophy. It's probably why it got picked up by King Shot Press, which seems to embrace literature that's impossible to label.
Noctuidae is a quiet and efficient creeper that transcends the very notion of genre and creates a genuine unnerving experience.
So, the book is about three friends going on a hike in Arizona. Sue-Min, her boyfriend Ron and his friend Pete, who got stood up by his date. The locals don't make them feel welcome, though and nearby ranchers even try to deny them access to the land. Sue-Min, Ron and Pete make it through anyway and settle for the night in a shallow cave. The night takes a turn for the worst though as Ron goes missing and Sue-Min finds herself stranded with a massive, horny and potentially violent stranger and an ominous menace right outside the cave.
There definitely is more than meets the eye to Noctuidae. The first "movement" for example is pretty uneventful, but it is filled with symbolism and sideways exposition. Both the locals and the land are trying to keep a secret from dumb hikers. The trope is classic horror, but the writing style is Gothic, with some sneaky naturalism influences. It's tough to wrap your mind around as you read, but the more you progress through Noctuidae, the more you realize how masterfully Scott Nicolay has set you up. It's a story much subtler than it presents itself to be and it probably takes a couple readings to unfold entirely.
It's tough not to be reminded of Plato's allegory of the cave when reading Noctuidae. Sue-Min and Pete build a story from the variables they can see from their natural prison and yet the elements in Scott Nicolay keep reminding the reader that they might not have all the information necessary to make decisions. For example, where the hell is Ron and what the hell happened to him? Is he the one that disappeared or did they? Once again Scott Nicolay does a great job at giving us only fragments of answers to let us figure it out by ourselves.
Much of Noctuidae is about the here and the now and the basics of survival. The complicated confrontation between Sue-Min and Pete is the part most readers are going to remember because most readers aren't obsessive nerds. Each choice she makes while caught between two different monsters will dictate whether or not she'll make it through the night. Philosophy and literature are riding coattails for the entire duration of Noctuidae. I have no yet found if Scott Nicolay subtly gives the answer halfway into the story, but I'm planning to go back and find out soon. That's the genius of novellas. They encourage multiple reads.
I'm focusing on the things I liked because there were many of them and tapped into my obsessive nature, but there were parts of Noctuidae I thought were not as successful. For example, whenever Scott Nicolay alluded to a malevolent supernatural force, it was pretty blunt. I mean, as a reader I immediately understood there was something extremely dangerous about the place and it created a disconnect with the characters. Reading is weirdly judgmental sometimes, but I can't completely empathize with characters I think are taking stupid decisions, you know? Nicolay keeps a subtle tone through Noctuidae, so I thought these elements stuck out like a sore thumb.
Noctuidae is a bit of an acquired taste. Scott Nicolay is never aggressively selling you his vision. It's more of a complex and fragmented painting he slowly reveals. The further he pulls the veil, the more the parts connect together and your understanding of the events is getting gradually more layered. I guess Noctuidae could be classified as cosmic horror if you're absolutely looking for a label, but it's as much horror as Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is noir. Noctuidae is rich, engaging and not simple to categorize, and it's what makes its appeal.