There’s horror—and then there’s horror. There’s gore and shock and dread and cosmic nothingness, all kinds of thrills and chills, all of them bounded between the beginning and end of a narrative and the physical covers of the book. And then there’s The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, which spills over its scant pages in all directions to remind us that the world is just as terrible on the outside of a book as on the inside.
Octavia Cade hasn’t written a horror novella in the traditional sense. But it’s horrifying all the same, a visceral and pitiless look not at anger or fear but at sadness. Collective and individual, rational and irrational, sadness is the thing here that terrifies. It waits, it stalks, and it cannot be turned aside by any incantation or weapon. It’s inevitable and it doesn’t care. I’d say The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is cosmic horror, but it doesn’t touch the sublime. It doesn’t need to. It’s content to destroy us with mundane facts.
The facts aren’t even complicated ones. We already know that humans are destroying the world, and that climate change is destroying new marvels of nature every day. The Great Barrier Reef is a particular focus of the novella, since it sends Marjorie spiraling into a new kind of obsessive depression that the book dubs “the Grief.” Fixated on the demise of a particular ecosystem or species, people give up on living their own lives and waste away. Many people have succumbed to the Grief, which is a tragically rational psychological condition. But Ruby, our narrator, is particularly concerned about her friend and fellow researcher Marjorie, who is in the final, fatal spiral of the Grief.
Admirably, Ruby resists the urge to look away in order to spare herself. She visits Marjorie—now collecting plastic bags and living in an abandoned pool, calling herself the Sea Witch—and tries to ease some of her symptoms. Ruby’s motives are largely altruistic, but there is an element of self-interest: can Marjorie tell her anything about her own susceptibility? Can she learn any kind of defense, gain any sort of psychological immunity?
Ruby, though, is already inoculated by her dauntless personality and her own particular obsession with jellyfish. Her love is a fortunate accident much like any adaptation, allowing her to thrive where others are failing. By fixating on a very successful, adaptable species, she too is surviving.
The softness of the jellyfish imagery and Ruby’s own persistent kindness is an ironic inversion of the hard truth at stake here, one that is less about human cruelty and more about the inherent cruelty of nature. Human cruelty involves consciousness and has some measure of moral weight. Nature’s cruelty—what we understand as cruelty—is only amoral, as in without moral. A hawk has a weak offspring and a strong one, and it feeds the strong one. We humans can valorize survival or lament death, but the hawk does not evaluate its actions (at least not in any way we understand). It only acts. Jellyfish (certain species anyway) do even less: they float. Their existence is their endurance.
The proliferation of jellyfish in the over-warm ocean speaks to their adaptability as well as to Ruby’s. She is adapting to this new world. She mourns, she fights—but ultimately, she adapts. She doesn’t succumb to the Grief, and she doesn’t torture herself trying to save what is already lost. She’s not just observing the survival of the fittest, she’s participating in it.
It’s an equally ironic twist that the Grief victims she encounters refuse to adapt. They are bringing back extinct mammals, or creating hyperreal robots to replace vanished birds. And, more than that, they’re using those animals to take revenge on humanity. But in trying to destroy humans, these Grief victims are persisting in being human, in applying human rules—making judgments about the who should or should not be alive according to abstract concepts like justice or fairness.
How to reconcile these two self-undermining viewpoints? The ending is too abrupt to feel satisfying, arriving as it does from very far out of left field. Yes, there is an unexpected final “resurrection,” but it’s a little convoluted. It relies too heavily on the menace of conspiracy instead of the tenacity of Grief, which never stops feeling like the real menace. The several avatars of the Grief, Marjorie and others, seem intent on teaching Ruby a hard lesson, but…why? What’s so special about Ruby? She’s a great character, don’t get me wrong, and her work and her psyche are both resist the Grief in interesting ways. But teaching her a lesson doesn’t accomplish very much.
Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the Sea Witch and the others are no longer looking to influence people with power, since at this point, it’s clear that no one is willing to do the hard work to fix the climate mess. The Grief victims can only work on people who are still willing to listen, but those people are all like Ruby, sympathetic but ultimately inured in other ways. There is no reconciling survival of the self with survival of the world as they currently exist—one must be destroyed. And that, more than gore or eldritch gods, is a stunningly effective kind of scary.