“Nobody rules the earth,” we’re told at one point in Douglas Thompson’s long-feeling novel Sylvow. At other points, more specific theories are floated: that, for instance, “If one species threatens the planet’s survival, then the elimination of that species by any means, to Nature is good.” Or that the earth itself is something like a sentient entity, Gaia, and “Gaia is blind, patient, amoral, selfish, all-powerful, savage, beautiful, resourceful, resilient. If this is a God, it is no human God, not one that it is safe for human beings to worship.” What happens in Sylvow, spread among multiple plotlines like the root-tendrils of a banyan tree, is that nature strikes back; Gaia closes ranks, adapts, and attacks. “These roots and veins seemed to be pulsing with water and fire when I drew close to them, translucent: were they carrying blood or chlorophyll or both? It was as if all of Nature had re-booted and re-evaluated itself, as if human and natural inventions had been merged and subsumed into some new order.” Birds learn to imitate car alarms, bee behavior changes, insects appear that are larger than usual. Then the hybrid fruits, the rain of black seeds, the catkins of trees developing into bombs full of sulphuric acid. Plants turn carnivorous. The animals take human children, give them suckle. Or the animals rebel, dogs mangle their so-called masters.
Explicitly seeking to echo, in part, the work of the brothers Grimm—the book begins with a sinister excerpt from the story of the pied piper of Hamelin, leading the children away, having already eliminated the rats—Sylvow is interested, as well, in the legend of Romulus and Remus, and the fictional city at the center of the action is described as the farthest spot penetrated by the Roman Legion. Primal wildness is here, under the paving stones and suburban cement. Thus, Thompson’s work reads something like a moral tact, winking at the horror of fairy tales and rolling up its own sleeves to pen some pretty gruesome passages, while also speaking, through the mouths of various characters, about Carl Jung and collective dreaming, Gaia and the haughty human sense of sovereignty, and taking some pleasure in relaying a revenge fantasy wherein it is the natural environment that takes revenge, sending floods and murderous trees, setting free the zoos and welcoming some children into its own fold, out in the dark of the deep woods.