On Sven Holm’s Novella of Nuclear Disaster


The Review’s Review

Vedbæk, Denmark. MchD, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Halfway through Sven Holm’s taut unfolding nightmare, Termush, the unnamed narrator encounters “ploughed-up and trampled gardens” where “stone creatures are the sole survivors.” Holm describes these statues as “curious forms, the bodies like great ill-defined blocks, designed more to evoke a sense of weight and mass than to suggest power in the muscles and sinews.” Later, a guest of the gated, walled hotel for the rich from which the novel takes its name relates a dream in which “light streamed out of every object; it shone through robes and skin and the flesh on the bones, the leaves on the trees … to reveal the innermost vulnerable marrow of people and plants.” The same could describe the novel, which accrues its strange effects via both this stricken, continuous revealing and the “curious forms” of a solid, impervious setting, in which the ordinary elements of our world come to seem alien through the lens of nuclear catastrophe.

Long before the sanctuary of Termush becomes visibly unsafe, these tears at the fringes of reality signify the truth of the narrator’s situation. The very texture of the world becomes unknowable, imbued with a potency, vibration, or sheen that alters reality. Holm’s Termush is both a realistic chronicle of a microsociety’s collapse and a surreal journey of a man confronted by crisis, remaking his surroundings as a way of coping.

The detritus and decisions of the past may still affect our future, in that the threat of nuclear holocaust has not left us, though it is far less pronounced than in the 1960s, when Holm published Termush. But in the interim, other disasters that manifest in largely “invisible” ways have overtaken us: our fear of radiation and immolation has led to climate crisis fear, which has led to pandemic fear. The grappling of minds with these threats leads to derangement and odd visions, because the elements of infiltration and contamination baffle the brain. Our hauntings in the modern era so often now are not ghosts but simply the things we cannot see—but that radically affect us.

Little wonder then, that, read now, the lucid logic of Termush feels more like lucid dreaming, imbued with a new relevance in which unseen monsters creep through the same rooms as the narrator, studying his movements. The stark deficiencies of emergency management become hyperreal because of the overlay of self-inflictions in our modern times. For Termush—unlike some vintage classics, cult or otherwise—has waxed, not waned, in relevance. The accuracy in the calm description of becoming undone by disaster, and the anonymity of place and character, ensure the novel’s timelessness. It’s a curious book in this regard, with its dispassionate prose that eschews, in large part, the sensory detail of taste, touch, and smell, yet gets to the heart of living through such a situation. At that heart is the disconnection that occurs, laid bare by a certain level of detail—or lack of detail. Amid the banal recitation of procedure and the understated but sharp satire about privileged people, such a strong sense of feeling about the world rises from these pages.

A highly honored literary realist in Denmark, Holm may not have expected or even intended to create a speculative novella that reads so well to a modern audience. His other works contain no such element, but many do feature similar grand gestures, and all of them critique modern society, seeking ways to, for lack of a better term, wake the reader up to the evils of capitalism and other consumptive ideologies.

In its treatment of the aftermath of nuclear war, Termush distinguishes itself from the so-called disaster cozies of the fifties, like the novels of John Wyndham, to occupy more urgent territory. In this genre, the dangers of some calamitous situation become entwined with an almost cheery disaster-tourism tone; more importantly, civilization always wins in the end, even if in an altered form. The militias may hold sway for a while, or the plague lay waste to whole towns, but by the novel’s close, equilibrium and balance, logic and order, always return to human endeavors. Not so much in Termush, which also eludes, through its particular focus and narrative velocity, echoes of Cold War conflict that otherwise might have dated the novella. Instead of a pervading sense of “the other” about to storm the gates, Holm delves into the psychology of the holed-up survivors and the hazards of societal breakdown.

In this sense, and with its surreal touches, Termush feels more like a bridge novella between the return-to-normalcy of the cozy and the extravagant, mind-bending dystopias of J. G. Ballard, which ushered in the modern era of this kind of fiction. The right excerpt from Termush could easily have appeared in New Worlds, the seminal sixties magazine for the New Wave, of which Ballard was a part. This speculative movement ably applied a rigorous intellectual attitude and sometimes formally experimental approaches to hybrid fiction; novels that had a gritty, realistic feel while at the same time trading in unsettling images and devastating portrayals of the psychological effects of the wrong future on human minds.

Holm definitely meant to access the psychological reality of his situation, and the novella contains much subtle character insight, despite his characters often existing at the same sparse level of detail as their surroundings. The hotel doctor, for example, asks a woman for a urine sample to check the guests’ health, but she collapses “across the table … in a fit of hysteria,” while repeating that “nothing was wrong with her urine.” In a lesser novel, this would function for the modern reader as a gendered signpost of the times. But Holm proves more insightful, with his narrator’s observation that “the woman’s reaction is understandable. What is less understandable is the way the rest of us keep such an inflexibly stiff upper lip without relaxing in argument or giving way to laughter or irritation. Her outburst seems to me more natural,” because it means “that neither her imagination nor her sensibility is gagged and bound, as ours are.” Holm shows that, in trying to cope by stifling such impulses, the very landscape becomes distorted and unfamiliar, while the invisible malady continues to infiltrate and surround the hotel.

Few dystopian novels focused on a privileged group’s reaction to disaster lack some societal critique, and if Termush’s commentary seems basic, well, perhaps the modern monoculture needs to become more complex. As ever—before, during, and after Termush—rich people tend to be more able to escape the effects of an event, for the obvious reasons. Yet Holm’s portrayal of radiation refugees storming the hotel has a logic and humanity that is deeply thought-provoking, as the hotel management tries to act ethically, with some guests agreeing to support them and some not. His deft touch inhabits sentences like “The groaning of the sick people in the library has died down, as if they too were issued with brandy or had been asked not to disturb the festivities on the hotel’s anniversary.”

Late in the novella, as conditions worsen and deepen, the narrator’s imagination widens to contemplate the entirety of what cannot be seen and what has not yet been fully felt within their privileged sanctuary: “We see the day when the fish leave the water and push through the sand and earth to the trees, where they bite into the bark with their skinless jaws and drag themselves up into the branches to live according to new instincts. We see the trees bare of leaves, festooned with fishy skeletons, their skins rustling like a death-rattle.” From this phantasmagorical beginning, the narrator’s vision spreads outward to encompass the Earth and the humans within it. While Termush admirably conveys the reality of living through nuclear apocalypse, Holm’s triumph lies in conveying the psychological strangeness and derangement of such a situation. If the novella can be termed a kind of classic, it is for these unexpected and unique elements, which are, in a sense, more real than reality.

“Our fear is no longer a fear of death but of change and mutation,” Holm writes.

Onward, to Termush! Perhaps, one way or another, we can make it there in time.


Jeff VanderMeer is the author of Hummingbird Salamander, the Borne novels (BorneThe Strange Bird, and Dead Astronauts), and The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), the first volume of which won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland. He speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change as well as urban rewilding. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, on the edge of a ravine, with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and their cat, Neo.