This is an interesting entry in my book review series, because The Northern Caves is, not strictly speaking, a book! Instead, The Northern Caves is one of those oddities on Archive of Our Own; original fiction that still taps into ‘fannish culture’ enough to be featured on AO3. There’s plenty of these, but The Northern Caves also occupies a special corner in that it’s OF that has gotten a small but dedicated cult following of its own. Ironically enough, considering its plot.
Heads up; due to some of my specific complaints, this is NOT a spoiler-free review.
Trigger warnings for this review and TNC include: suicide, implied suicide baiting, religious delusions, dissociation, non-consensual drugging, ADHD misrepresentation/myths, and cultish behaviour.
So, about The Northern Caves. TNC is a surrealist horror piece centered around the (fictional) works of one Leonard Salby and his Chesscourt series. Chesscourt, or at least the pieces of it we get, is deliberately evocative of the works of Madeleine L’Engle, The Wizard of Oz and other strange old kidlit. Unlike these, however, it is even more preoccupied with morality – which is what leads to its forum following. At the beginning of the story, we are told only that something terrible happened at an event called ‘Spelunk 04!’ – the rest unfolds as one member of the forum tries to write up the terrible events, honestly and as truthfully as he can manage.
The result is a mindbending, dissociation-inducing moral/cosmic-horror as Paul/GlassWave details the lead-up to Spelunk 04!. It all began when the forum began to set about analyzing Salby’s final, unpublished and incoherent Chesscourt novel, which is several hundred pages of apparent inconsistency, typos, and disconnected moments. The book, The Northern Caves, is usually untouched by this particular forum group, even coining a phrase of its own – ‘don’t go into the caves’ – but Aaron, moderator and brave soul, decides he wants to try anyway. The first three Spelunks, then, are normal forum threads, and even formatted in forum style, for that good old throwback energy.
The writing of these parts is phenomenal. Every character has a distinct voice, and even the subtle tension of the forum fights between Aaron and Marsh, so dreaded by Paul, is all the more appreciated by people who have been in those fandom-meta discussions gone sour. TNC isn’t just about a book, it’s about fandom in all of its strange nature, and is both a response to the Homestuck fandom and House of Leaves.
Where the book falls apart, unfortunately, is at Spelunk 04! itself. One of the hardest tricks to pull in a book like this one is making the ‘cosmic horror/terrible event’ actually measure up to the suspense and hype you’ve purposefully built around it. Nostalgebraist gets… most of the way there. Spelunk 04! is, unlike the other events, an in-person meetup to read through some of Salby’s old letters and writings that had fallen unexpectedly into one member’s hands. The moral texture and delusion-adjacent ramblings that ensue are, to be clear, incredible. The below is a quote from one of Salby’s letters;
We have always been asking what to make of our moral sentiments since we’ve clearly had them since dawn of time. Many attempts to theorize and reduce (Moses Jesus Buddha Confucius et al) which have led so very very many astray. Often we take a stab and get “Golden Rule” = “treat others how you would want to be treated” which doesn’t cover it bc MUNDUM IS BIGGER THAN DESIRE. We have been feeling this forever and Golden Rule evades it as does more modern, degraded theories e.g. Mill and other similar morons.
As somebody who experiences both religious delusions and has more than one personality disorder knocking around in my head, this spoke to me on a – frankly kind of dangerous level. An obsession with moral rightness seems good on the outset, but as the rest of the story shows, it can go very, very badly.
However, around the time that Aaron breaks down and starts taking Xanax, halfway threatening suicide, the story begins to pull back, possibly afraid of its own consequences. I don’t blame it; it’s heavy stuff, and there’s even an incredible portion that describes dissociation in more detail than I’ve ever seen it described. But from there on, it slides into almost-cheesy territory. There are drugs involved, but Aaron doses all of them with Adderall, acting like it’s cocaine or meth – despite common beliefs, by the way, Adderall will not act like cocaine. At the very least, you have to take a CONSIDERABLY higher amount, and you have to not have ADHD – which, given the common makeups of nerd populations, seems incredibly unlikely for the group of seven at Marsh’s house.
Additionally, the terrible event is not nearly as terrible as promised. Ultimately, what appears to have happened is that Aaron, high on Adderall and losing his shit in a clinical sense, said something to three people at a restaurant that later caused them to commit suicide. The connection here is never explored, nor is the immediate sense of guilt that Aaron is then saddled with – like a weird person with religious delusions is the only thing that had ever happened to those people!
However, one thing about the climax and ending of The Northern Caves really sticks out. Paul stays to comfort Aaron after they hear about the suicides, and it’s implied about as clearly as possible that they had sex – they flirt, kiss and talk about it. There is no homoerotic implication about any of the main characters prior to this, and it makes me deeply curious about the feeling of Nostalgebraist barreling towards one planned ending and then rapidly changing their mind. The earlier chapters certainly hint at something far more “depraved” and deadly than three probably-unconnected suicides and all of the actual members of Spelunk! 04 surviving untouched.
The Northern Caves is a fascinating work, with much in common with Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, and of course, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Despite a bold beginning and a format full of promise and intriguing detail, it “chickens out” on its ending – which leaves all the more questions to be asked.
Another torturous thing about the ending is a lack of resolution; there’s resolution to Spelunk! 04 to some degree, but not to Chesscourt, or to Leonard Salby. This is a matter of preference, of course, but it really does feel like a larger story was hinted at and then ultimately abandoned.
The Northern Caves can be read (for free!) in its entirety here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/3659997/chapters/8088522