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Literature / The Sick Land

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The Sick Land is the blog of Alex Case, a researcher based at a remote station on the outskirts of an area called The Sick Land. The Sick Land radiates a malign influence called the mal. It warps life forms, damages machinery, drives researchers insane, and sometimes worse...

A surprisingly effective Cosmic Horror Story, The Sick Land has concluded after a ten-month run. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

This story provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Area: The Sick Lands used to be inhabited, before the mal started spreading. Now all but one of its inhabitants have just disappeared.
  • Ambiguous Gender: the narrator, Alex, could be an "Alexandra" just as much as an "Alexander," and the narration gives no clues as to the character's sex.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Most of the world, while aware of the Sick Land, doesn't seem terribly worried about it despite the fact that it is spreading. Similarly, the Facility scientists not only simply sit and observe the Sick Land as it spreads, but don't even care to figure out how the equipment they use works or what their findings really mean, just sending them to another department.
  • Body Horror:
    • In Alex's weird dreams about Bob, Bob is increasingly decomposed with each subsequent dream. At the same time, a piece of mal keeps growing more and more and spreading across his arm and devouring it. Yikes.
    • Bob's decomposition also seems to parallel Sergei's infection, as his injuries start on his hand, travel up his arm, and begin to spread out from there.
    • They also describe a dream where a deer with a jointed needle for a foot is eating grass and looking at them. Alex is suitably creeped out.
  • Another subject's stomach is described as a pustule the size of a dinner plate with an insect-like leg sticking out of it.
  • Alex as they die. They describe that their skin is sloughing off, hanging from their body in strips, and that they intermittently spit out their own teeth. It's no wonder they consider the Facility caving in and crushing them a preferable death.
  • Breather Episode: After the harrowing experiences of their Sick Lands expedition and working with Subject 83, Alex finds themself working with Subject 407, who is basically normal except with a large right arm. They even lampshade how much of a welcome break it is.
  • Brown Note: The mal appears to be a version of this. It doesn't seem to have any physical component (bacteria, virus, etc.) and doesn't act as any known contaminant should, randomly infecting people with random mutations, with little regard to exposure or contact, acting more like a force in the Sick Land than an actual infection.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Invoked. In a dream / vision Bob shows Alex a gun placed in a safe place and how to get it so that Alex can use it to defend themself from the mutated Sergei later.
  • Critical Existence Failure: It's rumored that this can happen to someone in the Sick Lands. No matter what state they're in when it happens they just kind of, stop existing.
  • Downer Ending: The Sick Land suddenly and unexpectedly expands massively, engulfing places all around the world. The Facility ends up near the red zone, causing the staff, including Alex, to be slowly killed by mal exposure. The kicker is that it may have been Alex's fault.
  • Driven to Suicide: Bob after he spends a night in the Sick Lands.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • Implied to be the cause of the Sick Lands. Alex finds the skull of something that appears to be one and it causes their Sanity Slippage to become even worse just by being around it.
    • The huge thing in the underground lake. Nothing much is told about it, but the Sick Lands expanded all over the world after Alex seemed to piss it off.
  • Eldritch Location:
    • The Sick Land sometimes does not follow normal rules. It's possible to spend more time traveling from one place than it took to get there using the exact same route and for entire research facilities to simply cease existing.
    • The Lake, especially; an entire body of water that is not only bigger than it should be, but alternates between existing and not existing every time Alex blinks.
  • Existential Horror: When the narrative isn't focusing on the Cosmic Horror of The Sick Land, it highlights the utter pointlessness of Alex's actions. The Facility arc is particularly Kafkaesque, with Alex trying desperately to find anyone who actually knows how the machines they use work and what the data they collect actually mean.
  • Festering Fungus: Zombie!Bob has a mushroom growing out of his hand. Every time Alex sees him, the infection progresses a little further, until it's all the way up to his shoulder, his face, and all over the laboratory wall.
  • For Science!:
    • Study of mal is viewed as this by the larger scientific community because nothing concrete has ever been found out about it.
    • The lower levels of the Facility practice human vivisection on mal infected people simply because they have found no better way of examining its effects on humans, ostensibly for the purpose of preparing for if the Sick Land spreads to populated areas.
  • Forbidden Zone: The Sick Lands, but the worst part is that it's spreading. It moves slowly but it's going to start engulfing things eventually. The government has covered up the fact that it's spreading in order to prevent panic.
    • According to the old woman from Alex's dream, the land itself literally hates people.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Early on Alex muses about the Sick Land and how it advances maybe an inch a decade, but the governments generally try to keep it quiet because people wouldn't understand the distances involved and unnecessarily panic. Alex later learns that's actually a lie to keep people from panicking and that the Sick Land has expanded much further than is publicly stated.
    • In a late entry Alex asks a researcher about the possible medical applications about Subject 83's regenerative abilities. They point out that there aren't any, since it wouldn't work away from the Sick Land anyway. It turns out that most of the actual research is an attempt to get humans physically ready for when the Sick Land encompasses the world.
  • Humanoid Abomination:
    • The Sick Lands used to be inhabited by beings called Birdheads that varied from humans with beaks to bizarre monsters. They supposedly weren't real, but Alex finds the skull of one while in the Sick Lands.
    • Sergei is seemingly turned into some sort of humanoid monster, presumably due to mal exposure.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: Pretty much every single piece of equipment that has anything to do with mal which explains why even the people at the second facility can't actually explain the machinery or math to Alex. Turns out it all comes from some species of humanoid creatures who live underneath the second facility, who seem to use a ritual involving violence and mal to make random pieces of machines work.
  • Jerkass: Assuming it wasn't the mal influencing him, Howard Phillips seems to have been this. During his time at the crater he showed no concern for his fellow explorers' safety or well-being, constantly made clear in his journal that he thought they were all useless, left a very sick explorer alone at the camp while he and the only other explorer went off exploring and didn't even seem to feel at all guilty when the man died. He even blamed the first casualty of the expedition on the man himself. Being a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of H. P. Lovecraft, he also possesses the insufferable habit of derailing the recollection of events to expound upon his own brilliance and skill, peppered with casual dismissal for those of "lower" station.
  • Mental Time Travel: Somehow an ancient artifact allows Alex to get in contact with an old woman who used to live in the Sick Land possibly tens of thousands of years ago.
  • Mercy Kill: Alex gives them to Ivana and to the old woman in the cave. Unfortunately the second of these seems to have been what vastly sped up the Sick Land expanding across the planet.
  • Na├»ve Newcomer:
    • Alex. They really don't seem to comprehend what they're getting into and note that the only experience they've had with the Sick Lands and mal before is reading about it in books. They get joined later by two likewise inexperienced scientists after Sergei and Xi are killed.
    • Then Alex is shifted to the Facility, where they're supposed to be this, but most of the scientists immediately available don't seem to know any more than them.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The Sick Land suddenly expanded across the world after Alex seemed to piss off the huge thing in the underground lake by destroying what might have been the creatures' offering to it. Granted, it was established that the Sick Land was expanding anyway, but their actions seemed to have sped it up.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: Alex starts having weird dreams about Bob after he commits suicide. They're growing increasingly vivid and strange and Alex is starting to wonder if they're really dreams...
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Bob is a Revenant Zombie created by Mal exposure. He's surprisingly helpful towards Alex (Unless he's a hallucination).
  • River of Insanity: The expedition that sets out on 19 July to explore the old base and the furrow leading away from it quickly runs into troubles as half the members become sick due to fungus spores and have to be evacuated, leaving only five researchers to carry on. Then things get really bad for them. Four of them either disappear or die in gruesome ways, leaving only Alex alive to wander alone in a horrific landscape that doesn't appear to follow the laws of time or physics. Alex does survive, however.
  • Sanity Slippage: This starts happening to Alex. It's apparently a distressingly common effect of spending too long in the Sick Lands.
  • Science Cannot Comprehend Phlebotinum:
    • Almost nothing is understood about mal and nobody knows why it affects people the way it does.
    • The machines the scientists use in the upper levels of the Facility. They apparently come from the cave underground, where creatures seem to get them to work through strange and violent rituals. When Alex looks inside them, they find that they are full of random parts, having no right to actually work. Nonetheless, the scientists use them, even though they have no real understanding of how they work or even what their findings mean.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Xi's reaction to the Sick Land, wanting nothing more than for all the procedures to be gone through so she can get away. She's killed just after they finally get it done.
  • Shout-Out: A 19th century explorer who traveled to the Sick Land was named Howard Phillips. His companions are named Edgar, Hodgson, and Arthur, after three horror authors who influenced Lovecraft.
  • Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying: Alex mentions their mule vomiting when they're deep in the Yellow Zone. Mules, like all equines, are incapable of vomiting. On the other hand, we know The Sick Land warps physiology...
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Alex encounters an anomaly that they swear blind is real, but Xi and Sergei can't see it (digging underneath it nets the team a Bird-man skull though). They also have "dreams" about an increasingly rotten zombie version of Bob that may or may not be waking encounters with him.
  • Twice-Told Tale: it's Roadside Picnic without the aliens or their Sufficiently Advanced Technology.
  • Wham Episode:
    • The March 31 Entry. Bob commits suicide.
    • The May 9 Entry: Just as it looked like Xi and Sergei might be allowed to leave, the mal turns Sergei into a monster and he kills Xi.
    • The Smith Entry. It's made clear to Alex that all the work about measuring the Sick Land and exploring it is just for show. The only real research is how to find ways to use mal to make humans more able to survive when the Sick Land inevitably expands across the planet.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learn the eventual fate of Val, Ludwig and the second research station - once Alex is relocated to the Facility, not a single word about them is ever brought up. Justified as the story is presented in first-person via Alex's research log, so the reader does not know anything beyond what Alex themself knows or learns. With the working climate and the information flow at the Facility, it's not surprising they're not told anything about what, if anything, happened at the second station, assuming they even know/care. Although, given the fact that Alex describes their thoughts and suspicions in the log throughout, regardless of actual information, it's still jarring that they apparently do not even spare one thought about their former colleagues.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The Sick Land is located somewhere in central Asia, in territory that was part of the Soviet Union. Beyond that, nothing more of mundane geography is specified.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: By May 7 they've finally gone through everything they need to in order to have a relief sent out so Xi and possibly Sergei can get out. By May 9 Sergei is transformed into a monster and kills Xi.