Recently widowed, Penny is now living alone in the apartment she shared with her husband for many years. Her days seem longer than before, and her memory is not as reliable as it used to be. Her apartment, so familiar, seems alive with strange presences and Penny gradually becomes convinced that someone is watching her.
While trying to change a lightbulb, she falls and injures herself. As she regains consciousness, she discovers that arrangements have been made for her to enter a private care facility, Six Cedars. When she tries to protest, she is informed that she agreed to the move years ago. The care home is miles from the city, surrounded by thick forest. After some initial misgivings, Penny begins to feel that her new situation might have its benefits: she has escaped her loneliness, and has people of her own age to talk to. But why are there only three other residents? Six Cedars’s manager Shelley claims that her background in science enables her to provide the most advanced standard of care for older people. Her compassion seems genuine, but though it frightens her to admit it, Penny increasingly suspects that Shelley’s motives may be darker than they appear.
Science fiction offers a wealth of stories in which an individual’s identity is confused, stolen or subverted in some way, from Jack Finney’s classic The Body Snatchers to Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives right up to Jordan Peele’s 2017 movie Get Out. In combining the body snatcher theme with another classic SF staple, Iain Reid renders it doubly effective, for like the titular hospice in Robert Aickman’s 1975 short story or the world itself in the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies, Six Cedars is not the peaceful, beneficent place it seems. Traditionally, escape from the human vivarium can only be achieved either through the unmasking and destruction of the simulation, or death – a point brought home by one of Six Cedars’ chosen few, Ruth, in her obsessive watching and rewatching of the movie Thelma & Louise.
Reid’s work was brought to a wider audience through Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 screen adaptation of his 2016 debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a deeply unsettling psychodrama that became one of the surprise hits of that autumn’s lockdown. The novel’s use of surrealist and slipstream elements made it the perfect vehicle for Kaufman’s fascination with the unreliability of memory, and a natural successor to his earlier films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York especially, which share many of the concerns voiced in Reid’s work to date: the fear of ageing and the fragility of identity, the pervasive influence of the past upon the present and the breakdown of the individual in the aftermath of trauma.
We Spread is dedicated to Reid’s grandmother, who died in a care facility at the age of 101. While the novel makes strong use of Reid’s earlier themes, it focuses especially on the ways in which older people are marginalised by a society that renders them invisible. The manager of the facility poses as a benefactor while dangerously exploiting those in her care; for Shelley, any atrocity is permissible in her quest for knowledge. As we watch Penny struggle to work out exactly what is going on at Six Cedars, we may find it difficult to decide if the horrors she uncovers are real, or simply the product of a mind that is beginning to lose its purchase on reality.
What is never in doubt is the essential humanity of the facility’s occupants. Though they seem powerless to escape their fate, their awareness of their situation lends them agency. “We do not all blend together,” Penny insists. “We are not ruined, helpless, a burden. We are not the elderly ... Now, still, we’re unique. Distinct. Regardless of what we’ve produced or what happens to our bodies. We each have our own memories and experiences, even if they’ve been lost and forgotten.”
In the recreation room at Six Cedars is a boxed game called a “Pando Puzzle”, a jigsaw that appears to picture the endless swathes of forest that surround the care home. Hilbert, a mathematical genius and Penny’s closest confidant, struggles to make sense of the puzzle, finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish each similarly patterned piece from the next. The image’s likeness to what lies beyond the windows of the facility makes it seem as if his inner and outer reality have begun to merge. The game’s title, especially, seems to haunt him, revealing the sinister truth of their situation: “Pando,” he repeats flatly, closing his eyes. “I spread. In Latin, pando means I spread.
The idea that the inhabitants of Six Cedars are losing their identities, becoming co-dependent and indistinguishable from one another, is reflected in the strange, fungus-like growths that begin to spread across Hilbert’s skin and then jump to Penny’s. The power of suggestion seems insurmountable, and as Penny’s options for escape become more and more circumscribed she finds herself thinking once again of Thelma & Louise, how the tragic finale of their story is actually cathartic, the only possible ending, because “they get out”.
As with all the finest weird fiction, We Spread is infinitely more than just a horror story. Its deceptively simple, deadpan delivery – like the ostensibly similar pieces of Hilbert’s Pando Puzzle – is a screen behind which a multiplicity of interpretations and possibilities, both horrific and mundane, lie cunningly concealed.
• We Spread is published by Scribner (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.