Wicked House Publishing (November 24, 2023)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
Gollitok by Andrew Najberg is a harrowing and brilliantly crafted journey into post-nuclear Eastern Europe, where the scars of the past give rise to an atmospheric and spine-tingling tale. Through this masterful blending of dystopian science fiction and psychological and body horror, Najberg transports readers to a desolate and haunting world where redemption and survival are elusive and sinister truths lurk beneath the surface.
The story revolves around Hammel Varka, a bureaucrat haunted by a tarnished family reputation, sent on a mission to a remote island that houses an abandoned political prison by a government agency that clearly views Varka and his team as expendable. The protagonists are all bureaucrats, soldiers, technicians, and law enforcers working for a vaguely oppressive Eastern European technocratic state. Varka and co. are sent to the island to investigate strange goings-on—“insurrectionists” or smugglers may have set up camp on the island, Varka has been told—at the prison. As it turns out, at least one previous team had been sent to the island but they have now disappeared. An excellent set-up.
The exact timeframe for the novel is unclear, though it seems to be set forty years after a nuclear war. The details of that catastrophe don’t matter; the survivors must simply deal with its aftermath. The atmosphere is bleak, and everything, from bureaucratic red tape to supply shortages to bad weather to dangerous animals to the apparent presence of a virulent and highly contagious virus on the island, is an obstacle if not an existential threat to Varka and his team.
From the moment Varka and his team embark on their mission, the narrative takes a chilling turn. A team member’s injury in the treacherous passage across the strait serves as a foreboding harbinger of the horrors to come. As the story unfolds, Varka’s understanding of the island’s true nature unravels, revealing a labyrinth of deception and terror.
The island of Goli Otok is a real place. It is the site of a Cold War-era Croatian political prison, a kind of Yugoslavian Alcatraz, and seems to be as bleak a place as the novel describes. It has fallen into ruin and been abandoned, and is, of course, now a tourist attraction. We learn in the final author’s note that Andrew Najberg’s grandfather was imprisoned in the actual Goli Otok prison when it was still in operation, which of course adds a great deal of poignancy to the novel.
Varka’s journey to the remote island and their exploration of it are gripping. Najberg deftly establishes the bleak and unforgiving backdrop of the post-nuclear Eastern European landscape, setting the stage for a narrative that is as much a psychological character study as it is a dark adventure.
Najberg’s storytelling prowess shines as the team delves deeper into the decaying Gollitok prison. The decaying facility and the island itself become characters, exuding an atmosphere of dread and foreboding that envelops the reader. The narrative takes unexpected and dark turns, blurring the lines between reality and nightmare, as hidden agendas and sinister forces splinter the team. What sets Gollitok apart is its ability to keep readers on edge with a relentless sense of impending danger. The characters’ encounters with the unknown are truly nightmarish, as they face dangers that go beyond their worst nightmares. The tension in the narrative is skillfully crafted, and the sense of dread escalates with each passing page.
Najberg’s writing style is evocative and immersive, drawing readers into the story’s dark and mysterious world. His prose skillfully conveys the stark and desolate landscape, as well as the travails of the characters. The pacing is well-executed, with the narrative building to a crescendo of terror that is both satisfying and disquieting.
Gollitok is a must-read for fans of dystopian science fiction and horror. Andrew Najberg’s narrative is a compelling exploration of the human psyche in the face of insurmountable horrors. With its atmospheric world-building, well-drawn characters, and relentless sense of dread, this book is a chilling and unforgettable journey into the heart of darkness. Prepare to be entranced, unnerved, and ultimately haunted by the enigmatic and nightmarish world of Gollitok. Highly recommended.