OCT20 – 2014

LAIRD BARRON RULES SO HARD!!!

Illustration by Dalton Rose.

Laird Barron is a freaking TALENTED horror writer, friends. One of the best ever in my humble opinion, and the person I consider to be the Bob Dylan of cosmic horror. Just as Mr. Dylan did with American and European folk music, synthesizing various traditional strands into a modern hybrid, Mr. Barron takes the good stuff from the weird genre stream (Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Algernon Blackwood, etc.), mixes it with the jet-black world view of the best of the 20th century American crime writers (Chandler, Thompson, Westlake, etc.) plus the grotesque verve of the southern gothic masters (Flannery O’ Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, etc.), and then filters it all back through an unsentimental-yet-humane and completely modern outlook. Plus, he brings the SCARY!

This guy...

This guy…

Mr. Barron specializes in short fiction, with a special emphasis on novella-length stuff (though he also has two novels under his belt so far, which are excellent). After re-reading several of my favorite pieces, to try and get a handle on what makes his style so effective, I’ve come to the conclusion that LB’s best work packs more detail, scope, and depth into the novella form than most novelists manage with six times the word real estate.

What’s interesting is that his particular brand of density goes down very smoothly, and you don’t realize in the middle of a given piece that he’s got your unconscious doing twice as much unpacking of meaning and connection as a “normal” horror story. I’ve had the experience on several occasions while reading his work of finishing a piece and thinking it was good, but then the next day suddenly being hit with the industrial strength implications of the damn thing. It’s a cool ability that not many writers of ANY genre possess. Shirley Jackson and the aforementioned Flannery O’Connor have the same effect on me, so he’s keeping good company!

The biggest difference between novels and short fiction is that the novel is an inherently inclusive beast, while the short story is an inherently exclusive, or confined one. Whereas novelists can create a feeling of psychological depth by being tangential with their characters’ inner lives, short story writers don’t usually have that luxury–depth has to be implied for the most part.

Barron avoids this trap by seemingly writing novels and then boiling them down to novella length, until only the most important muscle, bone, and connective tissue remains. Unless you are really paying attention, it can be hard to spot this in action, but it comes across in the rhythms of his sentences. Many (most?) writers have certain cadences they go back to again and again, certain levels of complexity in their syntax. With LB, it seems that he has a much more full command of sentence structure effects, which allow him to use long descriptive sentences, short punchy asides, twisting psychological musings, and sensory detail coloring almost at will and often in the same effing paragraph! It’s rare to read someone who can effortlessly jump from a florid, overwrought bit into a terse slap-in-the-face at a moment’s notice, and do it all for an actual effect, rather than an affectation.

Imago Cover

One thing that I love about Barron’s writing is that fact that he is constantly trying new things, pushing himself, not just in style but in formal structure, plot, level of exposition, etc. I’ve read some critiques of his first collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, saying that the stories are too macho, too male-dominated. I roll my eyes at that, because to me it’s pretty apparent he is playing with the genre cliche of the uber-tough guy protagonist in that cycle of stories. I don’t mean to spoil things for you, but in the Barron Universe (which we should all be happy we don’t live in), being a super competent tough guy DOESN’T MEAN SHIT! The fact is he writes male and female, straight and gay, young and old, all with equal aplomb, and all with a true humanist warmth (even when he’s sending them on doomed trips to the very WORST possible places–LOL!). Yes, most of his main characters are scrappy, but when was the last time you truly enjoyed a mopey, ineffectual protagonist?

If you haven’t read anything by him, I would suggest going back to the OCT13 entry of this blog and following the link to the online version of his story “Old Virginia”. It’s a perfect introduction, and acts like a microcosm of that initial period of his writing. It’s collected in the Imago Sequence, along with many other GREAT stories (like the title piece). That inaugural collection also contains one of my favorite horror novellas of all time, “The Procession of the Black Sloth”, which follows the hellish misadventures of an American security expert who is sent to Hong Kong to find the mole in a multi-national corporation. I can think of no better horror I’ve ever read–equal parts nightmare logic, dread-filled freakout, weirdly hilarious fish out of water tale, baroque and sinister and AMAZING…

Occulation-FC

Frankly, I could go on and on about the cat, because he’s just so talented and consistently fires on all cylinders. Of all his books, I would probably most suggest his second collection Occultation, as it is pretty much one hit after another. “The Forest” (winner of the Shirley Jackson Award) kicks things off PERFECTLY, and is followed by such classics-in-the-making as “The Broadsword”, “Mysterium Tremendum”, “Catch Hell”, and “–30–“. That last story is among the most ferociously scary things I’ve ever read and hasn’t lost its sinister edge even after half a dozen readings.

The-Beautiful-Thing-That-Awaits-Us-All 15732223

I’ve had a very mixed relationship with H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, but the underlying mythology and feeling of awe he created always blow my mind, even when the style is equal parts over- and under-wrought much of the time, and his actual character none too enlightened. But, geesh–the C’thulu mythos is pretty inspired, man, you gotta admit.

Barron has his own mythos going on, a much more visceral nightmare universe than HPL’s, which gets sketched in more and more with each new piece in the cycle (including his first novel The Croning).  Barron is NO pastiche writer, nor is he in the shadow of anybody at this point, BUT his stuff is enjoyable in all the ways Lovecraft’s is annoying, without losing the scope and implication of the best cosmic horror. That he writes it all with such humanity is perhaps the ultimate key to his genius–by putting the people first, the MAW OF INFINITE CHAOS is all the more horrifying.

Anyhoo–go read the guy, ya knuckleheads! Seriously!

–BPL

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