Saturday, 17 April 2010
A couple of weeks ago, Laird Barron was so extraordinarily kind to let me have an advance look at his second story collection, Occultation. I noticed his first collection, the Imago Sequence, when visiting Judith and John Clute at their beautiful home in London in 2007 (great eerie cover art by Eleni Tsami!), and I just knew I wanted it. When I finally got my hands on the TPB edition, it pretty much made me an instant fan and forced me to buy a bunch of Horror anthologies (most of them edited by Ellen Datlow) to get my hands on more Barron stuff, which lead to me reading the work of a bunch of other authors included in these anthologies, which lead to buying more of their stuff ... to put it shortly, Barron's stories forced me to re-discover modern horror, which has become quite an expensive undertaking. (Thanks a lot!)
If you've already read The Imago Sequence, you can probably skip right to my review of Occultation in the next paragraph. If not: Imago contains nine stories, most of them rather long and rather scary. Thematically, most of these are pretty straightforward horror stories in a Lovecraftian tradition, but without any Cthulhu-Myth trappings. Also, while the motives are similar to the Cosmic Horror of the later Lovecraft stories, Barron has a totally different style. His imagery is vivid, but often created by short, slightly psychedelic flashes - moments of sudden, intense escalation. These stories are shocking not because they are drastic (although a lot of them are drastic), but because of the way in which reality becomes unhinged for a moment, never quite recovering. One story in Imago, "The Procession of the Black Sloth", is a sublime series of these types of concussive shocks. After each one, the world has more trouble realigning, until the protagonists physically and psychically disintegrate along with their worlds.
The process of the desintegration of the protagonist is the process of the stories in Imago: Most of them are propelled by drugs, alcohol and psychological stress, held together only by their self-destructive momentum. They are falling apart (sometimes literally) from the first page. "Black Sloth" and "Hallucigenia" are the most relentless stories in this regard, and the latter is also a central piece in the horror mythology that spans some (though not all) of Barrons stories.
While several stories in Occulation are pretty much in the same vein as the ones in Imago Sequence, he also shakes some stuff up with his second collection. And while occassionally, I feel that this diminishes the disturbing effect, it must be said that Occultation is a more diverse and even more impressive collection overall.
The two most haunting pieces are "The Lagerstätte" and "Strappado". In both cases, Barron concentrates on the psychological desintegration of his protagonists but strips away most or even all of the supernatural elements he employed in The Imago Sequence. Both are relatively short and highly intense and deal with survivor's guilt.
In "Strappado" the protagonist is on a business trip in India when he runs into a an ex-lover, and both take the opportunity to renew their acquaintance. The affair grants both of them temporary asylum from the emotionally draining environment that consists of European and American money people, who are conducting business by day and looking for short-lived kicks by night. Both of them join a bunch of these people on a small trip to an obscure and probably illegal performance art event, which turns out very ugly ... The most haunting thing about "Strappado" how it shows people that allow themselves to be victimized simply because they cannot acknowledge the reality of the situation they got in. It's all so unbelievable that the impending catastrophe seems like an illusion (and hence, there's no need to panic and make a scene), and at the same time, it all makes so much sense that the catastrophe seems inevitable (and hence, there's no point in resisting) - a true dialectic of terror ... The story doesn't put it that way (it works in far more subtle and striking ways), but it's all about the failure to deal with a situation that is impossible to deal with, and about how it irrevocably breaks the people involved.
It's been a while since I've read "The Lagerstätte", so I'll let it suffice to say that it felt very much like "Strappado", but that I remember it as a little less shaking.
Another truly great story that is more in the vein of the previous collection is "--30--", which is about two scientists and ex-lovers watching strange animal behaviour out in the wilderness. Nature is becoming abject in small ways and infecting humans. There's a highly disturbing, vaguely pornographic scene about tufts of wasps that I would really prefer not to dwell on ... The whole thing is not as psychologically complex as "Strappado", but it's shaking on a physical level, driving home the notion that man is a part of nature in one of the most disturbing ways imaginable. While it is unlike anything Lovecraft would have ever written, thematically it is pretty close to stories like The Shadow over Innsmouth.
Talking about Lovecraft, we have the very Whisperer-in-Darkness-like "The Broadsword", which picks up the quasi-Lovecraftian mythology of alien terrors developed in some of the stories from Imago Sequence. In essence, it's a well-told, moody ghost-story, and it's grumply-old-man-protagonist is a nice change of pace and injects some humor. However, it suffered a little bit from re-using too many motives already known from Barron's previous stories.
The story in the collection that is most clearly steeped in Lovecraft and in Barron's own mythology is "Mysterium Tremendum". It starts with something that is nearly, but not quite a Lovecraft reference (a mysterious, occult book hinting at secrets that might shatter the sanity of anyone who dares to delve deeper), then peaks with a disturbing scene of intense, but totally mundane violence, before it finally returns to the motive of cosmic horror. While it is the longest story in the collection (about 50 pages), I think it might have benefited from being longer. The characters could have used some more fleshing-out, and in terms of mythology, the story pretty much ends where several other's have ended before, hinting at terrors that feel al little to familiar by now without adding some new, more disturbing dimension to them. It's a good story, but I feel that it could have been pushed further, maybe even to novel-lenght.
Finally, to my surprise I found that there a three stories which are quite funny in this collection. The title story "Occultation" is mostly a dialogue piece about a couple lying awake at night in a dingy hotel room, smoking and drinking and specualting about a black blotch on the wall that can't quite be made out in the dark and that might be moving. In essence, it's another horror-of-nature piece like "--30--", but told in a totally different voice. "Catch Hell" is a story about the devil playing with the vanity and pettiness of human beings and pretty much giving them what they deserve. It has nothing to do with the impersonal horror most of Barron's stories are about. Evil has a face here, and even a somewhat likeable personality. "Six Six Six", the last story in the collection, is a mean little piece about satanism that's strangely funny, although I can't quite put my finger on it ...
I left out the first story in the collection, "The Forest" - I've read it nearly two years ago in an anthology, and I vaguely remember that it was pretty moody, that it somehow tied into the mythology and that I liked it.
On the whole, I'd say that while The Imago Sequence had a greater number of stories that truly unsettled me, Occultation is the more interesting and diverse collection - and "Strappado", "The Lagerstätte" and at least the first two thirds of "Mysterium Tremendum" are as unsettling as anything in the previous collection. Another interesting thing about Occultation is that Barron tries out new types of protagonists - while most characters in The Imago Sequence are emotionally broken, usually addict and often violent men, here we have anything from happy couples to old, largely content geezers. It feels like he is consciously broadening his scope, and quite succesfully. I can't wait for his novel - and I'm pretty confident it will deliver what I felt was missing about "Myterium Tremendum", and then some.