by Laird Barron.
Reading this book, a collection of short “the horrors of that which is beyond our comprehension” horror stories, was quite the experience.
The first two stories, “Old Virginia” and “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” bored me. I’m reading Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books, so I’m expecting this stuff to be over-the-top good. They were well written, but they just didn’t do anything for me. No horror, no tension, no delight, no schadenfreude, no emotion. Just the reasonably unpainful slog of turning pages. I neither loved, nor hated, nor even goggled at any of the characters. “Uh-huh,” I said. Logical and plausible, given a world in which the uncanny exists.
The third story, “Procession of the Black Sloth,” made me go, “This guy has a particular horror of old people, doesn’t he?” I mean, in that story, it’s blatant. A group of little old ladies are not what they seem. A man could go mad, finding out what little old ladies get up to, when they’re not playing cards. This one I liked; it was a much more tense, almost intimate story, and some of the visuals are still with me, although I’m entirely on the side of the little old ladies here.
“Bulldozer,” well, it’s there, okay, whatever. Interesting setting, a Pinkerton in the West who…looks into stuff what he would be better not looking into. An old woman adds to the horror of the milieu. Yawn. I had to look this one up, because I could not remember what it was about.
I sit down and write a couple of journal entries ranting about how I’m tired of being held at arm’s length by this writer and how I would have ditched the book if it weren’t on the damn list. Then start I list all the things I’m afraid of and why, and look at it with satisfaction. “Ugly,” I think. “But utterly mine.”
Then “Proboscis,” about the same reaction as “Bulldozer,” initially. Different setting–modern, northwest, horrors at some ancient geological features, wait wait, will we be sorry we looked behind the curtain?–yep, someone’s getting eaten, okay, whatever. But there are some things about bugs that have real zest to them, about people who might or might not be human. This story feels a little more real. I laugh out loud when, at the end, a little old lady expresses sympathy for the main character, her hand lingering just a little too long on his shoulder.
“Hallucigenia” was quite enjoyable. There were old people! And insects! And I was beginning to notice that rich people were coming up more often than not. Nnnnno, not rich people specificially, but people in power, or people acting on the authority of people in power. Here, a rich ex-game hunter/financial genius/predator gone soft stumbles into what a bunch of poor but extremely smart farmers have been getting up to. “Does he have a thing about rich people?” I wondered. “Everyone in these stories has the money to throw around and get into stuff they shouldn’t. Working class people, even middle class people would be all ‘screw this, I gotta go to work in the morning’ and leave it alone.”
“Parallax” is almost…cute, almost a directly connected story with “Hallucingenia.” Meh.
I look up Laird Barron on Wikipedia. For some reason it is almost gripping that he’s from Alaska and wears an eyepatch. “Don’t let the eyepatch influence you,” I try to tell myself. “Oooh, he’s done the Iditarod….” I find out that he’s strongly influenced by pulp, and stuff starts snapping into place. The settings…the characters…the dryness of emotion. Yes, those all fit, very pulp and popular fictiony. 70s adventure/spy stuff…with the uncanny! Private investigator in the back woods noir…with the uncanny! Pinkerton…with the uncanny! A drug-induced adventure story…with the uncanny! Rich people on safari…with the uncanny!
Then I realize these are his first published stories.
Bitterly, I think, “Everyone loves Mr. Cleverdick who can write pulp and the uncanny, grumble grumble.” I seethe with jealousy, yet am secure in the secret knowledge that at least I’m gutting my own pitiful soul when I’m writing, not copying someone from decades past…at least I’m not holding people at arm’s length…
That Black Sloth story, though. I still think it’s pretty good.
Then I hit “The Royal Zoo is Closed.”
I don’t remember the story at all: it breaks out of the pulp mode, and doesn’t bother telling the story in a clear, linear fashion. I’m not sure whether it’s any good or not (I reluctantly admit to myself, here, that the other stories are good, just not personally affective.) And yet it feels more personal and real than everything but the Black Sloth story combined. In a sense, this should be the last story in the collection–the breakdown of reality. And yet it’s not.
And now the final story, “The Imago Sequence.” I’m not sure whether it’s a good story or not; I’m not really sure how to judge it. I wonder what my reaction to it would have been, had I read the story on its own instead of in this particular position in this particular collection.
As I was reading this story, I kept popping in and out of layers: reading the story as a story, looking at the story as part of the author’s oeuvre and development, looking at how this story ties into the others. I read the entire story as a story, but got distracted by the other two thoughts, and so I’m not sure whether, in the end, the story’s any good. It must be (it must be brilliant), and yet I can’t tell.
Here’s the thing: of all the stories in the collection, the one that came closest to actually spooking, startling, or horrifying me is the Black Sloth story, and even then, I consider the ending somewhat of a mess. “Ach, that’s the kind of thing that I could end with,” I tell myself. I expect more from this guy, sad to say. I came to this with expectations. “But you have to do everything so much better than I could ever hope to do, so that I don’t tear myself up with jealousy.” Unfair, I know.
If you set that one aside, then–what you see is a lurching kind of development of the writer. He starts out as a master craftsman, a master carpenter of words, a master architect. Everything that I’m striving to hit, he’s already hit it, knocked it out of the park. But there’s no soul to it, no intimacy, no personal creepy crawlies, or if there are, they’re very deeply buried, so that they only really pop out when you start comparing the stories to each other. Old people, rich people, people in the employ of the rich and powerful. I get the impression that none of this is personally important to the author. Then, as things go on, you see stories with flashes of personal squick to them. Bugs. The dent in the rich guy’s wife’s forehead. His love of screwed-up art. The Mima Mounds, which seems as if they’re too important to describe directly: they can only be mentioned, or the fact that they can’t really be seen can be dwelt upon.
Then the moment when everything gets blown up: “The Royal Zoo Is Closed.” Which feels like a story where the author finally lets go of the rule book of how to write a good story and just gets drunk and raves and raves without really giving a shit about how it turns out, sends it off, and gets it published, much to his surprise. A watershed of freedom.
And, finally–”The Imago Sequence.”
It hits me, as I’m making tea this morning (I finished the story last night and, oddly, didn’t dream about it), that “The Imago Sequence” describes what it feels like to become a horror writer, or even just a writer in general. There’s a first phase, that feels interesting but mysterious. Pretentious, copycattish, yeah yeah whatever. A second phase, where you get addicted to the stuff and you write to stop the nightmares and everything is too damn hard. Stuff sloshes around in you, you start looking at the world differently: “Hey, that one thing that everyone takes for granted? It sucks. It just @#$%^&* sucks.” And every time you go off about that thing, people look at you like an idiot (at best), or start attacking you because you’ve just pushed the taboo button. There are things that everyone would rather not know–not the same things for each person, but still. Rather. Not. Know. And then there comes a third phase, where you dig deeper and deeper into yourself (which is a nicely literal scene in the story itself) and pull out all the ugliness you can find, until it splatters the landscape and transforms the world in subtle little ways, leaving clues for the next person to find. If Lovecraft hadn’t been racist, for example–he wouldn’t have been Lovecraft.
I’m not sure about the conclusion buried within “The Imago Sequence” itself–it sounds like there’s a fourth phase, which is the horror writer being ingested by the things that horrify him, and he becomes them or is destroyed by them. I don’t know that that’s true–I mean, weren’t we the things that horrify us already?–but it certainly feels like an intimate kind of horror, being consumed. Just what I was looking for.
By the time I finished the collection, I was like, A) gonna read more by this guy to see where he’s taking things, and B) I feel like a sick predator for enjoying the fact that the author has been dragged down more into being a personal, intimate, naked horror writer instead of Mr. Cleverdick. I’m not sure whether B comes more from the writer side of me or the reader side of me: it’s not often that you get exactly the kind of writer you want, writing the kinds of stories that you didn’t know you wanted, but there they are, and really I’m hoping that that’s where he’s going. “Scare me! You’re headed in my perfect horrific direction! Go faster!” A selfish thought.
This morning I looked up the copyright dates. Earliest: “Shiva, Open Your Eye.” Latest, the Black Sloth story. I keep smiling in anticipation.
Final thought: Is the reason that the earlier stories don’t affect me due to the fact that I’m just not afraid of old people or suppressing the idea that wealth and power aren’t all that good for you? In short, because I’m just not afraid of the same things–and the author didn’t bother to teach me how to be afraid of them?
Is it ethical to teach someone how to be afraid of something they weren’t already afraid of? Especially if you don’t afterwards teach the reader how to defeat it?
It must be what horror readers want, though. Think of how many people like plushie Cthulul dolls, how many people from my generation who are afraid of clowns.