by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)
When Laird Barron (b. 1970) published his first book, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007), he was immediately hailed as a brilliant new voice in contemporary weird fiction. His reputation was cemented with Occultation and Other Stories (2010), a vibrant and diverse collection that does indeed contain some of the best weird writing of the past several decades. But both collections were marred by weak or unsuccessful items, and that tendency has only continued in his later short story work.
The hallmark of much of Barron’s writing is a prose style of singular panache and deftness, along with a complex fusion of several genres—among them the superhero topos, espionage, science fiction, and hard-boiled crime fiction—with supernatural horror. At their best—as, say, in the novella “The Broadsword” (2010)—these elements can produce scintillating effects unlike those found in any other writer in the field; but at their worst they devolve into a schtick, as Barron overuses the same motifs over and over again in tales that fail to cohere into a tightly knit unity. This problem particularly besets two lacklustre novellas, The Light Is the Darkness and Man with No Name.
Barron’s strengths and weaknesses are on display in his solitary novel, The Croning (2012). This novel was long in gestation and composition, and it shows. In essence, the book is one long tease—a succession of hints about weird phenomena lurking behind the surface façade of life—but without any true dénouement or payoff at the end. Written in a deliberately fragmented narrative style that spans at least four decades, from 1958 to the early twenty-first century, it is chiefly concerned with the relationship of Don and Michelle Miller. In 1958, the recently married couple are in Mexico; Don, a geologist, is concerned that his wife, an anthropologist, has gone missing after going off with a colleague to explore traces of a lost tribe in the area. Don himself is spirited away by agents of Mexican Intelligence and apparently forced to participate in some ill-defined ceremony. Later he is found, near death, but he recovers. Meanwhile it turns that Michelle is not missing after all.
In the present day, Don, now an old man, is cleaning out the house while Michelle is away. He comes upon a book to which Barron has affixed the ferociously erroneous Latin title, Morderor de Caliginis (155), which is apparently meant to translate to The Black Guide. In the first place, there is not even any such word in Latin as Morderor: evidently Barron meant to write moderor, which does mean “guide” in certain contexts. However, the preposition de (which Barron seems to think means “of” or “to”) more properly means “from” (in some contexts it can mean “about” or “on,” as in such a title as Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of Things]), and in any case it requires the ablative case in its accompanying noun (caligine, “darkness”), not the genitive case (caliginis). It apparently did not occur to Barron to ask someone who actually knew Latin to come up with a proper title for this work. In any event, the book tells of strange places in the Northwest. Later Don finds an illustration in an old book called The Croning:
The drawing was exceedingly baroque, freighted with peripheral figures: winged gargoyles; demonic beasts that resembled kangaroos with tusks (these latter feasted upon the carcasses of men in Conquistadors’ distinctive armor); cherubs; flautists; and, peeking from the roots of a mighty oak tree, shadowy woodland sprites, imp faces twisted in dark merriment. Its overall effect was singularly disturbing, like a Bosch simplified and shrunk to minuscule dimensions. (163)<
A splendidly evocative passage. Indeed, it is at this very point that the novel gains whatever force and atmospheric tensity it has, as Don and others go on a camping trip and find a dolmen (even though there are presumably none in North America). This whole passage—especially an episode where Don watches a friend, Hank, enter the dolmen and later hears an odd moaning sound emerging from within it—is a fine set-piece of horrific suggestiveness. Unfortunately, its relevance to the overall narrative remains unclear.
We get some further hints of the cosmic scenario in a flashback to the year 1980, when Michelle tells Don that she is going to Russia to participate in a ritual called “a croning” (195). Oddly enough, Michelle does not specify the meaning or significance of this ritual; indeed, nowhere does Barron himself provide a definition of the unusual word croning, which one website defines as “a celebration which formally recognizes that a woman has achieved the status of crone, elder or wise woman” (http://www.unitariancongregation.org/ceremonies/croning-ceremony/). I have no idea whether this is what Barron means by the term, nor, if it is, what it has to do with the general thrust of the novel. For he goes on to relate that there is a cult that worships an entity called Old Leech: “This worship was transmitted to us by a race that exists on the rim of the universe and spreads like a mold crawling across meat” (215). There is later mention of a “herd who trafficked with the Dark Ones” (233), and Don comes to the realization that Michelle “was an ‘untouchable,’ a select member of the herd who trafficked with the Dark Ones” (233). At the end we are to be concerned that “‘The Great Dark will arrive and cocoon your world as it cocoons ours. Terra will be hollowed and refined as we hollow and refine sapient flesh, and the planet shall be added to the Diaspora, dragged from its orbit of Sol, and taken away. This is what always happens’” (242).
There is no true climax to the novel, and readers are left to piece together exactly how the croning ceremony, Old Leech, the Dark Ones, the Great Dark, and other elements in the work truly fuse together. The Croning is elegantly written and features occasionally effective passages ranging from grim physical gruesomeness to cosmic menace; but the pieces do not appear to add up to a coherent whole. There are tips of the hat to Machen (Michelle is doing research on the “little people” ) and Lovecraft (Barron’s Dark Ones may be an allusion to Lovecraft’s cadre of extraterrestrial entities, the Old Ones), but in the end we are left wondering exactly what the defining thread of the novel is supposed to be.
Further signs of trouble emerged in Barron’s third short story collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013). There are fine stories in the book, but even the best of them have annoying flaws. Consider, for example, “Hand of Glory.” This richly textured novella was originally written for The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), but one would never know it, for its Lovecraftian elements are slim to non-existent. What we have here is a compelling tale of Johnny Cope (a characteristic Barron character—a tough-guy fighter with remarkable capacities for recovering from injuries and a world-weary cynicism that brings Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe to mind) pursuing a man named Conrad Paxton, who may or may not have killed his father. Did Paxton somehow “drain [Cope’s] father’s life energy” (82) through photography? The narrative gradually shifts to Eadweard Maybridge, the photographer, who may have come “tantalizingly close to unlocking something vast and inimical to human existence” (99). That single line may be the closest we get to Lovecraftian thematics, but otherwise there is nothing of the Cthulhu Mythos or any other signature Lovecraft element—and that is all to the good.
The other nominally Lovecraftian tale, “The Men from Porlock” (written for The Book of Cthulhu ), is an even more powerful and gripping narrative, but again its Lovecraftian elements are slight. Here we are in a logging camp in Washington State in the 1920s, where a group of loggers are sent out to hunt some deer but find something much stranger—specifically, an uncharted village populated with many pregnant women but apparently no children. When the men of the village return, there are some customary fisticuffs, but that is the least interesting part of this grim and brooding tale.
It is, indeed, good to see Barron drawing upon his Pacific Northwest roots, even though he moved away from Washington State several years ago: every one of the stories in this book, except the last, is set in the land of old-growth evergreens and crystal lakes. Hunting seems to be the focus of “Blackwood’s Baby,” but it quickly becomes evident that the human hunters have become the hunted in their pursuit of a huge stag. Like many of Barron’s longer tales, it begins slowly but develops toward a powerful climax. And the surface scenario gradually unfolds into a rumination on the age-old human tendency toward sacrifice: a scapegoating ritual proves to be the grisly climax of this hypnotic story.
“The Redfield Girls” is set in what Barron calls Lake Crescent (although everyone I know in the Seattle area refers to it as Crescent Lake). A poignant and melancholy tale of death and the ghosts that emerge from it, it is a more conventional narrative than many of Barron’s, but no less gripping. A somewhat similar story is “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven,” an account of two women in a remote cabin in Washington State, one of whom may be turning into a wolf or coyote.
But even Barron nods; and, alas, there are several tales that don’t come off. Perhaps the most disappointing is a lengthy story, “The Siphon.” It does little but talk about weirdness (somewhat in the manner of some of Arthur Machen’s tales, notably “The White People,” although Machen takes care to deliver an actual story in the process), then descends into pointless bloodletting (the tale was written for Ellen Datlow’s Blood and Other Cravings ), then concludes with more talking. It is, I am sorry to say, one of the most pretentious, unfocused, and verbose stories Barron has ever written. Not much better is “Vastation,” written for Cthulhu’s Reign (2010), a volume that asked writers to imagine what it would be like if the Lovecraftian cosmic entities took over the earth. Barron’s tale is a perfectly incomprehensible horror/science fiction hybrid that remains opaque even when its purported “theme” is known.
But the saddest story of the lot is “More Dark,” the one tale not set in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, New York City is the locus, and we are treated to a dismayingly nasty and mean-spirited caricature of Thomas Ligotti (poorly disguised as “Tom L”). Barron’s protagonist states
My impression of L’s work was lukewarm as I found his glib pooh-poohing of the master Robert Aickman as a formative influence of his disingenuous considering their artistic similarities, and L’s reduction of human characters to ciphers a trifle off-putting.…His gloom and groan regarding the Infernal Bureaucracy wasn’t my cup of tea, yet it possessed a certain resonance among the self-loathing, chronically inebriated, perpetually persecuted set. (252)
There is much more of this, not to mention cameo appearances of Ellen Datlow, Mark Samuels, Michael Cisco, Gordon Van Gelder, and many others (including myself). What possible reason Barron could have had for writing this story is beyond my understanding; it would probably prove entirely incomprehensible to those who don’t know the characters involved, and unseemly for those who do. I fervently hope Barron doesn’t write anything like this again.
By the time Barron assembled his fourth story collection, Swift to Chase (2016), something disastrous seems to have happened. Barron has made the regrettable decision to focus many of the stories upon a recurring cadre of undistinguished and indistinguishable individuals who all attended a high school in Alaska and went on to various careers in law enforcement, criminality, and so forth. The result is that all these stories end up sounding the same: they are all written in the identical gonzo, pseudo-hipster style that Barron has lately cultivated, a kind of curdled parody of the superb mellifluousness of his earlier prose.
Some of these stories begin well, but end disappointingly. “Screaming Elk, MT” presents a striking scenario, whereby Jessica Mace, who has gained celebrity in capturing and killing a serial killer in Alaska, finds herself in Montana, where she meets a man named Beasley. Beasley claims that a nearby carnival, to which he takes Mace, is cursed: wherever the carnival goes, many dead bodies are later found—but no one can remember these events. This cycle began with a murder at the carnival in 1965. Beasley wishes to re-enact that event (with Mace used essentially as bait) in order to lift the curse. This is a highly provocative premise, but the story ends anticlimactically when a female police deputy (who in fact is a kind of werewolf) is subdued far too easily by a steel wrecking bar. Further stories involving Mace (the book is in fact dedicated to “Jessica M”) are still poorer, including the unfocused and meandering “LD50” (a tale concerning, of all things, a serial killer of dogs), and the entirely incoherent “Termination Dust.”
Another recurring character is Julie Vellum, one of Mace’s rivals in high school. She figures in “Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees,” an amusing story about the fact that the deceased comedian Andy Kaufman (best known for his role as Latka Gravas on the television show Taxi) is in fact being kept alive by the repeated infusion of blood from leeches. It is all very entertaining—but this story appeared in the anthology Autumn Cthulhu (2016), and the Lovecraftian content of the story seems to me vanishingly small. Vellum appears in another meandering and incoherent tale, “(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness,” which involves another character from the Alaska high school, one Zane Tooms. He, in turn, recurs in another pointless story, “Slave Arm.” And the book concludes with a painfully longwinded tale, “Tomahawk Park Survivors Raffle,” about yet more characters from that benighted high school.
“Ardor” is about the attempt to find an actor who appeared in a pornographic version of Dracula. The tale is, like The Croning, narrated in a deliberately fragmented manner, but its chief focus seems to be on bloodletting. The latter trait is also at the forefront of the story “the worms crawl in,” (the comma is part of the title), about a man who thinks his wife is having an affair with his friend. There is some value in the man’s reflections on what events in his past life and family history might have led to his present circumstances; but chiefly the story seems to relish the trail of mayhem he leaves as he comes back from a camping trip with his purportedly faithless friend to confront his wife, who somehow manages to survive the encounter.
“Ears Prick Up” is narrated by a dog—whether bionic or robotic is not made clear. This opaque, directionless post-apocalyptic story tells of a society that has apparently reverted to a quasi-Roman civilisation, complete with barbarians. “Black Dog” is an inconclusive but engaging story of a man and a woman who have a date on Halloween.
The one story in Swift to Chase that provides some fleeting glimpses of the Barron of old is “Frontier Death Song.” This richly textured tale begins with the Iditarod of 1992, where the first-person narrator (whose name, so far as I can tell, is never specified) sees one Stephen Graham, an ex-professor, being killed by some figure that the narrator calls the Huntsman, along with a gang of wolf-men. The narrator manages to escape the carnage, but years later he encounters a revivified Graham in a roadside café in North Dakota. Graham is now determined to kill him (“To witness the Hunt, to interfere with the Hunt, was to become prey” ): it soon becomes clear that Graham himself has now become the Huntsman. It is never specified whether the Huntsman is a product of Norse or of Christian mythology, as there are hints of both in the story; but his formidable powers make him an enemy to be feared. The narrator heads to Long Island to join a friend, Jack Fort, who had earlier formed a witch coven with Graham in college. In a subsequent attack by Graham and his hounds, Fort is killed and it appears that both the narrator and Graham are blown up by a stick of dynamite. But Fort magically comes back to life and then blows Graham away with a rifle. Now the narrator (who has managed to survive the dynamite explosion) and Fort are the new Huntsmen. This story, full of grotesque violence as it is, nonetheless gains strength from the rough-hewn introspection by the unnamed narrator as he compactly ponders the course of his life:
Life went on. We tried for children without success. I have a hunch Sharon left me because I was shooting blanks. Who the fuck knows, though. Much like the Wild Hunt, the Meaning of Life, and where matching socks vanish to, her motives remain a mystery. Things seemed cozy between us; she’d always been sympathetic of my tics and twitches and I’d tried to be a good and loving husband in return. Obviously, living with a half-crazed author took a greater toll than I’d estimated. Add screams in the night and generally paranoid behavior to the equation . . . (234)
Contrast this instance of lapidary prose with the incredible bombast and fustian of a passage in “the worms crawl in,”:
Traffic routes around me, makes me consider the legend of the stampeding buffalo herd breaking around a man if he remains motionless and tall in his boots. The sun arcs across the sky four times, and so swiftly it sheds tracers of flame. A green-gold ball of bubbling gas, a bacterium in division. The amoeba sun segments in rhythm with my own squamous brain cells. The sun strobes and vanishes. The sliver of moon swings down and sinks into my breast, cold as a fang of ice. That which nests within my DNA blooms and reticulates as it rewrites parameters of operation. (159)
Only those wedded to the Iowa Writers Workshop school of fictional composition could find anything to praise in a turgid, clotted passage as this. Unfortunately, it is more the rule than the exception in Swift to Chase.
It is interesting to note what stories Barron has not included in the volume, suggesting that even he senses that some of his recent tales are not entirely up to the mark. There is a story called “D T” (in Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.’s anthology A Season in Carcosa ), whose relation to Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow (the focus of the anthology) is pretty tenuous, and which seems quite literally unfinished.
“Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form” is the final story in Ross Lockhart’s Lovecraftian anthology Cthulhu Fhtagn! (2015). This is one more reprise of what, as I have mentioned, has become a shtick in Barron’s output—the commingling of the superhero topos with that of espionage, with a certain amount of physical gruesomeness along the way. Here Barron seeks to provide some variation by having his superheroes be a group of strong women (or, as he calls them, a “cabal of kick-ass bitches”—a term I presume is meant in praise). One of these individuals heads up to Alaska, encounters a talking marionette in the shape of Edgar Allan Poe, and does battle with two tough broads who also have a talking marionette in tow, named Bob (also called “The Eater of Dolls”). There are some fisticuffs along the way that leave all parties rather the worse for wear.
I am not joking. This really is the plot—if it can be called that—of the story. Aside from the fact that there is not the slightest Lovecraftian content in it, the tale embodies what might be called authorial preening: Barron is so keen on showing you that he is a clever and innovative fellow (he has, after all, used second-person narration—even though such a device does not in fact work very effectively here) that the fundamental absurdity of the story escapes him. Perhaps we can charitably assume that the tale is a parody of some kind.
The critical success of Barron’s early volumes—especially the scintillating Occultation—resulted in the accretion of a cadre of supporters who advocated for his high standing in the field. I am not in any way suggesting that Barron himself orchestrated this cabal of cheerleaders, self-styled disciples, and sycophants; but the end result was that any critic who failed to find every one of his contributions anything less than transcendently brilliant ran the risk of being met with torrents of abuse and billingsgate.
But a worse fate has befallen Barron himself. In short, he appears to have started believing his own press. (Ray Bradbury, an incalculably superior writer, suffered something similar in the mid-1950s; accordingly, he generally lapsed into mediocrity over the remaining decades of his long career.) His head turned by the early plaudits he received, Barron evidently came to believe that there was no room for improvement in his work, and so he merely wrote in the same manner over and over again, in the misguided hope of duplicating the tone, style, and manner of what had apparently worked earlier. The end result is that his tales have of late become formulaic and repetitive. His current work is self-indulgent, insincere, pretentious, and at times all but unreadable. He now stands well to the rear of such of his contemporaries as Caitlín R. Kiernan, Jonathan Thomas, Michael Aronovitz, Richard Gavin, and others discussed in this volume.
The decline and fall of a writer who began with such promise is nothing to gloat over, but only to lament. There are not enough good writers in this field that we can afford to lose one of them. One must hope that the genuine talents that Barron has in such abundance—a prose idiom that, at its best, is vibrant, fluid, and evocative; weird conceptions that draw in part upon the best work of his predecessors, ranging from Machen to Lovecraft to Aickman, but nonetheless remain strikingly original; and a keen sensitivity to the complexities of human character, especially when we creatures of a day are faced with isolation, brutality, and cosmic terror—can save him from his own lackeys so that he resumes the production of tales analogous to those compelling early works that once placed him high among the ranks of contemporary weird writers.