Genre categories tend to tell us very little about the work gathered under them. Classifying something under “Western,” “Horror,” “Mystery,” or “Science Fiction” gives us certain information, respectively, about a book’s setting, mood, plot or relationship to technology and time. Calling fiction “Literary,” on the other hand, is more about purveying cultural respectability based on the quality of its style and form, though too many so-called literary books don’t fulfill that promise of quality, while many books we think of as genre do.
Genre categories help us find books we like by pointing us toward similar books. But they also steer us away from books that we’d otherwise like by telling us, “No, you don’t want to read that: it’s not Literature; it’s Horror.”
Which brings us to Laird Barron.
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The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (Nightshade Books, 2013) is Laird Barron’s fifth book and his third collection of short stories. Barron’s fiction is Horror with a capital H. He has a Weird Lovecraftian streak, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He publishes his short stories in magazines like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and anthologies with names like The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination or Ghosts: Recent Hauntings or Cthulu’s Reign. At the same time, while fully conscious of genre conventions, Barron has quietly built up an impressive and unsettling body of work. He’s also willing to take us almost anywhere. In a story from his collection Occultation, for instance, a man ejaculates himself into nothingness, a strangeness that inverts the strangeness of Antonin Artaud’s “Paul the Birds” in which someone ejaculates “a great white bird, like sperm which turns and spirals in the air.”
I’m not going to argue that Barron’s short fiction is “really” literary fiction, since I think that misses the point. It is decidedly genre fiction — very smart Lovecraftian horror often (but not always) with a contemporary twist. Barron knows the genre he is writing in, and knows it well. He knows, too, where solid walls might in fact be false panels that can slide back to reveal new rooms, places where the genre hasn’t thought to go, but should.
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The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All is as strong an outing for Barron as any, and a good a place to start. I’m going to talk about only three stories in detail, but before doing so, I’ll say that most of the nine stories involve people isolated from what is familiar to them, forced to confront ideas or forces that neither they nor we can completely take in. Evil and menace are anything but personal: these aren’t tales of revenge or of the need to put a ghost to rest, but rather stories about the small things we do to attract the attention of forces that would otherwise be indifferent to us. They’re stories about complicity, with Barron’s characters finally understanding too late what has made them vulnerable or evil. In Laird Barron’s work, to borrow from Weldon Kees, “the world, like a beast, impatient and quick, / Waits only for those that are dead. No death for you. You are involved.”
The opening story, “Blackwood’s Baby,” assembles a group of eccentric hunters who seem straight out of an unholy alliance of Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939) and the Robert Mitchum film The Track of the Cat (1954). In it, a number of renown hunters have been invited to the Black Ram Lodge in the Pacific Northwest to hunt Blackwood’s Baby, a gigantic demonic buck who has been hunted many times before, always to the detriment of the hunters. They tell tales, fight a little, and then eventually set out to slaughter or be slaughtered. There’s something inevitable about where the story ends up, but Barron makes the ride worthwhile. He’s remarkably skilled at revealing something about the main character just as he begins to understand it himself, and then exiting the story in a way that leaves both the character and the reader implicit in the same nightmare.
In “The Siphon,” Lancaster, the main character, becomes involved in a situation well beyond his understanding or control, with a hidden, carefully controlled part of his past that will either doom him or help him survive. Recruited by the National Security Agency, Lancaster is asked to “take the measure” of a Dr. Lucas Christou, a naturalized citizen with esoteric interests, whom the NSA has its eye on. While serving as a host for Christou and others like him, Lancaster finds himself involved in an occult and deadly convergence. Whether Lancaster will survive or not is less the issue than whether another character is right in telling Lancaster “Really, you’ve been dead for years, haven’t you?” “The Siphon” is the most frightening story to be set in Kansas since Truman Capote’s “Handcarved Coffins,” and one that kept working on me long after I’d finished it.
The only story that slips a little is “More Dark,” about a group of writers going to New York to hear a reading by a highly reclusive horror writer, clearly based on Thomas Ligotti. It’s a story-à-clef, and part of the fun comes in identifying the actual writers being alluded to, which isn’t too difficult. But this fill-in-the-blanks activity stands in the way of the story’s mood. With our intellects busy sorting out the clues, we’re never allowed to completely fall into the story, and Barron gets his full effect only when that happens.
But this is a minor complaint to an otherwise quite stunning collection. Indeed, all these stories are strong and terrifying, and Barron is an expert at drawing us into a claustrophobic space without us knowing where he’s leading us. By the time we realize where we are, it’s already too late.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is available from Night Shade Books.