by S. T. Joshi
LAIRD BARRON. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2013. 276 pp. $26.99 hardcover.
Laird Barron has, in a remarkably short period of time, emerged as one of the leading writers of contemporary weird fiction. Indeed, in my judgment he stands just below Caitlín R. Kiernan as the preeminent weird writer of his generation. (The wily veteran Ramsey Campbell still looms above them and others; by this point, the sum total of his achievement may place him at the very pinnacle of weird fiction, past or present.) In large part this high ranking is the result of Barron’s undoubted merits as a writer—a prose style of singular fluidity and muscular sinuosity; a skill at blending genres (the supernatural tale, the hard-boiled crime story, the superhero narrative, the tale of espionage) into a seamless unity; and an imaginativeness in the fashioning of weird scenarios and phenomena that casts into the shadows of mediocrity the tired vampires, werewolves, and zombies of popular fiction. But in at least a small part Barron’s celebrity has to do with a certain amount of log-rolling on the part of some influential figures and institutions in the field. Their identities are well known, and there is no need to cite them here; nor is there any need to suggest any underhanded motive in their promotion of Barron and his work, which on the whole justifies their lavish praise. But he is not the only writer who deserves to be singled out, and one hopes that some of our critics eventually learn to cast a wider net and elevate other worthy writers in our midst.
Barron excels in the novelette and the novella; and this third story collection, like its predecessors, The Imago Sequence (2007) and Occultation (2010), contains nine lengthy and substantial stories. On the level of prose, there is not a single criticism to make, save one that I will reserve for the end of this review; on the level of substance and import, the verdict is a bit more mixed.
One of the difficulties that many contemporary authors face is the incessant demand of editors to write stories on a given theme or topic. (I am myself as guilty as anyone, having badgered any number of writers into generating Lovecraftian tales for my Black Wings series and other stand-alone volumes; I have published what I humbly believe to be Barron’s best story—“The Broadsword”—and will be publishing two others in anthologies in 2014.) There is reason to think that such demands are deflecting authors from writing what they really wish to write and forcing them to produce stories to order; even talented writers like Kiernan and Barron seem at times to have difficulties in the process, writing tales that are either only tangentially related to the purported theme of the anthology or that are so mechanically in consonance with the theme that they become artificial and contrived. Barron’s work generally tends toward the former—and the paradoxical result is that, when the stories are printed outside the context of their original appearances, they gain a certain aesthetic independence that allows them to stand on their own as genuine imaginative products.
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 bring 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 energy” 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.” 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 good to see Barron drawing upon his Pacific Northwest roots, even though he moved away from Washington State a few years ago: every one of the stories in the 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.
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.
Laird Barron is, as I say, immensely talented; but he is not beyond criticism. He occasionally reveals a tendency toward highfalutin’ literary archness that is more than a little dismaying. Perhaps he is trying to please certain editors who think this kind of writing constitutes high art. He would be well advised to stick to the sort of narrative that has made him justly recognized as a titan in our field—stories like “The Broadsword” or “The Men of Porlock” as well as his superb first novel, The Croning (2012). Thankfully, there is enough of this kind of writing in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All to make it a feast for any connoisseur of weird fiction.
The copyediting of this book leaves much to be desired. Barron is one of many talented writers whose work would benefit from the tender ministrations of a skilled copyeditor; and his publisher failed to provide them here. This is a perennial problem in the small press, even one so eminent as Night Shade; but it needs to be addressed if contemporary weird fiction is to be taken seriously as a legitimate art form.