” ‘Out there’ is a relative term, it’s closer than you might think. Oh my, the great Dark is only as far away as your closet when you kill the light…as your reflection when it thinks you aren’t looking.” (Laird Barron)
My latest post is about an author who is definitely my kind of writer- Laird Barron, an intriguing practitioner of weird fiction. Barron has a similar thematic approach to H.P Lovecraft, as he writes in the realms of cosmic supernatural horror. The likes of Lovecraft, Poe, and Arthur Machen are his principal influences. His monsters and antagonists are ancient horrors originating from the primal soup of our planet’s past- although these alien, demonic entities tend to exist in other dimensions of existence, and occasionally outside linear time/space (the title story, “The Imago Sequence” from the collection of the same name is a good example of this). However, they have the power to manifest in our own reality, or only to certain individuals. These ancient entities pre-date all modern religions and are of primordial or inter-dimensional origin, although they are the source of many legends and myths. Their existence is only hinted at in ancient pagan rites, and discredited occult and arcane knowledge. Similarly yet again to Lovecraft, Barron’s short stories and The Croning are all set in the same malevolent universe and are part of a cycle concerning these evil entities who are known by several names or identities, such as the ‘beings that live in the cracks’.
The human characters in Barron’s stories, such as Don Miller in The Croning, are usually the victims of such evil entities; the agents of these beings (whether unwitting or manipulated into being so); sometimes these human characters are transfigured or transformed by malevolent forces.
The settings for Barron’s stories are usually the remote forest, lake and mountain areas of Washington State. The wildernesses of the Pacific Northwest region of the United States are to Barron as the New England of the 18th-early 20th century is to Lovecraft, and Maine is to Stephen King. There are many references to temples, stone mounds, megaliths and dolmens, evil sites and locations such as the Mima Mounds, Crescent Lake, Ransom Hollow, Slango, the Broadsword Hotel, – some anachronistic or incongruous to the modern North American setting; and it is heavily implied that said traditions and rites have historically been brought from Europe by the original settlers and colonists; or have manifested themselves through supernatural means.
Barron has written and published three short story collections (The Imago Sequence, Occultation and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All) two novellas (The Light in the Darkness, Xs for Eyes), and one full length novel,The Croning. The Croning reminded me of T.E.D Klein’s The Ceremonies in terms of evil entities manipulating human behaviour, remote settings and dark evil conspiracies. It uses the fairytale of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ as a point of origin. The phrase ‘The croning ‘refers specifically to a type of ritual described in the novel; it also refers obliquely to the masked evil and the gradual transformation of the central character’s wife, linking her to witchcraft. There’s a particular sinister description in the novel when Don Miller’s son tells a story about a supernatural experience he had with a frightening entity that materialised, a manifestation of the evil that is hovering around the family, and threatening Don.
There are certain locations and particular mysterious characters that re-occur and re-appear throughout Barron’s fiction, in different stories. Sometimes they are mentioned in passing or are central to a particular story. Crescent Lake is mentioned in passing in several stories, and is central to the narrative of ‘The Redfield Girls’ in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Characters that re-appear and are prominent in particular stories include Dr Toshi Ryoko (mentioned in The Croning, several short stories and appears most prominently in ‘The Forest’ (Occultation); Boris Kalamov; Phil Wary (who also goes by the name Helios Augustus in ‘Hand of Glory’ –The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All– and is a black magician). There’s also a mysterious book filled with dark, arcane occult secrets called the Morderor de Calginis which re-appears in several stories, and most prominently in ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ (Occultation). It’s an evil volume whose text is constantly in flux, similar in concept to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Also a curious party game called ‘Something Scary’ is mentioned on numerous occasions in Barron’s fiction. Barron also refers to conspiracy theories and historic mysteries such as the disappearances on Roanoke Island, and MK-Ultra in his fiction.
I found that Barron’s novellas The Light in the Darkness and Xs for Eyes are not typical of the rest of his work; and instead are written in a form of hyper-reality/fantasy/alternate history, similar to comic book fiction, but with horror and speculative fiction elements. I enjoyed both novellas but felt they lacked the depth and sinister atmosphere of his shorter stories.
My favourite Barron short story is ‘Hallucigenia’ (from The Imago Sequence); it begins with the wealthy protagonist, Wallace, and his younger wife being driven by their chauffeur through the Black Hills; their car breaks down near a remote farmhouse; and then the story takes unexpected and disturbing turns.
There are notable differences with Barron’s work compared to Thomas Ligotti, who I wrote about in my previous blog article. Unlike Ligotti, Barron’s protagonists attempt to fight back and resist the powerful evil forces which they are forced to confront. Barron’s central characters are usually younger and more vigorous men and women of action, rather than Ligotti’s paranoid, flawed and helpless characters and unreliable narrators. In fact, in the case of the novellas, Barron’s central characters possess unusual , or superhuman powers. I prefer his short stories to the novellas, but his novel The Croning is as strong as anything he’s written so far. It’s an excellent horror novel, as frightening and brilliant as any novel I’ve read in the genre. I’m looking forward to more wonderful stories from Laird Barron.