If you like the kind of horror that is atmospherically influenced — say by dark, cold woodland nights, or eerily deserted farmhouses, or maybe ancient, overlooked ruins and caves placed far out in the wilderness — if you like all of these things then you will love Laird Barron. If you enjoy horror stories where people become utterly stranded in areas that don’t seem that far off the beaten track at first, but end up being a whole world away from reality, or where a dark night hunting in the woods opens onto scenes of creatures and actions that would break a man’s mind forever, if he lived to tell about it — if you also enjoy all of these things, then you will want to get your hands on something by Laird Barron.
I found out about Barron thanks to Stephen Graham Jones, and I don’t remember now whether it was in an intro to one of Graham Jones’ books or one of his articles or blog posts, but I definitely do remember that it is to him I owe the gratitude. The first thing I picked up was, Occultation and Other Stories. The first story, “The Forest”, starts:
After the drive had grown long and monotonous, Partridge shut his eyes and the woman was waiting. She wore a cold white mask similar to the mask Bengali woodcutters donned when they ventured into the mangrove forests along the coast…The woman in the white mask reached into a wooden box. She lifted a tarantula from the box and held it to her breast like a black carnation. The contrast was as magnificent as a stark Monet if Monet had painted watercolors of emaciated patricians and their pet spiders.
Barron’s prose is elegant, a long, dark dream, but interspersed with real and minimalist modern clips that create an overall impression that is unmatched. He also has a knack for conversation, usually between couples, that somehow manages to combine daily reality with the slightly off center world in which his characters live:
–Holy shit, what’s that? he said.
–Coyotes, she said. Scavenging for damned souls.
–Sounds fucking grandiose for coyotes.
–And what do you know? They’re the favored children of the carrion gods. Grandiosity is their gig.
One of my favorite stories by Barron, “Blackwood’s Baby”, appears in a collection, Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense. This is the ultimate hunting trip gone wrong. It comes complete with a creepy, old-money style hunting lodge back in the rural hills of Washington state and an assorted selection of the world’s best hunters, all gathered for the annual attempt to take down a stag rumored to be the spawn of the devil. Barron uses a familiar setup in this story, but his prose and imagery spin this into a completely different tale than what is expected, and it’s a story that I simply can’t get out of my head. I’m happy to see that this story will also be included in his upcoming book (see below).
Most recently I read his full-length work, The Croning. In this work, Barron explores a combination of fantasy, mythology, and concepts within a relationship. Question come up, like, how well do you really know your significant other? What’s the real reason their family doesn’t come to visit? And, what in hell actually happened on that trip to Mexico?
The book starts with a modified recounting of “Rumpelstiltskin”, which sets the stage for the underlying evil. We are then introduced to the main characters of the book, Don and Michelle, who are both academics with a long history of secrets, strangeness, and the compromises that come with any long-term relationship. However, when they move to Michelle’s family house out in the countryside, things begin to come to head in a big way. The house and surrounding area are revealed to contain mysteries that Don hasn’t let himself think about for many years. There are some really well done creepy passages in this book. Take for example Don’s memory of one night when he heard a strange noise:
He’d sat up to investigate, when Michelle gripped his wrist. Her hand was cold, wasn’t it? Like it had been in a meat locker. How unreal the white oval of her face hanging there in the gloom. Her hair floated black and wild and her fingers tightened until his bones gritted. A purple ring puffed his wrist the next day.
Honey, don’t, she’d said in a soft, matter-of-fact tone, and pulled him against her breast. Don’t leave me. The bed is cold.
No, she was cold; her hands, her body, frigid as a corpse through her thin gown. Yet he’d streamed with sweat, his chest sticky, his pajamas drenched and he’d been breathing like a man who’d run up a steep hill.
As a reader, we spend the book, along with Don, trying to figure out what exactly his wife has been up to all these years on her research trips. The answers are not pretty.
I think I’m a little addicted to Baird’s unusual style and ideas, and am eagerly awaiting the next installment of his writing, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, which is set to release on August 13, 2013. Read an early review here at the Agony Column.