Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Occultation and Other Stories, by Laird Barron

Night Shade Books, 2010
245 pp

"The brain is a camera, and once it sees what it sees there's no taking it back."

I do believe I've found a new favorite contemporary horror writer in Laird Barron.  He is probably (at least, as far as those I have read) the only author who can put together a compilation of his stories and keep me totally involved, off balance and maximally creeped out through the entire book without any exceptions. He's also one of the few horror writers in my experience who writes his stories with prose to equal pretty much any literary author, and he does not rely on cheap thrills, hack-em/slash-em gratuitous gore or gross shockers to strike a genuine chord of fear that continues to resonate long after the last page has been read.  The visual imagery of these stories is also striking; there are some scenes that are still playing in my head right now as I'm writing this post, especially from "Strappado," a story whose ramifications hit me like a sledge hammer. Whoa. The dark atmosphere that envelops the book as a whole hits you the minute you open to the first story and then never lets up. Obviously I really liked Occultation;  there's absolutely nothing like a few excellently-terrifying stories to get the adrenaline pumping.  I just wonder where this guy gets his inspiration -- oh, strike that...I don't think I want to know.

As in  Barron's The Imago Sequence, there is a focus here on the cracks in our "earthly architecture" allowing the unearthly inhabitants of the cosmos who lurk there to peek in or wander on into our landscape;  more importantly, they also allow for the more earthbound to catch an unwanted glimpse of what's out there waiting in the shadows. Occultation also continues Imago's themes of absorption and transformation, although this time there is a bit more focus on the occult and the workings of madness than in the previous work, with more than a hint of our own mortal insignificance as aligned with the greater powers that lurk.  Here's a quick rundown of these frightening little tales:

1. “The Forest,” a brief tale that in hindsight serves as a thematic preview to the following stories.  A cinematographer, Richard Partridge,  is invited to what will become both a reunion and a goodbye in the New England woods. His host is a world-famous filmmaker fascinated with "untangling the enigmas of evolutionary origins and ultimate destination," whose newest work offers Partridge a  glimpse into Earth's future, along with the present means of communication with those who are destined to inherit the earth.  Elements of "The Forest" will reappear later. 

2. “Occultation," a story that takes place in a run down old motel along the desert highway.  While a sleep-deprived couple boozes it up in their room, playing "Something Scary," getting high on X and stopping to have sex every now and then, a strange stain on the wall captures their attention. The light in the room doesn't work and the shadow continues to grow; in the meantime, while they partying and the shadow attract their attention, outside the room, "the world had descended into a primeval well."  

3. "The Lagerst├Ątte," which details a woman's decline into madness from her grief at losing her husband and son simultaneously in a plane crash.  Or does it? Related in a manner that leaps around time in a nonlinear sort of way, the story has several jarring, discordant reflected directly from her mind, a place where the line is blurred and often shattered between hauntings, hallucinations, and reality.

4. “Mysterium Tremendum,” an offering about two couples who take a brief camping vacation into the woods of the Pacific Northwest guided by a strange antiquarian book called the "Moderor de Caliginis" found quite by chance.  The story starts out slowly, but builds into one of the creepiest stories in this volume, as the group slowly realizes the truth of an earlier warning that "The Crack that runs through everything stares into you."   Definitely one of the best stories in the book.   The descriptions of the woods in this part of Washington are not only spot on, but downright chilling, as is the creepy ending.

5. “Catch Hell, ”which has much more of an occultish-type touch than Barron's normal fare, although it is one of the stories that definitely embodies his themes of transformation and the "dread of aloneness."  A couple who've recently and mysteriously lost a baby come to the Black Ram Lodge, a former trading post in the 19th century which became a mansion before becoming a tourist spot. Just 40 miles east of Seattle in the hill country, it's a whole different world, as they will soon discover. 

6. “Strappado.” Now we've come to my favorite story of the entire collection, one which absolutely necessitated a reread. Moving out of the woods, even out of the country, "Strappado" takes place in India, where two former lovers are reunited and eventually find their way to an exhibition of the work of an outlaw artist.  To say more would kill it, but I came away from this story both times absolutely stunned at the sheer portrayal of the insignificance of human lives.   Much like "The Procession of the Black Sloth," my favorite story in Barron's The Imago Sequence, "Strappado" is highly reminiscent of an Asian horror film. If they ever did make this story into a movie, leaving nothing to the imagination,  I'd probably have to pass. It's that creepy, and the final few lines of this story really did a number on me in terms of its ramifications.  The title is sort of a double entendre -- you just have to think about it for a while to figure out why. 

7. “The Broadsword” features a retired field surveyor who has a secret that will ultimately return to bite him. A long-term resident of the old, arte deco apartment building known as The Broadsword, Pershing Dennard lives alone.  His story starts with voices heard through a vent -- and an acknowledgement that someone knows he's listening.  Once again, Barron starts the action very slowly and builds it to a horrifying climax that's still resonating in my head, and once again, there is a crossing of the "axis of time and space by means of technologies that were old when your kind oozed in brine," and a hapless human being caught in "the black forest of cosmic night." 
–30–" After just a minute of time on Wikipedia, I learned that " –30–" is a way journalists signal the end of a story.  And indeed, a finish is captured in the beginning of this tale with the lines "You know how this is going to end." Two biologists who have past history but haven't been together for a long time are stationed together in a module within a hemisphere out in the desert of Washington state.  Their work is scheduled to last for six months; the only relief is the occasional helicopter re-supply. They are situated in the former base of  cult-like group called "The Family" whose killing exploits are legendary, much like the group under Charlie Manson in the 1960s. The Family is gone now, but there may be something lurking out there still. Or not.

9. “Six Six Six.” This is another story I had to reread.  A young man and his wife inherit a big house in the forest, where events of the past continue to reverberate in the present and
evil lurks within the very walls. Along with "Catch Hell," "Six Six Six" takes on more of a pure occult style; of the two, this one has much more of a haunted, claustrophobic atmosphere that oozes through the pages.  I always wonder about the people in stories or in movies who come across a door bolted shut by every possible means and decide they absolutely must open it.  Never a good idea.  

The quotation opening this post really says it all.  I'm just in awe of Laird Barron's power to get under my skin and to jolt me out of my comfort zone;  frankly I thought that after Imago the act would be so difficult to follow that it couldn't possibly be as good.  Well, it is. Occultation is an excellent companion to The Imago Sequence. There are so many elements at work here  -- isolation, trauma, survivor guilt, a new look at old ruins, the insignificance of humanity in a grander cosmic scheme, and more.  The backdrop of the forest is absolutely perfect with its covering mists and darkness where anything is bound to jump out or worse...where things lurk just waiting to be stumbled upon.

Highly recommended -- darkness is definitely not needed for the hair on the back of your neck to stand on end.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, by Laird Barron

Night Shade Books, 2007
239 pp

"We are born, we absorb, we are absorbed. Therein lies the function of all sentient beings." 

This is actually a reread for me; I first read this in 2007 when it was published, but I recently felt the need for reading horror and really couldn't remember much about this one, so I pulled it off my shelf.  After finishing it this time, it came to me that I must not have really put any effort into it during my first go, because frankly, these stories are absolutely unforgettable.  The reader is taken off guard, thrown into that sense of unease from the first page, and with only minor respites between stories, is for the most part kept off kilter until the last sentence of the book.  The Imago Sequence more than exceeded my expectations in terms of the fear quotient -- that feeling I get when I read something that keeps a) the hairs on the back of my neck bristling, b) my stomach in knots, and c) the feeling of looming dread alive and well throughout.  Add in a writing style where horror meets literature, and well, they just don't get much better than this, folks.  Seriously.

Contained in The Imago Sequence are nine stories, three of which (*) are so well written and so incredibly creepy that I'm still thinking about them two days later.

1. "Old Virginia," the tale of a  CIA agent  assigned to a detail in the wilds of West Virginia, kept in the dark about an MK-ULTRA project until it's too late;
2. "Shiva, Open Your Eye," a short but powerful entry in this collection. A presence whose sole task lies well beyond human comprehension takes on human form, leaving bodies in its wake.  Read this one carefully -- it sets the stage for most of the stories that follow.  
3.*  "Procession of the Black Sloth," which is one my favorites  in this book, is so unsettling that I had to read it twice.  Set in Hong Kong, with a variety of creepy characters, a man is sent to uncover who is at the root of corporate espionage, and ends up uncovering his true destiny.  Much of  "Procession of the Black Sloth" is viewed via scenes aired on televisions, in photos or other media, and it  reminded me of a lot of the Japanese and Korean horror flicks I watch when my husband's away that keep me up all night afterwards listening to the creaks in the house.  This one had much the same effect -- I had to set the book aside for a day before I could continue.

4."Bulldozer," a story set in the wild west where a gun-wielding, tough-guy Pinkerton operative has been sent on a mission by PT Barnum to recover a stolen Necronomicon-type tome and runs into serial murders that  are part of a  hideous ritual.  I really didn't appreciate this one until reading later stories in this book, but it was good and frightening all the same.
5. "Proboscis," in which an actor who's seen better days tags along with some bounty hunters on a mission to snag a serial killer and realizes that there are devourers among us...
6.* "Hallucigenia."  This is another one of the entries in this novel that provides an off-the-charts goosebump-producing experience as you read.  A wealthy man who's been around  and his beautiful, young  wife are out on a drive when their car suddenly breaks down; while it's being fixed the wife decides to go shoot some photos and comes across an old barn. He follows and out of nowhere his wife is seriously injured, left with a strange crack in her head that refuses to heal. As he's trying to make sense of what's happened at that barn, he spares no expense in tracking down anyone connected with the place.  That day, in more than one way, was a life-changer; "Hallucigenia" provides several OMG moments of sheer delightful fright.
7.  "Parallax," which runs more along the lines of science fiction than the others, where a man whose wife suddenly and out of nowhere goes missing tells the story of the aftermath of her disappearance; the payoff comes at the very end of this story and will leave you stymied.  I liked this one -- and like many of the other stories, it demanded an instant reread.
8. "The Royal Zoo is Closed," is probably my least favorite story in the collection; that doesn't mean it's bad but I just felt that the others were far, far better.
9. * "The Imago Sequence," another of my favorites and probably the creepiest of them all, has as its main character a noir-type protagonist who is hired to find out what happened to someone who went missing, and to find two of a set of three photographs that taken together are known as the Imago Sequence.  The first one strikes some inner chord that  is disturbing enough to the protagonist that he has to see the others, especially the last one.   Truly one of the major highlights of this book, this story held me in its grip and didn't let up for a second -- and I'm still thinking about it.

There are a number of things that I loved about this book.  First, an interesting aspect about all these stories as a whole is that they point thematically in several of the same directions: a) there are the tough-guy characters who in their own realities can more take care of themselves in particularly knotty and extreme situations yet who eventually become putty in the hands of cosmic  forces well beyond their control and their comprehension; b) said forces are often described by Barron as mouths with appetites and he uses holes and cracks as symbols and metaphors that transverse all of these stories; c) the idea that our human need to know is often responsible for our own downfall resonates clearly -- as one character in "Bulldozer" notes, "Ignorance is all the blessing we apes can hope for," but the way Barron develops his characters here leaves little room for passive acceptance among them -- these people want to try to get a grip on understanding what's happening.  Finally,  d) there's a cyclical feel to a number of these stories, as well as the sense that some of them are connected across time and space.  Another reason that this book is such a winner is that Barron doesn't have to lay out scenes of explicit, slasher-film type gore to make his stories work -- he is one of the most gifted horror writers I've read. He is incredibly  talented in using prose that  takes readers to the edge of the worst that can happen and leaving them dangling  to experience the fear, panic and ultimately the hopelessness that abides there. He can create a most palpable sense of doom and dread without having to resort to cheapness, which sadly I've found exists in a lot of horror writing and which is why I rarely read much of it any more. 

There are a number of very eloquent reviews of this book on line; for my part, all I can say is that I am in awe of Barron's talent as a writer.  The outright uneasiness and the sense of being off-kilter I felt throughout this novel speaks to how deeply I was drawn into the worlds he's created.   I had to go back to read several stories a second time to make sure that what I'd just read was indeed the case, a number of these stories gave me an unstoppable case of the willies to the point where I had to put the book down and walk away for a while, and the fact that I'm still thinking of a couple of them two days after finishing is the icing on the cake of how very well written and downright creepy this book is.   The Imago Sequence is definitely a no-miss in the odd world of weird fiction.