Night Shade Books, 2010
"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 Lagerstätte," 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."
8. “–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.