Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and other stories, by Laird Barron

Night Shade Books, 2013
276 pp


John Langan notes on the back cover of this book that he "can't sum up Laird Barron in a single, pithy sentence," and neither can I. If you've read his work, you already know that he is one of the best horror/weird fiction writers out there; if you haven't, then you seriously don't know what you're missing.  I don't actually remember how I got started reading his stuff, but now I'm hooked. He's an author I prefer to read late at night, when all is quiet, and if I'm really lucky,  when there's a raging thunderstorm outside. I've also come to realize that when horror/weird fiction/the supernatural is done right, it is just as good as any work of "literary" fiction out there -- and Laird Barron definitely does it right. If you're considering this author's work, go find his story "Strappado." I guarantee you'll come back for more.

and now, without further ado...the stories.

  • Blackwood’s Baby” -- I've already read this story in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four (Ellen Datlow, ed.)earlier this year, and it was just as creepy this time around. Set in Washington state, the story begins as hunter Luke Honey has been invited to join a hunting party at the Black Ram Lodge in the forest of Ransom Hollow. As owner Liam Welloc explains, there are "plenty of deer and boar on this preserve," but the real prize is the "great stag known as Blackwood's Baby."  It is not only "the equal of any beast" that any of those present have ever hunted, but also the subject of  darkest legend in these parts.  Deliciously creepy -- 
  •  “The Redfield Girls” --  For the past ten years, a group of friends, all teachers from the same school,  have all come together for a road trip "along the hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest."  It's a girls' weekend away, where they spend time playing cribbage, drinking wine, reading -- anything to unwind before school starts up again.  This year the women are off to a cabin at Lake Crescent, located on the Olympic Peninsula,  complete with legendary past: it is rumored to be "full of demons"  who would drag trespassers down to the bottom.    Just before the trip is set to get underway, one of the women (Bernice)  receives a surprise visit from her niece, who ends up being number eleven on the trip. Her arrival coincides with a number of strange dreams Bernice has been having, but Bernice passes off the timing as "bizarre" and "too eerie for coincidence."  Off they go, and during a stormy night, the lake's freaky history becomes a topic of conversation to pass the time.  Later on, after a hike, the women decide to test the waters, so to speak -- and the reader is left to wonder if  the supernatural is at work here of if it's just, as Lemony Snicket would say, a series of unfortunate incidents.   Excellent story -- worth it just for the atmosphere alone! 
  •  “Hand of Glory” -- The narrator of this story, Johnny Cope,  tells his tale in hardboiled mode, which is not strange since he has become a hitman for a local tough-guy gangster. Things start going south when a couple of men try to kill him, and he finds a name, Conrad Paxton,  written on the back of a card in a wallet belonging to one of the gunmen.  His boss pays for him to take a "vacation," and sends a couple of guys to take care of him.  As he's about to set on the trail of who was responsible for sending the two killers, he gets a call from someone purporting to be an old friend of his father's, who gives him the name of the man who killed his father.   Never one to sit idly, he makes his way toward his father's killer, and unable to control his destructive urges, steps into something way over his head.   The hardboiled tone in this story blends perfectly with eerie black magic, some freakishly strange sisters,  and a maker of bizarre films to create a flawless, frightening tale.
  • "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” takes place in Poger Rock, pop. 190, in yet another cabin in the woods.  The remoteness of the location is by choice, since a woman, Lorna,  who has been a constant victim of abuse by her husband,  takes up shelter there.  Her lover, Miranda, was able to get the cabin, and it is the perfect spot to hide, waiting for Lorna's "soon to be ex" to be put in jail.  The combination of local lore about the cabin and its original owner, a chance discovery, and Lorna's growing paranoia all bleed together to ratchet up the uneasiness in this tale, as the women soon discover that perhaps those old legends may have some merit. 
  • The Siphon” --  The NSA sets the proverbial "honey trap" for a man named Lancaster,  a normally coolly-detached sociopath, and forces him into service spying for them.  He has another job, where it seems a few of his colleagues also provide "eyes everywhere the US needed them."  After six months of not being needed at the NSA, he gets a call to provide some intelligence about a certain Dr. Christou, who is hosting a foreign national who just happens to have business with Lancaster's company. It is a job Lancaster feels is "menial" and "mindless,"  but things start getting out of hand when the good doctor becomes the focus of a strange couple who are part of a gathering the company has put together.
  • The Jaws of Saturn” -- The Broadsword Hotel, which I first came across in Barron's collection Occultation, is the venue once again for yet another hitman story, one with a surreal, horrific twist.  The magician from "Hand of Glory" reappears, this time years later under his real name, as a hypnotist who is helping the hitman's girlfriend Carol,  who is trying to quit smoking. She's gone down to half a pack, but suffers from terrible dreams.  Franco, the hitman, doesn't understand the strange changes taking place in Carol, so decides to pay the hypnotist a visit, to have a little chat with him. He is refused an audience, so has to force his way in, and in return, is made to watch the hypnotist's session with Carol. It is, as Franco will later say, an "apocalyptic visit."
  •  “Vastation” is quite different than Barron's usual fare, but takes as its subject the "only human being on the planet", who made himself and then broke the mold, with the other "carbon-based sapient life forms" existing as merely props, "grist for the mill." This entire story is a monologue, featuring someone who's evolved into a kind of superbeing who has mastered a third of the layers of space and time, with the power to make and remake his own existence, only to discover that he's bored with himself and his life. As he notes, "the Universe stretches to a smear and cycles like a slinky reversing through its own spine. No matter what I do, stuff keeps happening in an uninterruptible stream."  The title "Vastation"  is appropriate not just in terms of this story, but in terms of the number of ideas contained within these few pages, with the futility of it all as a centerpiece.
  • The Men From Porlock”-- Back in the past once again (1923), back deep in the woods of Washington State, an ex-Marine named Miller now works at the Slango Logging Camp. The superintendent's foreman tags Miller and other men to go into the woods and snag a couple of good-sized bucks for the upcoming visit of a photographer.  Sitting around the fire the loggers start telling stories "bout these parts," one of them punctuating his tales with a strange map  taken out of one of his grandpappy's books. The map is of Mystery Mountain and  the stories tell of ghosts, evil spirits and demons living in holes in the ground and in trees and rocks.  All is well until "at the very edge of perception," Miller begins to hear some very strange music...
  • Last, but definitely not least comes “More Dark” --  within which is the source of the novel's title, where  an author with a suicide bent attends an event where the main attraction is a reclusive horror writer who, on stage, shows up like death dressed in red and lets a puppet do his speaking for him. There are a wide variety of horror writers mentioned in this little meta piece, but I'm not sure if this one is written for horror fans or for other writers of the genre. Either way, it's quite good and it's funny.  
 As a whole, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All managed to bring on a stomach-knotting sense of unease in nearly every story. It is a nice mix of weird, Lovecraft-style cosmic horror and more supernatural type fright, both of which work blended well in my mind and kept me at a high tension level throughout the book. There is a lot going thematically and psychologically here, and there is also a lot of interweaving of past stories into this collection as well -- for example, the map of Mystery Mountain in  "The Men From Porlock" came into play in Barron's "Mysterium Tremendum," the Broadsword Hotel has also made previous appearances, and The Black Ram Lodge has appeared more than once I love how he does this -- it's like being back on familiar ground, yet different.  Once again, Laird Barron has woven his magic, making me a very happy reader. 

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