Bad things happen to the people in Laird Barron's stories, and those bad things, often as not, threaten the entire race, even the planet. The hell his protagonists find themselves in is not necessarily personal.
The typical Barron story, told in first or third person, gives us a tough guy who's rich or working for someone with money. There's a whiff of Chandler here, though Barron, at his best, comes nowhere near Chandler's poetry; but then, almost no one does. Despite the protagonist's toughness, he's overmatched by a once-human, monstrously transformed, representative of a still more monstrous, alien entity, both of which threaten today to engulf the protagonist, tomorrow, the world.
This nutshell summary doesn't convey the fairly complex narrative stratagems Barron employs, the levels of layered detail, and the real sense of dread he evokes. His manner is aimed at a more literate, sophisticated audience than this pulpy plot would seem to indicate; at his best, he gives the best of both worlds. But readers who want everything clearly laid out and accounted for will probably not be happy with his work.
The more naïve reader, for instance, may believe that because a story is told in the first person, it all comes out okay; at least, the protagonist lives. But Barron is no respecter of the convention that a story in the past tense consists of events that have happened, told by someone recalling them afterward. He's a ready user of what I call the "first person posthumous" point of view, or some variation on it—a story told by someone who could not, or would not, after the events of the story, tell the story. This ploy seems particularly to scandalize the greener sort of writing workshopper, but it's been used for a long time and often, perhaps most famously—or notoriously—in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950).
The main line of "typical" stories make up the core of this book. "Bulldozer" (SCI FICTION Aug. 25, 2004) is a good representative, because it makes the ideas and tropes these stories share uncommonly explicit. The tough guy protagonist is a Pinkerton detective, Jonah Koenig, seeking one Reuben Hicks, who has made off with P.T. Barnum's copy of a forbidden volume of the sort that shows up in Cthulhu Mythos stories. (We're often in Lovecraft territory in Barron's stories, though never explicitly; this is not pastiche.) Hicks worships Belphegor, the "FatherMother," who is referred to in other stories as well. Belphegor is a demon, Wikipedia tells us, "Lord of the Opening," who can grant the power to make discoveries and inventions, is associated with "licentiousness and orgies," and is worshipped as a phallus.
Hicks's worship takes the form of serial killings and the creative, sexually charged use of excrement. As Koenig tracks him, he seems to be undergoing a transformation, becoming an "Opener," a monstrous intermediary for his alien master.
The alien God in Barron's stories is generally an absorbing, devouring deity. It offers followers who will pass through a joining with the Godhead a transformation into something as often as not huge-mouthed and semi-human or more than human, literalizing the idea of Opening and Devourer. Barron, through one of Hicks's followers, is uncommonly forthcoming here about the nature of the "divine": "'Certain monstrous examples of cryptogenetics serve the function of godhead well enough ... I established communion with a primordial intelligence, a cyclopean plexus ... There are rites to effect this dialogue. A variety of osmosis ancient as the sediment men first crawled from.'"
Hicks makes actual the threat of "swallowing up." Koenig may be in a species of hell, as the story is, formally, a loop, though it's not entirely clear that the form is meant to be taken literally.
Barron may use noir and hardboiled figures, conventions, plots, protagonists, and even prose because they suit his taste and cast of thinking, but there's a point to them that serves his stories. His tough-guy milieus and characters contribute to the sense of dread. He gives us worlds neither safe nor normal to start with, in which, even without the supernatural, things can go dangerously, violently wrong. He starts us off-balance and builds from there. And when his protagonists, for all their money, toughness, and willingness to do violence, find themselves as helpless as children, it ups the level of dread and impresses the Lovecraftian point: we are, essentially, without hope or recourse in an alien, threatening universe. Barron also seems to be tapping into the themes of hell and damnation that run through noir fiction, for instance, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1938) and (most explicitly) Jim Thompson's The Getaway (1959).
The products of cryptogenetics—in the form of fungus, insects, and other nasty, devouring, absorbing things—rear their ugly heads, or other parts, in several of these stories. In the aptly named "Proboscis" (F&SF Feb. 2005), the alien threat seems, possibly, to live hidden among us, feeding off us.
In "Old Virginia" (F&SF Feb. 2003) the inhuman horror hides, waiting to take over the earth. One of the punning senses of the title refers to the "monstrous intermediary," acting as its agent. But the tough guy narrator of the story, Garland, an ex-CIA agent in his 70s, is never really believable. Despite clever references to the Roanoke colony, the tale remains unconvincing, with puppet bogeymen going through the motions of horror.
The least successful of these stories is "Shiva, Open Your Eye" (F&SF Sept. 2001), narrated by the "monstrous intermediary," the Mouth of a God who "dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry." After a promising start, in which the tough guy—a private detective looking into several disappearances—comes to call, the story, at what should be a crucial moment of revelation, collapses into pages of turgid abstraction. It's hard to imagine anyone being entertained by this.
Only a few stories break away from this main "cryptogenetic" line in other directions, and the two here are relatively minor efforts. "Parallax" (SCI FICTION Sept. 7, 2005) is more science fictional than the other stories, but still typical of Barron's manner: though told in the first person, the protagonist's perceptions, and the story itself, are disjointed and unclear. Only when we get another point of view do we find out what occurred, in a chilling and affecting (if slightly programmatic) close.
"The Royal Zoo Is Closed" (Phantom #0, 2006) is more or less a mainstream story with a protagonist, Sweeney, fit for a Samuel Beckett novel, where the characters live by the words "I can't go on, I'll go on." What in a fantastic story would be horror is here alienation and anomie.
Atypical in a different way, and not at all minor, is the one piece original to the book, the novella "Procession of the Black Sloth." It takes us away from Lovecraftian material to the Far East, and to Eastern types of hell, specifically Buddhist. Our tough-guy protagonist, Royce, is an undercover investigator of corporate skullduggery, and not a nice man. On his flight to Hong Kong to investigate a case of industrial sabotage, stolen secrets, and leaked data, the world begins to come apart; impossible things occur. Royce meets the impossible with a feeling of sickness, but no sense that it is impossible. His life becomes dreamlike, or nightmarish. As so often in the fantastic, the story's weakest moment is the revelation of the reason for the fantastic happenings. Barron wants to have things two ways and fudges things a bit, although even the fudging has a thematic point.
Still, criticism is disarmed in the face of the artistry, craftsmanship, and control evident in the shaping of this story. The dreamlike shifting of scenes, the various horrors and revelations, come with a fine sense of pacing; Barron knows just when to bring in the horrific, how long to hold it, when to relax. The ideas and images are imaginative, resonant, and disturbing. Whatever one may think of the logic (if there is a logic) behind the story's situation, the story itself has a haunting, nightmarish power and evokes a real sense of dread.
This and two other novellas are the center of this collection; Barron seems to do best at that length. The other two fall into the "cryptogenetics" line. "The Imago Sequence" (F&SF May 2005) gives the tough guy narration that rings truest to the hardboiled school, evoking the lonely sadness which is a major note of noir fiction, such as Chandler's, and a sense of desperation and despair, a more minor noir note, but one often sounded, for instance in the work of David Goodis or Jim Thompson.
Marvin Cortez, an ex-wrestler dependent on booze and painkillers, looks into the disappearance of a rich old man for the man's son. The missing man owned a disturbing, ambiguous photo, Imago Alpha, first of a tripartite series; it may be the photo of a howling troglodyte caught in some viscous or even solid material. The photograph disturbs Cortez, driving him to find Imago Beta and then to seek the third photograph. In tracking that, and the missing man, he runs into, once again, a huge, vicious man in service to a mysterious, alien entity.
Barron's stories are perhaps not well-served by being arrayed together in this way. The similarities become too apparent, although I suppose one could say the same about some of Lovecraft.
The other novella, "Hallucigenia" (F&SF June 2006), gives us a rich man, Wallace Smith, and his young, beautiful wife, Helen, who encounter catastrophe while investigating an old barn. Helen is left with a split in her skull that will not heal, and Smith with various wounds, physical and psychic, with memory and perceptual gaps, and with a bad alcohol and pill habit.
He sets out to discover what happened and who's responsible. His agents (there are a number of tough guys in this story) discover a sort of idiot-savant family—once again, huge, frightening men—geniuses who stink of filth. One of them is less human than the other (echoes of "The Dunwich Horror" [Weird Tales, 1929]) and, as in several of the other stories, represents the "mouth of God." Barron makes their threat, and that of what they represent, both oppressive and real-seeming.
Barron constantly attempts to throw the reader off, to make his narrators, even their perceptions, seem untrustworthy, to inject ambiguity and hint at mysteries. Unfortunately, in "Hallucigenia" this is overdone. Eventually the reader is willing to make a deal: if he will stop mentioning booze, drugs, and altered mental states, we promise not to believe anything.
As much of his material recalls Lovecraft, so does this technique. In Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1936), for example, the narrator is told the central story of the town, its semihuman inhabitants, and the immortal, inhuman creatures living off its coast, by an old drunk who, of course, he does not take seriously. Later, when the narrator has his own strange dreams of this inhuman race, he tries to claim they are only dreams, to hold belief at arm's length.
But the perceptions, suspicions, or reports that the protagonist dismisses as impossible in such stories—Lovecraft's and Barron's—are not just close to the truth, they're the exact truth. If they were untrustworthy, "Innsmouth," to stay with that example, would be a different kind of story altogether, more complex, difficult, and "literary," as opposed to being the "popular" fiction it is.
But though such attempts are transparent to any reader over twelve, we often grant them an effect. We allow a double suspension of disbelief: of the story per se, and of the narrator's protestations. We allow the latter to create a pleasing distance between us and the plain facts, and it's this distance which allows the unfolding of the story. Perhaps both kinds of suspension of disbelief are akin to our willingness to accept the conventions of a game so that the game can proceed. Of course, the very nature of storytelling calls for indirection, disguise, and omission, which allows for the revelation of events over time that the author knows all along. They maintain suspense, draw the reader along, and allow imagination to work.
The more jaded or sophisticated, however, may not play along. "The Innsmouth gambit," at this point in the history of fiction, is a transparent obliquity, a complication without complexity. Given Barron's antecedents, his main type of story is, at its core, very familiar. Therefore he must misdirect and recomplicate more than Lovecraft ever did, layering his stories with uncertainty, unclarity, ambiguity. But then again, this increase in complexity or difficulty is part of a general trend in contemporary genre fiction, where it is carried much further than in popular fiction of the past.
In an essay published in Strange Horizons a few weeks ago, Matthew Cheney wrote, "Fiction remains fascinating when it refuses to offer easy answers to questions of fantasy and reality, history and imagination, dreaming and waking."
But every reader wants a level of complexity in the presentation of story that fits his own level of intelligence, taste, sophistication, learning, and experience. Many people—we can still speak about readers, though we should extend the discussion to movies and TV—want a plain tale relatively plainly told, where they can see without too much strain what happens, who the good guy is, and who the villain is. If you can fool them for a while, great, as long as you don't cheat and you eventually make everything clear.
In the spectrum of fictional complexity, "readers" of every level think those below their level naïve, unsophisticated, crude in their tastes, simpleminded, and those above it, elitist, pretentious, crabbed in their taste, and hyperrefined. And nearly all these "readers" naturally assume—or know—that they themselves, mirabile dictu, stand precisely at the Prime Meridian of taste, with all those anywhere else obviously off the mark.
Cheney's aesthetic, certainly in the field of popular fiction, is elitist, but then, the tendency of even popular fiction—at least, short fiction—is more and more in an elitist direction. Is it because we're getting smarter? Doubtful; certainly not in our ability to navigate the depth and complexity of an art constructed of words. Why then would stories grow, if not more complex, at least more obscure in lieu of complexity, a tendency exhibited in Barron's stories?
It's a commonplace that fewer and fewer people read for pleasure and entertainment, even popular fiction, and it's not hard to suppose that those who have dropped away first and/or in greater numbers are the less sophisticated readers. TV, movies, and games are their "books" (I do not mean to imply that everyone who likes TV, movies, and games is less bright or sophisticated than those who prefer reading.) As Nick Mamatas noted in a column in The Fortean Bureau, the "literary mainstream" is "misnamed because the real mainstream is television and video games; reading is a hobby for eccentrics and the self-lobotomized." Compared to the mass of the public, almost no fiction is very popular. In a nation of 300,000,000, the sale of 100,000 books can result in a "bestseller" (or for poetry, 2600 in a year, according to Harper's ["Harper's Index," October, 2007]); perhaps even fewer, according to Time. Current circulation figures for the "big" genre magazines would mostly have sunk such magazines as recently as the 1970s.
I suspect that the people to whom writing is merely a transparent vehicle for a story have more or less moved on, at least from short fiction, to other venues, while of the core who remain, many tend, like Cheney, to value complexity and ambiguity—relatively speaking, an elite. So it's no surprise if even popular fiction is shifting toward the kind of "literary" taste Cheney expresses. It may be that short fiction's (or eventually all written fiction's) future is mirrored by poetry's present: a more and more difficult and esoteric body of work with less and less appeal and reach.
The rise of elitist taste within popular literature—the first onslaught being, I suppose, the New Wave in science fiction in the 60s—has left us with a kind of split similar to that between fashionable and unfashionable, stylish and clueless, or even between various socioeconomic or cultural classes. In fantasy one marker of literary fantasy, slipstream, magic realism, or at the very least, upscale fantasy aimed at the more literary end of the market is that the fantastic is simply there, not introduced or explained, as if the explicit introduction of the fantastic as fantastic would be déclassé—crude, bumptious, or naïve. And the fantastic tends less to be embodied in an element or object than simply to be ambient.
Too simple, clear, explicit, and straightforward a narrative or story is also déclassé—since, of course, one of the necessary characteristics of "literature" is difficulty and obscurity. (That's why Toni Morrison is so much better a writer than Jane Austen or Willa Cather.) Some fantasy published in genre venues is otherwise indistinguishable from non-genre literary fiction published in literary markets, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, for instance, has for years drawn on small "literary" magazines as well as genre sources. That is not a bad thing, per se, and many applaud the softening, breaching, or "bending" (take your pick of terms) of genre lines. I note simply that such work tends away from being "popular" fiction and may confuse the hell out of those expecting truly popular fiction.
Barron's work is genre fiction that embodies the popular/literary split. He's telling pulp stories of the Lovecraft brand welded to protagonists from pulp mystery and suspense. If he told them today with Lovecraft's level of complexity and indirection, he would have to go stand in the literary dunce corner. Naturally, he wants to hang out with the cool—or at least smart—kids. To break off from that metaphor: the schizophrenic nature of his stories allows Barron to have his cake and eat it, too, writing "popular" fiction of the Lovecraft/Machen sort pitched at a level of difficulty and obscurity far beyond them, moving it toward the aesthetic Cheney expresses.
But what else is a horror writer to do, in an age when the directness once so common in popular fiction is looked down on (if not explicitly) as simpleminded and downmarket, the province of the hoi polloi? If the dear polloi are still reading anything at all; and if they're not, why have stories cater to them?
While it may be reaching to apply gross market forces to explain the form or details of any particular short story, the lack of clarity, relative impenetrability, and lack of resolution exhibited in some genre fiction argues a state of affairs in which, since no one can earn a living from writing short stories, and the magazine audience for them is small, specialized, and fragmented, the stories—or their authors—do not undergo the Darwinian survival pressures applied by a mass reading public—that is, the need to be really "popular": at a minimum, comprehensible and entertaining. And even when genre fiction hasn't ceased to be popular fiction—which is true in many cases—it often no longer looks like it.
This is not to say that Barron slaps on difficulty from the outside, like plaster. An interesting complexity of detail runs through the fabric of some of these stories, for instance, in "The Imago Sequence," in the life, mind, and observations of Cortez and also in a sort of "fractal" use of metaphor, where figures, running toward the "fly caught in amber" variety, mirror the larger story in a small compass, reflecting, as if in fragments, the image at the heart of the sequence. That these metaphors occur in Cortez's own narration may indicate that, as in "Procession of the Black Sloth" and "Bulldozer," this very disturbing tale is about getting to a hell the protagonist has been in all the time. There is a threatening character-is-destiny feel to much horror, the kind of situation or plot or even world in which one is, from the get-go, inextricably involved in a fate that seems to rise up only at the end in its full awfulness. But that rising up is merely the revelation of what has been true all along, a trap that was sprung before one began to suspect it, like Oedipus Rex, for one instance—or mortality, for another.
"Hallucigenia" also uses the "fractal metaphor" technique. Besides swallowing, the dominant metaphor is of cracking, splitting, opening. The wife's split skull recalls not only a wound inflicted in "The Imago Sequence," but also the wound Leverett, the protagonist of Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks" (Whispers March 1974), inflicts on an undead being, from which foulness oozes forth; and most of all, the trepanations in Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" (1894) and possibly also "The Inner Light" (1894), which allow for the manifestation or incarnation on our plane of the terrifying "beyond." It's a hellish version of the opening to enlightenment or salvation.
I believe that despite this level of detail, this is fundamentally hoi polloi fiction redshifted (or, to take our cue from political notation, blueshifted) in the direction of complexity, without being, in itself, for the most part, complex. At the risk of seeming a bit schizophrenic myself, however, I do not mean to dismiss or demean Barron's writing by saying this. He's successfully transposed the oddly yoked pleasure and dread of Lovecraft's work to a modern and more complex idiom with skillful craftsmanship, intelligence, and a fertile, detailed imagination, which alone should attract and entertain a certain kind of reader. He's been smart enough to know that, to produce the same effect now, you can't do the same thing Lovecraft and Machen did back then, at least, not if you want to be original—which, in his combination of elements and his manner, he is—and not be discounted by much of the current audience for short fiction.
Barron is good at what he does, and seems to be getting even better. He intrigues and frightens; he raises a powerful mood of dread, a sense of things going very badly wrong, that lasts even after the story is done. And in "The Procession of the Black Sloth," he moves past his usual mode into something actually more sophisticated, or perhaps he is simply growing more skilled. Either way, he gives us much to look forward to.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.
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