Great on so many levels.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
La Gaga, rocking the fine line between haute couture and roadkill. Win.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
I kind of went at Laird Barron’s oeuvre backwards. Though I had previously read the short stories “Old Virginia,” and “The Broadsword,” in “new-Lovecraftian" anthologies, I picked up his excellent new novel The Croning before fully exploring either of his story collections (the other being Occultation and Other Stories). Of course I fell madly in fascinated disgust, and had to immediately devour everything he had in print. So I started at the beginning, with The Imago Sequence.
To read this set of stories, which range over a period of about six years just after the turn of the millennium, is to watch Barron’s uniquely horrific talent slowly unfold. Though quasi-Lovecraftian at times, Barron really has his own voice – in TIS themes are introduced which will eventually coalesce into a truly original mythology.
Heavily masculine and vaguely noir, most of the pieces in TIS feature a manly, tough-guy protagonist: an aging spook; a white-collar spy; a Pinkerton man; a crippled wrestler; the adventurer scion of a wealthy and privileged family. Fellow weird-fiction writer Brett J. Talley said of Barron that he “writes like Hemingway might have if he weren’t so boring.” That’s a perfect blurb if ever I saw one.
In Laird Barron’s horrorshow, however, these men are more often victims than heroes: we watch in disbelief as the kind of men who have never learned how to lose are broken down, turned inside-out, chewed up in the maw of a world become uncanny. Incidentally, gaping maws, too, are a thematic preoccupation of Barron’s. His is a cthonic, subterranean horror, lurking in the damp, hot darkness of mouths and caves, and in the primitive lizard-brain, unleashed by drugs or driven to insanity.
Standout stories in the collection are “Old Virginia,” the tale of a CIA agent nearing the end of his career assigned oversight on a very special MK-ULTRA project; “Procession of the Black Sloth,” a fevered nightmare set in an ex-pat community in Hong Kong; and “Hallucigenia,” about a man who has it all, but can’t avoid the slide into horror and madness after his young wife discovers something unspeakable in an abandoned barn. The title story, about a series of legendary and unpleasant photographs, is something of a sly nod to “Pickman's Model,” but also sets the stage for Barron's own developing mythos.
Be forewarned: these stories are not pleasant, and should leave you uneasy. There are no happy endings in Laird Barron's world, only variations on death and madness.
Barron’s second book of short stories absolutely delivers on the promise of his debut volume, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, and is in fact an even more accomplished and various collection, one in which his writerly scope, symbols, thematic preoccupations and chilling mythos all find room to grow. It's also deeply, deeply disturbing.
In my review of TIS I noted that, in keeping with the noir vibe of the collection, most of Barron’s protagonists were “tough-guy” types. Occultation, in contrast, offers a number of stories which prominently feature women, and the female voices and tragedies feel true . . . make what you will of the fact that each one is batshit insane. (Hell, most of Barron’s characters end up that way, or worse, regardless of gender.) Here, we meet Danni, a recent widow with an intermittent fugue state and a persistent urge to rejoin her dead husband in “The Lagerstatte”; in the Machen-esque “Catch Hell,” grieving mother Katherine and her anthropologist husband visit The Black Ram, an inn with an unsavory history and a reputation for black magic, to which they have come to enact an unspeakable ritual. (Sidenote: I've just run across another fantastic story featuring The Black Ram -- “Blackwood's Baby,” in The Best Horror of the Year (Vol. 4). I enjoy watching worldbuilding in progress and love the way Barron is populating his with referents that appear across several works.)
Barron shows a real flair for the dialogue of couples, the petty jibes and secret histories they share lurking just beneath the surface. In the title story two lovers in a motel room speculate about a seriously freaky spot on the wall while passing a bottle; in “--30--” (which feels like an hommage to “Who Goes There?”), two naturalists, former lovers, are thrown together in isolation on a three-month wilderness project. Their repartee is barbed, quick and clever, until strange things start happening and the discovery of an ancient artifact tips them over into insanity and fatal paranoia.
Barron’s developing mythos also gains steam in Occultation. From the heartbreaking first story, “The Forest,” in which we meet the mysterious Dr. Toshi Ryoko, who seems to have a line on the horrors in store for the human race, to “Mysterium Tremendum,” in which Barron's cthonic cult sprouts a text of its own – The Black Guide, a rare guidebook through the more unpleasant nether regions of Washington State. Following its lead, a group of weekend outdoorsmen stumble into a special kind of hell, one which contains revenants from their own troubled histories.
My favorite in the collection is the masterful haunted house story “The Broadsword.” This was the one that made me leave the lights on. Set in a Victorian apartment building which has seen better days, this is where we finally learn the name of the horror haunting Barron’s mythic landscape: the "children of Old Leech" have come out to play, and you will not forget them anytime soon. And once you have met, they will not forget you, either. Prepare to see a good deal more of them.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Justin Evans' The White Devil was among my favorite books of 2011.
When rebellious seventeen year-old Andrew Taylor is packed off to do his senior year abroad at England's venerable and prestigious Harrow boarding school in hopes of restoring his tarnished record, he knows it will be a strange new experience. What he doesn't anticipate is that his arrival will be the catalyst for a series of eerie and deadly events which are -- somehow -- related to one of Harrow's most notorious alumni: the boy who would become the "mad, bad and dangerous to know" Lord Byron.
Part literary mystery and part ghost story, The White Devil is suspenseful, literate, creepy and melancholy all at once. And, while I thoroughly enjoyed Evans' debut novel, A Good and Happy Child, I think that with his second he has definitely become an author to watch.
I devoured Robert Dunbar’s excellent Martyrs & Monsters almost entirely at one sitting. A collection of short works, the stories in this book are so various in tone and style that it almost felt as if I were reading an anthology of tales by many different authors. Okay, that’s not entirely true, as some of the stories are intended to expand upon or follow others, but the scope is truly impressive. Ranging from simply melancholy to outright tragic, from splatterpunk to whimsy, the primary commonalities are a graceful economy of language and an uncanny insight into the deepest and strangest parts of the human animal.
The absolute standout of Martyrs & Monsters would have to be the creepily lyrical “Mal de Mer,” which reminded me, weirdly, of both Ramsay Campbell’s incredibly disturbing “The Voice of the Beach” and the heartbreaking The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Strange bedfellows, indeed, but this story of repression and release, desire, disappointment, fear and compulsion, contains perhaps my favorite lines in the book, ones which immediately reveal the soul of the protagonist: “In her younger years . . . her essential lack of warmth had discouraged colleagues from bonding with her. It had that effect on most people. Yet she believed herself not to be entirely lacking in empathy, only in its myriad pitying applications and ubiquitous expressions, which she considered both squalid and pointless.” (Maybe this just reminds me a little bit of me.)
On the other hand, the punchy gross-out of “Saturday Night Fights” is all rock & roll, splatterpunk and 50s B-movie, rolled together in one juicy and satisfying package. You’ve got to love a story that begins “By the time the two of them woke up, their friends had already met with disgusting deaths. But then they both slept pretty late that day.” And the monster? Personal phobias notwithstanding, just ew.
“Gray Soil” and “Red Soil,” two of the linking stories, are told in simple, almost mythic language. Together, they uncover the blood-soaked history of a desolate place – the first a story of a mother’s brutal sacrifice, the second a tale of unchecked appetites, human and otherwise, and again of hard choices made for the sake of loved ones.
Other favorites include “The Folly,” a southern gothic almost-spoof which involves an eccentric family, Bigfoot, and a house shaped like an alligator; “High Rise,” the story of a nymphomaniac ghost and her victim(s); and “Killing Billie’s Boys,” an oddball tale of warring witches and their rent-boy catspaws.
And, despite my going on, that’s fewer than half of the stories in Martyrs & Monsters, each one unique and haunting. Half a star off for my only complaint (and it’s not that dire), the sometimes distracting typos, of which there were many. Possibly this is just a side-effect of the e-book format, and almost certainly out of the author’s hands, but it’s the kind of thing that can break the spell of an otherwise compelling narrative. At any rate, I look forward to reading more from Robert Dunbar, a truly literary fabulist.