American Literature, Book review., Books, Cosmopolitanism, Evolution, Fantasy, H. P. Lovecraft, Homosexuality, Horror, Humanism, Laird Barron, Mysterium Tremendum, Occultation, Pershing Dennard, Procession of the Black Sloth, Royce Hawthorne, Strappado, The Broadsword, The Imago Sequence, Weird Fiction
Not only is there little serious literary criticism about Laird Barron on the internet, but there is also a shortage of biographical information about this apparently-Alaskan horror author, which is rather unhelpful for one such as myself, who assumes that at least seventy percent of literary criticism should be psychoanalysis. Barron’s sole publicity photograph leaves one with the impression of a sturdy but somewhat soft American – (from his sturdiness he could only be an American) – who is gazing at his readers with one unnervingly intense eye and one gaping lunar crater. But what is behind this eye patch? – another eye? – or no eye? – or a raw, moist mass of overflowing maggots and translucent membrane and shrill, hyena tittering?
Upon reaching the end of Barron’s short-story collections The Imago Sequence (2001-2007) and Occultation ( 2007-2010), I was certain that Barron must be a gay man. I was convinced of this even before I had read his stories which feature gay characters – “Mysterium Tremendum” and “Strappado.” Let me hastily add – before you get the wrong idea – or before the only lawyer in Alaska, if there is one, starts emptying cupboards in search of his typewriter – that Barron is as straight as a Roman road. The few facts that I have garnered about him include that he is happily married. But the majority of his stories are variations upon the same idea: that a drearily masculine “tough man” – (even his gay characters are mostly macho and unimaginative) – is conquered by forces which are extravagant, gorgeous, gaudy and – if not necessarily homosexual (which is in itself a depressingly human concept) – then quite definitely camp.
What could be more camp, for example, than this jaunty-dastardly invitation to join Satan’s legions (from “Mysterium Tremendum”)?:
“Alas, nice guys do indeed finish last. I, however, believe in second chances and do-overs. Would you like a do-over, Willem? You’ll need to decide whether to come along with us and see the sights. Or not. You are more than welcome to join the fun. Goodness knows, I hope you do. Tommy does too.”
The tone of this address contrasts deliberately – almost abrasively – with that of the glum Willem’s earlier fretting over his inconsequential relationship troubles. But all of Willem’s problems can be resolved simply with a “do-over.” Elsewhere, in “The Broadsword,” the invading and all-powerful extraterrestrials turn out to be as frightening as the Monster Mash:
Immortals have no need for offspring. We’re gourmands, you see; and we do love our sport. We devour the children of every sentient race we metastasize to… we’ve quite enjoyed our visit here. The amenities are exquisite.
Darling! Just as the alien’s weapon “twinkled like Christmas lights,” the interior awaiting his victim is as kitschy and as sumptuous as Christmas in the shopping mall:
An eternal purple-black night ruled the fleshy coomb on an alien realm. Gargantuan tendrils slithered in the dark, coiling and uncoiling, and the denizens of the underworld arrived in an interminable procession through vermiculate tubes and tunnels, and gathered, chuckling and sighing, in appreciation of his agonies. In the great and abiding darkness, a sea of dead white faces brightened and glimmered like porcelain masks at a grotesque ball.
One almost grimaces at the tastelessness of it all – eternal, gargantuan, vermiculate – everything is thoroughly over the top! “We love you, Percy” the alien whispers, like a tipsy aunt under the mistletoe, except that the alien is about to ram a needle into Pershing’s eye.
The torture and dismemberment which one encounters throughout Barron’s fiction is chiefly a sort of eroticism – as graphic and as fascinating as pornography – not least in “Bulldozer” when Jonah Koenig’s fist disappears into the monster’s opening “terrible flower.” The sex in Barron’s fiction is virtually indistinguishable from the violence, and the sexual exchanges between his characters resembles a meaningless, emotionless torture, with a brutality that can at times bring a tear to the eye:
Royce lay flattened and nearly lifeless from absolute exhaustion… Her palms ground into his chest and he winced, thinking dimly of the bruises sure to come… He bucked in pseudo-orgasms… fire turned his lungs to ash and black tracers shot through his brain.
At times, these sex scenes are like descriptions of the cannibalistic mating between insects. In “Mysterium Tremendum,” sex and violence are seamlessly fused, as some poor “clean shaven, muscular” young students are lavishly smashed up in an orgy of carnage by a crew of rampaging gay warriors. In “Catch Hell,” Sonny Reynolds hilariously perishes after ejaculating out his own “decomposing” insides. Even this is not real horror – Sonny experiences an orgasm so spectacular that one can feel only envy.
The world of “weird fiction” has apparently crowned Barron as the heir to H. P. Lovecraft – (an enormously influential and innovative “weird” writer, who ended up consigning this initially-promising genre to permanent disreputability with his abysmal prose) – but Barron’s verdict upon the “civilised” psyche is inevitably different, and altogether less frightening, than that of Lovecraft. When Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s, he was genuinely unnerved by the fragility of white civilisation – those encroaching immigrants and Negro swamp zombies brought with them the possibility of a real doom – whereas Barron is living in an age which has largely forgotten the power of Lovecraft’s nightmares. A trip to another dimension, or to a Satanic grove, is rather like “coming out” – shaking off a dreary homebound humanity – and Barron’s cast of zombies and aliens are mostly welcoming. Lovecraft trembled at the otherworldly transformation or destruction of the psyche, but Barron merrily waves off Old Virginia riding piggyback on Captain Garland, and Nadine as she is percolated into insect consciousness, and the protagonist of “30” as a naughty tongue is slipped into his ear.
There is too much history – too much distance – too much culture and psychology – between Lovecraft and Barron, but, more damningly, Barron is even alienated from the horror of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Dr Lous Creed, the hero of Pet Sematary, uses black magic to call back a demonic simulation of his lost son, Gage – this story is based upon the old Wendigo myth, and particularly Algernon Blackwood’s version of it – but the intensity of King’s novel derived from its unholy speculation – he was imagining something terrible happening to his own family. Danni, the heroine of Barron’s “The Lagerstatte,” similarly recalls her lost son and husband, but Barron is writing a cheery pastiche, and the format of the short story does not provide enough room and depth to cultivate any real human horror. Indeed, the hauntings in Barron’s story become as corny as MTV choreography: “When a city bus grumbled [rumbled?] past, every passenger’s head swivelled in unison… Every face pressed against the dirty windows belong to him.”
Barron discards the established victims of weird fiction – M.R. James’ celibate antiquarians and Lovecraft’s fleshless dreamers – in favour of tough, macho men of the world, who live in hotel rooms and bars – who are at home everywhere and nowhere. Significantly, Pershing Dennard’s home is a rented room in a converted hotel. Katherine Reynolds is put in a hospital which “they called… a home.” In the course of their private espionage assignments, Royce Hawthorne and Jonah Koenig become anchored in the shallow waters of unfamiliar towns. All of these characters drink alcohol like water, and it largely has the same effect upon them as water. Their lives are like aimless, endless parties – experience, to them, is a completely devalued coinage. The dialogue exchanged between them is snappy, sparkling, and largely meaningless – these characters recite one liners at each other and the result sounds curiously tinny and inhuman, like a chattering between birds. As the otherworldly looms, these characters’ lives turn out to be as worth saving as virginity.
Barron imagines the human condition as an interim and increasingly obsolete stage in a sort of cosmic evolution, and his fictions repeatedly discover that human beings are too selfish and limited to ever be happy with each other. The sorry couple in “30” are a case in point – they are set on an inexplicable course of mutual destruction, just because love is generally beyond them, and, faced with this disaster, the demonic forces can only offer “help.” The couples in Barron’s fiction are mostly bickering and out-of-kilter, and if they remain attached to each other it is only because they are too unimaginative to think otherwise. The sole exception to this rule can be found in “Parallax,” in which a tender couple are torn apart by forces which were apparently unleashed after some Satanic dabbling. Yet the Carsons will only be reunited in a world beyond the parallax, and much of Jack Carson’s personal hell is created by a demented detective who was excluded from Miranda’s love. In Barron’s world, horror and evil are under exclusively human copyright. Marvin Cortez is told, for example, that “It’s what you do well, hurting… I smell meanness cooking in your blood.”
Homosexuality – cosmopolitanism – transient experience and city living – furnish new opportunities to escape from humanity, and they possibly open new frontiers in our evolutionary development. The love between Glenn and Willem in “Mysterium Tremendum” is petty and troubled, and it turns out that Willem was always excluded from Glenn’s “inner circle,” so to speak. This old soldier fails to follow Glenn into the next world because he is too human, too unimaginative, and too square (the Satanism was picked up in college), and he is consequently condemned to a life of loneliness. The yuppies in “Strappado,” however, appear to be more loving, but this is the only one of Barron’s stories in which the dark forces are truly malevolent and frightening, possibly because they are initiated by humans alone.
The prospects for happiness – or at least freedom – are more favourable in a post-human condition. Mrs Chin muses upon “how much happier our lives would be, with the shark’s simple restorative capacity.” If Pershing Dennard is – unusually for Barron’s heroes – supplied with a bar full of friends and a spunky girlfriend called Wanda, then the only resort left for him is to take the whole lot of them with him into the next dimension. One may not recognise it at first, but this story has a happy ending, and even the little Eric who is lost along the way, rather like the “brat” in Saki’s “Esme,” is probably now in a more wholesome place. Eric may, after all, “have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do.” Throughout Barron’s fiction, gruesome tortures abound, but largely to the same end as D.H. Lawrence’s conception of Poe’s terrors: “Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly process.”
Royce Hawthorne may witness a man climbing a mountain of knives and his lover’s hideous torments, but the general merriness of Mrs Ward and her hags offers pure life. Royce seems to forget or lose his body somewhere in his story, until he is left with only a knotted, shrivelling comfort blanket of old consciousness, and, in an ironic affirmation of Ambrose Bierce’s cynicism, he really will have to pluck out his eyes in order to improve his vision. Wallace Smith can only be reconciled with his wife Helen if he accepts that her humanity is lost and that he will have to love her in her newfound form as a fabulous, cannibalistic gulper eel. Marvin Cortez ventures in quest of what he thinks is something otherworldly, but which will turn out to be a perfected image of himself. One of the Broadsword aliens sums these things up best: “We chop out all the things that make you lesser life forms weak and then pump you full of love.”