Jul 26, 2010

Yeti Review: Occultation - Laird Barron

In A Few Words: The Stephen King of the Pacific Northwest, Laird Barron channels his past to produce a second collection full of literary horror that is as unfathomable as it is unforgettable.

Pros: The thematic balance of the natural and the unnatural works to create an atmosphere perfect for horror; Barron's style is very visual, creating images that will stick in your mind long after you finish reading; Barron's prose is dense but poetic and rewards multiple readings;  

Cons: Writing is not for anyone looking for a light read; Lovecraftian horror can often be purposefully hard to digest at times, especially the conclusions; Character focus on realism sometimes creates unlikeable protagonists.  

The Review: Do not go out in the woods. Bad things will happen. Do not go out alone. Do not go out in groups. Again, bad things will happen. If there’s one thing to be gleaned from Occultation, Laird Barron’s second collection of horror shorts, it’s that the deep forest of the Pacific Northwest is one seriously disturbing place. Out of all of the strange events chronicled in Occultation, the unifying element is an unnatural world hidden just beyond our grasp. On the surface, Barron regionalizes his horror in a style reminiscent of Stephen King’s backwater Maine, imbuing the forest and offending towns with an understated malice more appropriate in a stealthy predator than a copse of trees. On a less literal level, he takes everyday occurrences and distorts them along the way, letting the hidden horrible world bordering our own infest and corrupt late night pillow talk and light-hearted reunions with friends.

As a quick aside, it’s important to note that Barron is an accomplished outdoorsman, having grown up in Alaska and even raced the Iditarod on several occasions. In an interview I conducted with Barron last year, he mentioned that “growing up in an environment hostile to humans is a formative experience, physically and psychologically. Profound cold, profound heat, exaggerated extremes of light and dark, and intense isolation, are elements of the person I've become and inform the subjects I choose to write about.” I was often reminded of this response while reading Occultation, as the isolation his characters experience resonates strongly, both physically in the environments they explore and emotionally as a result of the supernatural ordeals they encounter. The saying goes, “write what you know” and it’s clear that Barron knows the world his characters inhabit intimately, both in its beauty and its horror.

Another common thread in Barron’s work is a propensity for the enigmatic ending. It is easy to get frustrated with the obtuse conclusions common in short fiction, especially where incomprehensible horrors are involved and Barron is frequently guilty of providing less when more is desired. Expect to reread more than a few pages in Occultation. I’m reluctant to mark this as a strength or a weakness in his fiction as the complex language is clearly deliberate. Barron’s work is not for skimmers or escapists, rewarding multiple readings with subtle detail - details often missed while plowing forward after the driving tension that fills his fiction.

Although the eight stories that comprise Occultation do share Barron’s strong literary prose and penchant for a slow-lead up to an abrupt conclusion, I would caution reader that you should read the stories in order rather than skipping around. There is a distinct pattern to the stories alternating between the occult, Lovecraftian Horror, and less supernatural fare. This keeps the stories fresh and interesting, avoiding the subgenre burnout that sometimes occurs in single author collections. I made the mistake of jumping around at first and started to wonder if all the stories shared the same dark fantasy vibe before being hit with a string of more unique stories, most notably the excellent Strappado. To better illustrate the structure, take a look at each of the stories in order:

The Forest - A suitable opening to Barron's second collection, The Forest both introduces and encapsulates Occultation. Friends with dark pasts, hidden knowledge, maddening encounters, disturbing revelations, the duality of the natural and the un – The Forest is all of this and more, throwing open the doors to the indescribable horrors that lurk just outside our imagination. Although the occult revelation is a common occurrence in all of Barron’s stories, the language captured in The Forest as a cinematographer is introduced to a world he had only glimpsed before is some of his best. The Forest also appears to be linked to Mysterium Tremendum and The Broadsword, set against a shared backdrop that begs for further exploration.

Occultation - The titular story of the collection is a strange one. Two lovers cling to each other while the world outside their motel bed is anything but ordinary. Surreal stories typically put me off due to their lack of logic but I enjoyed Occultation to a surprising degree. This short short finishes on an unexpected note and Barron’s writing creates a sharp visual that really stuck with me, particularly when I awake to a dark room in the middle of the night. This is one of those stories where you don’t realize how much it affected you until hours after turning the final page.

The Lagerstatte – Utilizing a nonlinear structure to great effect, The Lagerstatte depicts a woman’s psychological break after the loss of her husband and son. The story alternates between the “present” and a series of recordings of her psychiatric visits which illuminate her actions in the main thread. The structure of the story coupled with Barron’s supernatural world had me questioning if she was really crazy or not. I mentioned earlier that Barron often uses the seclusion of the natural world as a mirror for the most disturbing of his occult encounters and the final revelations of The Lagerstatte are a perfect example of that trend.

Mysterium Tremendum - Mysterium Tremendum is another entry in a linked series of tales (along with The Forest and The Broadsword) hinting at some unimaginable horror lurking just beyond reality. Two couples plan a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest using a recently discovered almanac of the occult and (as typically happens) discover more than they anticipated. While the Lovecraftian Horror that Barron concocts is purposefully hard to wrap your head around, there is no denying that whatever macabre monstrosities he creates, they are downright chilling in all the right ways. Barron builds up the story slowly in a profoundly unsettling fashion, something that seems to happen in most of his work to great effect. Mysterium Tremendum continues the trend of making the natural world anything but, and as the male protagonists delve deeper and deeper into the forest they find little of the solace they set out to find. The only criticisms I can raise are the four main characters felt a little too similar and were easily confused and that certain portions of the story felt a little superfluous (although it might have added to gradual build-up of tension). But definitely one of my favorite stories in the collection, overall.

Catch Hell - Catch Hell, a tale which sees a couple travel to a remote hotel in the Pacific Northwest (again, never go there) with a rather occult legacy. As always, Barron uses the natural world to draw out the unnatural to great effect, allowing the husband’s occult explorations to contrast to his wife’s less geographical but equally sinister quest. As is often the case with horror, my largest complaint is a personal one. I find that stories that throw logic out the window hard to wrap my head around and Catch Hell has arguably the most confusing conclusion of the bunch. This is particularly troublesome when the protagonists aren’t particularly enjoyable. After multiple rereads, I was reasonably sure of what happened to the characters during the surreal ending but I was still at a lost as to why I should care. This may be a love it or hate it type story.

Strappado - This short story was originally published in an Edgar Allen Poe inspired anthology and it is one of my favorites in the collection. So many of Barron's stories concern supernatural horror, so when he makes the abrupt change back to a human but no less grotesque evil, it is both unexpected and jarring. Two jetsetters find themselves invited to an exclusive after-after party and discover that it’s not quite what they signed up for. To provide further detail would ruin the story. It’s easy to disregard supernatural horror as a figment of your imagination but the when the carnage has a more human origin; it’s significantly more pervasive and disturbing. This is only compounded by Strappado’s tone and length in contrast with the more supernatural nature of the rest of Occultation’s stories. As a result, Strappado is one of the stand out stories of the collection.

The Broadsword – Although I read The Broadsword before I delved into the Mysterium Tremendum, I would argue that The Broadsword is a better introduction to the world shared by the two stories. Pershing Dennard is a long time resident of The Broadsword, an old hotel turned apartment complex that may or may not have been built on top of something else entirely. Where Strappado takes the quick approach, the gradual build-up of The Broadsword is equally effective. With a sentiment similar to that of Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, Dennard begins to suspect that some of the residents of his building may be up to no good. The way Barron slowly unravels Dennard stable Broadsword based reality is masterful and the grotesque implications of the climax have cemented the story in my mind for months if not years. I only wish that Barron hadn’t been so ambiguous about the atrocious act in question.

--30-- – Two scientist-types are conducting researching on land once occupied by a cult that would make the Manson Family look normal. What could go wrong? Despite an unexpectedly strong final scene reminiscent of that of Occultation (for the creep factor, not the content), I thought –30—was one of the weaker stories in the collection. It’s not a bad story per se but while it touches on most of the themes that repeat throughout Occultation (particularly the theme of isolation), it feels like more of the same rather than an innovative work.

Six, Six, Six – Another “sinister revelation” story in which one member of a couple confesses the horrors of their past, Six, Six, Six is both a simple horror story and a meditation on child abuse coupled with the love/hate nature of familial obligations. The story occurs in a very small, domestic setting atypical to the collection but it carries the same sense of looming malice within its walls. As with many of Barron’s stories, the ending of Six, Six, Six is left more than a little unclear but I didn’t mind as much because of the startling clarity of the final scene. I liked it, though I’m not sure why or how. I don’t think that Six, Six, Six worked as well to close the collection as The Forest did to open it, but the story itself definitely lingers with you after you have shut the cover.

Taken together, these stories form yet another excellent horror collection (after The Imago Sequence and Other Stories) that both excites and profoundly disturbs. Barron’s prose is intelligent and exhilarating, subtly increasing the tension at a gradual pace before plunging abruptly into conclusions that are as unfathomable as they are powerful. The Forest, Mysterium Tremendum, and The Broadsword form a standout trio of possibly linked stories and Strappado, arguably the most realistic of the stories, manages to be equally good and no less menacing. Occultation reinforces the promise introduced by The Imago Sequence and it’s clear that Barron’s future in the genre is as bright as his work is dark.

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