Monday, April 19, 2010

OCCULTATION by Laird Barron

Horror diehards have reason to celebrate.
     Laird Barron does not write "happily ever after." If you are looking for pretty stories with happy endings, or even creepy stories with happy endings, look elsewhere, because there's nothing pretty nor happy in Laird Barron's OCCULTATION, his second collection of dark fiction following the success of his first collection, THE IMAGO SEQUENCE AND OTHER STORIES.
     That Barron does not write "happily ever after" is not to say that OCCULTATION is lacking in heroes and heroines, fools and apostates, prodigal sons and beckoning fair ones. On the contrary, the reader will find these archetypes in each of the stories in this collection, stories rich in allegorical themes that engage all the senses -- sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing, and emotion -- only with a bleak and horrifying twist. Barron's story-telling in OCCULTATION grabs the reader by the back of the neck and forces him to "look at this," reminding the reader that reality is not always pretty, even when reality is couched in fantasy.
     Bad things happen to good people, average people, and oblivious people -- especially oblivious people.
     The irony here is that Barron sets up and executes these Chthonic revelations with such graceful and seductive elocution that the reader goes willingly to his "readerly" fate every bit as willingly as Barron's protagonists go not-so-gently into that endless night. This said, the reader can choose to ride safely over the surface of each tale and sigh afterwards that the protagonist's fate was not hers, or she can choose to dive into deeper waters where hidden formulae found in the Gnostic art of Gematria inform her of metaphysical secrets, and ancient rituals performed in an upside-down looking-glass world reveal psycho-spiritual insight. The reader has a choice in Occultation: read for entertainment, or read for information. Or read for both. There is mystery aplenty to be found in either venture.
     OCCULTATION is all that, the art of legerdemain, as was experienced in THE IMAGO SEQUENCE AND OTHER STORIES. But where THE IMAGO SEQUENCE presented with lone protagonists unwittingly encountering and sometimes surviving a hostile universe, we find in Barron's OCCULTATION a "progression" of interrelated stories, in which his main characters encounter adversity while involved in significant relationships. In fact, it is sometimes because of the significant relationship that the protagonist meets his/her doom. We've gone from Imago, a primitive and idealized chrysalis of the primary object, i.e., assimilation of the parental figure, to Occultation, the act of combining various but ambiguous dynamics to produce a specific effect in relationships, i.e., accommodation and compromise.
As I noted in my review of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, we have again in Occultation excellent examples of developmental psychology wrapped in the trappings of psychopathology and parapsychology.
     Remember, though, that nothing is ever what it appears to be, and as Michael Shea writes in his introduction to Occultation: "Barron's cosmos is an omni-morph that can dragoon you whenever/wherever it wants into its swarming, pullulating fabric . . . . As often with craftsmen who are blazing the path of a new form, his imagery flows like music . . . . The narrative eye, as jeweled as a bug's, draws utterance from everything, both above and below"; and, as with all apostates and the paths they follow,". . . . This Occultation, this ground-breaking book, is not a feast of mere annihilation. These fates are - every one of them - Transformations. And to be transformed, to be Remade, is not a passive exercise. It is an excruciating eclosion, a branching, fracturing emergence into a much bigger, hungrier universe."
     The lead story in Occultation is titled "The Forest," which is, on the surface, a tribute to the famous Lovecraft story, "The Color Out of Space." Here we find Freud's theme of sex and death, primal lust and fear, the conflict of Vagina dentata, the fear of commitment comingling the eternal quest to reunite with the womb, wherein Barron writes in the first paragraph, setting the stage for predation: ". . . the woman was waiting. She wore a cold white mask similar to the mask Bengali woodcutters donned when they ventured into the mangrove forests along the coast. The tigers of the forest were stealthy. The tigers hated to be watched; they preferred to sneak up on prey from behind, so natives wore the masks on the backs of their heads as they gathered wood. Sometimes this kept the tigers from dragging them away."
     Barron also writes in "The Forest": "The brain is a camera, and once it sees what it sees there's no taking it back."
     The same can be said of this chilling story that sets the tone and atmosphere for the rest of this collection.
     There is no taking back horror.
     The next story is the titular "Occultation," a nifty chiller about an odd stain on a wall in a motel room a couple rent for the night while on a road trip. As with "The Forest" and subsequent stories in Occultation, Barron reunites the reader with his ubiquitous and hungry sky. He writes: “She . . . blundered through the door and into the night . . . . The stars were out, fierce and prehistoric. The dark matter between them seemed blacker than usual and thick as tar . . . . The night remained preternaturally quiet there on the edge of the highway, absent the burr of distant engines or blatting horns, or the stark sweep of rushing headlights. The world had descended into a primeval well while she'd been partying in their motel room; it had slipped backward and now the desert truly was an ancient and haunted place."
     The Necronomicon, or rather a-bible-that-isn't-a-bible, makes a brief appearance in the motel room in "Occultation" and one gets the sense that lurking somewhere here beneath this vast and hungry sky is a character named Ash. At least, we hope Ash is lurking somewhere nearby.
     Our third tale, "The Lagerstätte," incorporates, in part, the Kubler-Ross model known as the five stages of grief, and presents with a female protagonist who is failing her recovery from the simultaneous deaths of her husband and son in a plane crash. But this is more than a mere story of survival. "The Lagerstätte" is also a frightening ghost story, with ancient artifacts that seem to appear from out of nowhere and dead doppelgangers that appear then disappear before the protagonist Danni's very eyes. Is Danni haunted or is she going mad? Or is it neither in Danni's field of vision but rather the cosmid sequence of converging serpentine universes floating in and out of focus? Barron writes, "A child murmured in the hallway, followed by scratching at the door. The bolt rattled. She stood and looked across the living area at the open door of the bedroom. The bedroom dilated. Piles of jagged rocks twined with coarse brown seaweed instead of the bed, the dresser, her unseemly stacks of magazines. A figure stirred amid the weird rocks and unfolded at the hips with the horrible alacrity of a tarantula. You filthy whore. She groaned and hooked the door with her ankle and kicked it shut . . ." -- not unlike the mind kicking shut trauma and manufacturing illusion in its stead.
     "Mysterium Tremendum," the forth offering, includes one of the best fight scenes since the movie "They Live." But I am getting ahead of myself here, in an attempt to express my enthusiasm for this engrossing tale of classic horror that pays tribute to so many of the great writers of dark fiction, Machen, Poe, Lovecraft, M. R. James, W. H. Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, Karl Edward Wagner, to name a but a few. Moreover, "Mysterium Tremendum" is a tribute not only to great storytellers but also a loving homage to many of Laird Barron's closest friends and colleagues. The author's affection is apparent in his writing, and it is clear from the start, when reading this wonderful adventure story, that Barron wrote it in a spirit of play; even when he writes such bone chilling lines as: ". . . the only thing an advanced species would want from us would be our meat and bones."
     All play aside, "Mysterium Tremendum" is a frightening horror story that employs the theory of event horizon or "point of no return." Original to this collection, this cautionary novella is the longest story in Occultation, and quite frankly, my favorite of them all, which is saying quite a bit, because I love this entire collection. I could go on and on writing excerpts from "Mysterium Tremendum" and rhapsodizing over the story in this review, but I will say this and only this: A small black book entitled Moderor de Caliginis - roughly translated, "The Black Guide" - falls into the hands of two gay couples looking for weekend adventure on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, when all hell breaks loose for them. Told after the atmospheric fashion of 1940s film noir movies such as, "The Curse of the Cat People" and "Curse of the Demon," "Mysterium Tremendum" takes the reader on a creepy, modern day camping trip into the fecund wilds of wet Washington, on a quest to find an ancient and mysterious dolmen rumored to exist somewhere atop Mystery Mountain, southwest of Sequim. This story will make you squirm, reader of dark fantasy, and squirm, you shall.
     "Catch Hell" is the fifth tale in Occultation, its placement in the TOC serendipitous - or is it deliberate? Five points make up the pentagram: One must think about such things when reading this collection. Nothing here is what it seems. And so it is in "Catch Hell," a chilling horror story about metempsychosis and dark magic. Riding above the supernatural, however, is the dysfunctional, psychologically cannibalistic relationship between a narcissist and his histrionic wife who is suffering from empty womb syndrome. Barron begins "Catch Hell" with these words: "For years she awakened in the darkest hours to a baby crying. She finally accepted the nursery they'd sealed like a tomb was really and truly empty, that the crib was empty. She learned to cover her ears until the crying stopped. It never stopped."
     Sonny and Katherine Reynolds take a vacation to Olde Towne ". . . forty miles east of Seattle in hill country, a depressed region populated by rural poor folk who worked the ranches, dairies, and farms. Forests, deep and forbidding, swept along the hem of tilled land. Farther on, the terrain rose into a line of mountains that divided the state." This apt description of Sonny and Katherine's remote getaway location suggests not only the rift growing between them, but also implies the isolation into which they are heading at the Black Ram Lodge, a resort hotel run by proprietors Kent Prettyman and Derek Lang, who inform our hapless vacationers on their arrival that the hotel rooms have no phones, that there are only two phones in the lodge, a house phone at the front desk and another in Prettyman's office. Prettyman explains to Sonny and Katherine Reynolds: "We make every attempt to foster an atmosphere of seclusion and relaxation here at the Black Ram. Guests needn't trouble themselves with intrusions from the city while in our care."
     But trouble is all they serve at the Black Ram, trouble and invocations.
     At this writing "Catch Hell" has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for best horror novelette in 2009.
     And now we move on to "Strappado," one of the most chilling and innovative tales to come along in years. "Strappado" first appeared in Ellen Datlow's original anthology POE, released in 2009. "Strappado" has also been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in the best short story category for 2009. Laird Barron credits Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Masque of Red Death" for influencing "Strappado" and writes in an afterword to the story in POE: "Revelry, privilege, decadence, and deceit are prevalent in both Poe tales and, as in my story, the revelers are participants in their own destruction."
     Barron is in top form in "Strappado," delicately delivering horror at its most terrible. The denouement will leave you with a sick feeling in your stomach. This is some of Barron's best writing, in my opinion.
     "The Broadsword" places seventh in the TOC, which is a good number placement for this story told in third person limited POV, through the eyes of protagonist Pershing Dennard, a sixties-something resident of an old and moldering apartment complex in Olympia called the Broadsword Hotel. I say seventh is good placement for the title because number seven in Gematria represents a perilous journey that can end in either despair or renewal. Here, the number suggests both.
     The Broadsword was once an elegant hotel in its bygone days of luxury that hosted gentility and Hollywood celebrities. Now it is merely a crumbling relic of its former self posing as an apartment building; however, as Barron writes, "The old girl suffered a number of renovations to wedge in more rooms, but she maintained a fair bit of charm and historical gravitas even five decades and several facelifts later." This said, she also maintains something quite ancient and lethal in her subterranean chambers.
     "The Broadsword" ties in with "Mysterium Tremendum" in Barron's Pacific Northwest Mythos, as I like to think of these stories, and presents as an abduction tale of the Lovecraft kind. Barron writes in the first paragraph: "Lately, Pershing dreamed of his long lost friend Terry Walker. Terry himself was seldom actually present; the dreams were soundless and grey as surveillance videos, and devoid of actors. There were trees and fog, and moving shapes like shadow puppets against a wall. On several occasions he'd surfaced from these fitful dreams to muted whispering - he momentarily formed the odd notion a figure stood in the doorway. And in that moment, his addled brain gave the form substance . . ."
     "The Broadsword" is a tribute to another great Lovecraft story, but I will leave Lovecraft readers out there guessing as to which one.
     This brings us to "--30--" which is the second story original to this collection. Now, some readers might wonder why "--30--" is second to the last story in Occultation, when the term
--30-- is markup language for "The End." But again I must stress that nothing is ever what it appears on the surface in this collection, and just when our protagonists think they are out of the woods, they encounter the Mark of the Beast in the very last tale.
     But I am jumping ahead of myself, again.
     "--30--" begins with the words: "You know how this is going to end." Written in present tense, "--30--" unfolds on the desert acreage of an abandoned commune once run by a group of social misfits who called themselves "the Family." The correlation here with Charles Manson is clear from the start. So is the evil, a residual evil that has its origins in a history much older than the now defunct commune and the footprint it left.
     The BLM acreage is blighted. People have been reporting odd occurrences and bizarre phenomena for years, and now the government has sent in two researchers to observe and record the phenomena. What unfolds is a creepy but riveting story that leaves the reader with arm hairs standing on end.
     Now we move on to the third original, and last, tale in Occultation, titled "Six Six Six.” Most of us are familiar with the Book of Revelations and the Number of the Beast, but the number is really a blind, and refers to something else, something that cavorts in the moonlight, something that is moonlight herself, which is appropriate for this Gothic tale that takes place in an old mansion -- a family home on which sunlight has never fallen, even during daylight hours -- and reunites us with the same ravenous night sky in Barron's short story, "Occultation."
     This is the tale of the prodigal son told in tandem with the old adage, "You can never go home again." But what if the prodigal son never left home in the first place?
     I will say no more. Just read the story. In fact, read the entire collection. Laird Barron's OCCULTATION does not disappoint. Every story in this collection is a winner, and guaranteed to satisfy the hungriest of horror readers.
     Highly recommended.

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