Friday, September 7, 2012

THE CRONING by Laird Barron

Elizabeth Pepper and John Wilcock wrote the following about Granada, Spain, in their nonfiction tour de force titled MAGICAL & MYSTICAL SITES: EUROPE and the BRITISH ISLES (published in 1977 by Harper & Row): “The area of Sacro Monte. . . . It was in a cavern here, carefully sealed with great blocks of stone and guarded by a solitary pillar, that a bizarre discovery was made. A dozen skeletons, dating back to Neolithic times, were found sitting in a circle around the skeleton of a woman wearing the remains of a leather tunic on which were incised complex geometric patterns. Also in the cave archeologists discovered such signs of ritual magic as amulets and inscribed clay discs of the types usually identified with sun worship. The floor was covered with beads and seeds of the opium poppy, which was known in earliest times as nepenthe, a narcotic.

Anthony Roberts in his GIANTS in the EARTH theorizes that the woman must have been an adept and spiritual guide who led the initiates into an astral state of contemplation. ‘The people who made this magic trip,’ he says, ‘had never returned from its magical revelations, and this was quite possibly by choice.’”

Take heart, readers of dark fiction, for someone has returned (bringing with him the Children of Old Leech), and he has written a novel about such mysteries -- written fiction, mind you, because to do otherwise, to speak the truth, might invoke a horror upon us mortals more terrible than that which befalls our hapless protagonist, Donald Miller, in Laird Barron’s stunning debut novel THE CRONING.

Donald Miller, a geologist and academic, worships his beautiful and enigmatic wife, Michelle, an anthropologist with strong ties to mysterious moguls around the globe. But not all is well with the world for Donald, as he would have it, as his wife has a habit of suddenly taking off unannounced to explore this-or-that anthropological dig while in the company of one or more of her male colleagues -- often staying gone for weeks at a time. But Donald is a good husband and does not complain overmuch or ask too many questions, until one morning in Mexico City, while both are enjoying a spring vacation together, Michelle receives a phone call in their hotel room from a colleague who informs her of a dig nearby and would she care to join him for a few days. Michelle tells Don she’ll only be gone for a short while, then plants a kiss on him and takes off.

Don has misgivings, however, and sets out in search of Michelle, whom he has begun to suspect of doing more than digging in dirt with her colleagues. When Michelle stays gone without a word for more than two days Don begins to worry that something terrible has happened to her, and searches for her in dead earnest.

Something terrible is indeed happening, but Don is wrong about to whom it is happening.

THE CRONING is highly recommended reading for anyone who enjoys conjugated light and dark, and all those squirming little crevices in between.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Blood And Other Cravings edited by Ellen Datlow

Blood and Other Cravings edited by Ellen Datlow is an extraordinary tour de force of dark fantasy featuring fifteen original stories and two reprints based on the vampire trope. But don’t expect to see Count Dracula in this gathering of darkness, nor any of the usual suspects or stereotypes found in most vampire tales. Ms. Datlow’s vampires, human or inhuman, are those whom we might encounter in our day to day activities (or, as the case might prove, night to night) because they feed on what drives the victim’s heart, mind, and soul. Readers of the supernatural can take heart, as the supernatural element is extant throughout this emotionally eviscerating anthology guaranteed to disturb.

All seventeen tales are excellent examples of fine writing and story-telling at their best, but three stories stand out for this reader: “The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan, which tells the tale of family secrets kept and a horrible discovery made; “All You Can Do Is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren, which tells of an otherworldly encounter and the inexorable dissipation of what drives us and makes us human; and “Mrs. Jones” by Carol Emshwiller, a particularly nasty usurper tale that first appeared in OMNI magazine in 1993.

The rest of the stories according to TOC are: “Needles” by Elizabeth Bear, which tells a slightly more conventional vamp tale but with a vicious twist; “Baskerville’s Midgets” by Reggie Oliver (a reprint from Madder Mysteries, Ex Occidente, 2009) which offers some much needed whimsical relief, even though the conclusion proves blood curdling; “Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” by Richard Bowes, a story about addiction in which it is difficult for the reader to decide just who the real parasite might be; “X for Demetrious” by Steve Duffy, a tale that brought to mind the 1940s film The Mask of Dimitrios starring Zachary Scott and Peter Lorre, if only because of the name in the title, and the writing style in which the story is told, describing the poison of prejudice and obsession taking center stage in a man’s life (if you have not seen The Mask of Dimitrios I highly recommend it); “Keeping Corky” by Melanie Tem, a tale of motherly love that will make your skin crawl; “Shelf Life” by Lisa Tuttle, which describes the parasitic nature of dreams unrealized; “Caius” by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, which blurs the boundaries between delusion and science; “Sweet Sorrow” by Barbara Roden, a tightly crafted piece that tells of loss and grief and those who feed on tragedy; “First Breath” by newcomer Nicole J. Leboeuf, which tells a nuanced usurper tale that leads the reader to ponder creation – a writer to watch; “Toujours” by the talented Kathe Koja, a chilling tale that borrows from Pygmalion and Galatea; “Miri” by Steve Rasnic Tem, a creepy piece about a family man and his past relationship with an anorexic woman who disappears from his life – or does she; “Bread and Water” by Michael Cisco, which informs us of the agonies of withdrawal and transformation; “Mulberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan, a disturbing tale about greed and dehumanization; and last but not least, “The Siphon” by Laird Barron, a writer whose penchant for making readers squirm will not disappoint in this nuanced tale about corporate greed and the supernatural converging to feed in a most unusual manner.

Highly recommended reading!

Friday, September 16, 2011

IN THE MEAN TIME by Paul Tremblay

IN THE MEAN TIME by Paul Tremblay is a collection of weird short fiction that lives up to its title, offering readers fifteen sociopolitical tales that inform us of inner conflict as well as interpersonal conflicts, world-ending plagues, psychological horror, and inconsolable loss as they lead us down dangerous avenues where adaptability and resiliency are the only means of defense and survival. IN THE MEAN TIME unfolds in a merciless world not unlike our own, and yet distinctly different from ours – as different and distinct as the writing style and literary voice employed in the telling of these tales.

The first story-offering is titled “The Teacher” in which a high school teacher employs unorthodox methodology to instruct his students on the subject of violence. This story is one of my favorites. The rest of the stories in order of TOC are as follows: “The Two-Headed Girl” – in which a young child compensates for loss in a most unusual manner; “The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas: An Excerpt from A History of the Longesian Library” – where readers of Tremblay’s novella CITY PIER: ABOVE AND BELOW revisit City in a tale about the mysterious balloons of Annotte that appear every nineteen years and wreak havoc on the residents; “Feeding the Machine” – a cautionary tale about denial and sublimating suicidal urges; “Figure 5” – a visually stunning, other-worldly story about the merging of art and plague, bringing to mind the Garten der Luste triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch, another favorite of mine; “Growing Things” – in which two young sisters battle urban botany gone terribly wrong; “Harold the Spider Man” – gives us a recluse who keeps some unusual eight legged pets with odd appetites; “Rhymes with Jew” – a sociopolitical tale about class distinction; “The Marlborough Man Meets the End” – three brothers wage war on advertizing and the destruction of habitat; “The Blog at the End of the World” – an online blogger who details mysterious deaths occurring in and around her city; “The People Who Live Near Me” – psychological horror utilizing the unreliable narrator in a tale about projective identification and decompensation, my third favorite in this collection; “There’s No Light Between the Floors” – a nuanced tale with a nod to Lovecraft about the survivors of an apocalyptic event; “Headstones in Your Pocket” – a USA border patrol agent will stop at nothing to quell his haunted past; “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” – a riff on Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” about a family on vacation trying to cope with the disappearance of fellow vacationers; “We Will Never Live in the Castle” – another riff on a Shirley Jackson story, her famous and last novel WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, in which a disenfranchised teenage boy sets up housekeeping in an abandoned amusement park after an end-of-the-world disaster has occurred, and lays siege to “Cinderella’s Castle”.

Paul Tremblay is the author of COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD, his first collection of short fiction; two novellas titled CITY PIER: ABOVE AND BELOW and THE HARLEQUIN AND THE TRAIN; THE LITTLE SLEEP and its sequel NO SLEEP TILL WONDERLAND, two Chandleresque crime noir novels featuring protagonist Mark Genevich, the narcoleptic detective.

Learn more here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

When I was a child, mythology and fairy tales took up a huge portion of my reading time, informing me at a young age that tragedy is but only one of the many inescapable aspects of being alive in this world, and probably the greatest common denominator connecting humans to one another; and that in between our frequent bouts of grief we humans can sometimes experience paradoxical bliss - a truism oft times illustrated in fairy tales. So it was no small joy for me to read RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS: A Modern Book of Adult Fairytales, edited by the estimable team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who have a long list of co-edited anthologies behind them as testament to their extraordinary talent for putting together wonderfully entertaining and emotionally provocative stories. Together, Datlow and Windling have edited several excellent volumes of classic fairy tales, interpreted and retold by some of the best story-tellers writing today - with RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS standing tall as the third volume in their fairytale series. Datlow and Windling write in their introduction to RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS: Three's the charm.

Indeed it is.

I cannot remember when I last enjoyed reading an original fantasy anthology as much as I loved reading RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS, as each consecutive story I read made me shake my head in amazement and mutter to myself that this one must indeed be the best story thus far - until I moved on to the next story, then on to the one after that. The fairy tales are that good, with three of the tales poetic renderings of traditional themes. In fact, if I were to reference the poet Robert Graves I would have to say that the very foundation from which all true poetry originates is the primary constant throughout this book and for me to favor one tale over another would be misleading, since I loved them all. But if pressed I would choose the following: "Summer Wind" by Nancy Kress - a variation on the Briar Rose fairy tale in which the Wyrd Sisters hold together the fabric of creation unseen; "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless" by Gene Wolfe - a clever riff on the Oedipus theme and the eternal dance between creatrix and creation; "The Real Princess" by Susan Palwick - a disturbing tale in which something far worse than the-pea-under-the-mattress determines the balance; "Match Girl" by Anne Bishop - a heart-wrenching tale about sexual abuse and survival; "The Fox Wife" by Ellen Steiber - a visually stunning story about shape-shifting in late nineteenth-century Japan; "The Traveler and the Tale" by Jane Yolen - an SF fairy tale in which visions perceived and myths deliberately sown cross boundaries and shape the future; "The Printer's Daughter" by Delia Sherman - a perfect closing fairy tale for an extraordinary book!

Rounding out RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS, and equally as stunning as the aforementioned stories, are "Ruby Slippers" by Susan Wade - a sardonic riff on the Red Shoes ballet and the Wizard of Oz, á la Hollywood; "The Beast" by Tanith Lee - in which Psyche meets up with a serial killer, in this dark take on "Beauty and the Beast"; "Masterpiece" by Garry Kilworth - with Rumpelstiltskin as Mephistopheles exacting his due; "This Century of Sleep or, Briar Rose Beneath the Sea" by Farida S. T. Shapiro -an eloquent and visually inspiring poem about the earth; "The Crossing" by Joyce Carol Oates - another variation of Sleeping Beauty in which a woman returns home to find a bizarre dreamscape awaiting her; "Roach in Loafers" by Roberta Lanne - an amusing riff on "The Shoemaker and the Elves" meets "Puss in Boots" (Chinese take-out included); ""Naked Little Men" by Michael Cadnum - a whimsical tale about the discontented Shoemaker and his frustrated wife; "Brother Bear" by Lisa Goldstein - a Native American flavored version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"; "The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon" by John Brunner - in which a humble painter of dragons outsmarts a cruel and stupid ruler; "Billy Fearless" by Nancy A. Collins - a quirky take on the Brothers Grimm's "A Tale About a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" with "The House on Haunted Hill" thrown in for good measure; "The Huntsman's Story" by Milbre Burch - a tragic and short tale based on "Snow White"; "After Push Comes to Shove" also by Milbre Burch - a poetic rendering of Hansel and Grettel; "Hansel and Grettel" by Gahan Wilson - a modern tale of narcissism and cupidity; "Waking the Prince" by Kathe Koja - a tale of disappointment and denial as Sleeping Beauty switches gender roles; "The White Road" by Neil Gaiman - a chilling poem in which western Europe's shape-shifting Mr. Fox is much, much more than he claims to be.

RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS closes with a section on recommended reading for those who wish to read more about fairy tales and their origins.

I cannot say enough in praise of RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS, except read and judge the anthology yourself. I think you will find it most favorable.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Laird Barron

A Review
7 September 2011

Modern day gladiator Conrad Navarro has Daddy issues of the Biblical kind, and Dad is not a sympathetic character. In fact, none of the characters in this tale of stygian darkness can be described as sympathetic as they act out their betrayal from a specific yet mutable hell tailor-made for world domination by the Old Ones. With a stylistic nod to William S. Burrough’s NAKED LUNCH, Barron takes us on a non-linear odyssey through what, on the surface, resembles the mad landscape of a schizophrenic’s inner world, and it is not until the very last page that we fully understand the horrific objective in this tale of deliberate madness.
THE LIGHT IS THE DARKNESS allows readers to briefly revisit Barron’s former stories The Imago Sequence, Six Six Six, Proboscis-30-, and Old Virginia, to name a few, and garner a clearer understanding of “the Bigger Picture,” in which Barron has included the flip side of the savior theme. This said, abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for here you will not find redemption. The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning as the worm turns and Ouroboros devours its tail. Readers who have already ventured into horror literature, especially those of you already familiar with Laird Barron’s brand of Lovecraftian Mythos (if not, may I suggest you read his excellent collections THE IMAGO SEQUENCE and OCCULTATION) are in for some shivers.
Wealthy industrialist Cyrano Kosokian sponsors genetically engineered gladiator Conrad Navarro in a global underworld fighting ring that makes legal cage fighting look like a church quilting bee, as these gladiators fight to the death, just like they did back in the good old days of sovereign Rome. But our protagonist Conrad is distracted from his customary rigorous training for these championship bouts because he is obsessed with the disappearance of his FBI sister, Imogene “Genie” Navarro. Conrad suspects Genie is a victim of the mysterious Dr. Drake, an aged geneticist who specializes in eugenics experiments and torture, and embarks upon a mission to find Imogene, or at least find out what happened to her.
What Navarro finds instead is the meaning of his life.
For more information on Laird Barron’s novel, go here:
If you are a Laird Barron reader, this is a must read.

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.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


In the age-old tradition of masterful story telling guaranteed to make your skin crawl, author Laird Barron offers us THE IMAGO SEQUENCE AND OTHER STORIES, ten heart numbing tales of terror that will leave you glancing furtively in the mirror, ever fearful something altogether unwholesome will glance back in recognition. The Imago Sequence and Other Stories comes to us courtesy of Night Shade Books, an independent book publisher with an impressive reputation for publishing outstanding authors. And should you acquire the limited hardcover edition of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, signed by the author himself, you will have in your hands the edition that includes "Hour of the Cyclops", an energetic tribute to H. P. Lovecraft which first appeared in the online e-zine, The Three-Lobed Burning Eye. You will not want to miss this one. Appearing in both editions for the first time is the novella "Procession of the Black Sloth", an original tale Mr. Barron penned exclusively for the collection, in homage to Asian horror. I had to read this novella several times over because it had me running hither and yon in my head trying to identify the numerous allusions embedded therein, which included big and little screen classics; classic tales of horror; literary and genre novels; authors; music, so on and so forth. The novella is a veritable puzzle, deftly crafted, at once horrifying and irreverently entertaining. Even Santa Claus takes a hit in this lurid tale of skewed reality, where the game played in Hong Kong is the game of retribution. And should you find yourself unfamiliar with some of the allusions, you will nonetheless enjoy this dark and oft-times grisly tale, in which the author pulls out all the stops, not pausing once to spare the reader nightmares. If you enjoy conundrums, you will enjoy reading "Procession of the Black Sloth". I love all the tales in The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, but my favorite is "Hallucigenia", a novella as layered as the earth is ancient, offering to the reader an indirect and eerie glimpse at the Cambrian Period as it spills forth into present time, utterly annihilating everything in its path. Laird Barron performs here a deft and spine-tingling integration of H. P. Lovecraft's chthonic and inimical Old Ones with the contemporary science of paleontology -- the allusions are subtle, however, and require a discerning eye. I first read "Hallucigenia" in the June 2006 Issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and instantly recognized an award winning tale. In May of last year I wrote as much in a review I did on F&SF at Amazon, mentioning Laird Barron's outstanding novella. I've read the story three times since, and with each reading I experience something new, noteworthy, and ultimately chilling to the bone. "Hallucigenia" is a remarkable piece of writing, and will be recorded in literary history as a true classic among all the other great tales penned by master story-tellers past, present, and future. "Hallucigenia" was a finalist for the IHG Award in the long fiction category. The story was also nominated for a HWA Stoker Award. It is no exaggeration to say Laird Barron has indeed joined ranks with the reigning masters of eldritch horror. His award-nominated work has appeared and continues to appear in several of the "Best of ..." anthologies -- though what a pleasure it is to read his tales in this single, elegantly bound volume.

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories table of contents: Proboscis (8500 words): "Alien horrors pursue a failed actor during a nightmarish road trip with a pair of amateur bounty hunters..." F&SF 2005; reprinted in YBF&H 19; Best New Horror 2005; and Best New Fantasy 2005. Nominated for International Horror Guild Award. Bulldozer (10,600 words): "Jaded Pinkerton detective Jonah Koenig tracks a serial killer from Boston to an 1890s California mining town and encounters malevolence that dwarfs his grimmest imaginings..." SciFiction 2004; nominated for IHG award; reprinted in YBF&H 18 and a forthcoming Czech anthology. The Imago Sequence (20,000 words): "One tough guy investigator explores the origin of a series of macabre photographs and discovers secrets not meant for the eyes of Man..." F&SF 2005; reprinted in Hartwell & Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 6; nominated for International Horror Guild Award; Nominated for World Fantasy Award. The Royal Zoo Is Closed (4500 words): "A vignette about life, angst and the end of the world..." Phantom # 0 World Fantasy Convention 2006. Old Virginia (8000 words): "A domestic CIA operation to conduct psychological experiments on an elderly woman goes terribly awry and one man will encounter the very incarnation of evil..." F&SF 2003; reprinted in YBF&H 17; nominated for IHG award. Parallax (9800 words): "Life unravels for a flamboyant modern artist following the mysterious disappearance of his wife..." SciFiction 2005. Hallucigenia (25000 words): "Cosmic terrors descend upon a hapless tycoon after a tragic accident..." F&SF 2006; Reprinted in Polish magazine Fantastyka (10/2006); nominated for the HWA Bram Stoker Award; nominated for the IHG Award. Shiva, Open Your Eye (5800 words): "A creature as old as the stars contemplates its origins and its destiny..." F&SF September 2001. Hour of the Cyclops (4500 words): "A humble hero saves mankind from chthonic destruction in this retro-pulp tribute to H. P. Lovecraft..." The Three-Lobed Burning Eye #6 2000. Procession of the Black Sloth (24,000 words): "A lurid tale of skewed reality, where the game played in Hong Kong is the game of retribution..." A tribute to Asian horror; original to the collection.

Reading Laird Barron's work is comparable to watching a star nebula being born. Highly recommended.