Night Shade Books, 2013, 280 pages
Over the course of two award-winning collections and a critically acclaimed novel, The Croning, Laird Barron has arisen as one of the strongest and most original literary voices in modern horror and the dark fantastic. Melding supernatural horror with hardboiled noir, espionage, and a scientific backbone, Barron's stories have garnered critical acclaim and have been reprinted in numerous year's best anthologies and nominated for multiple awards, including the Crawford, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards.
Barron returns with his third collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Collecting interlinking tales of sublime cosmic horror, including "Blackwood's Baby", "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", and "The Men from Porlock", The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All delivers enough spine-chilling horror to satisfy even the most jaded reader.
I first encountered Laird Barron in another horror anthology — his story, "Frontier Death Song," invoked icy, existential horror in the Alaskan wilderness where Barron grew up. This is my first time reading a collection of his stories, and damn, they are good. This is a blood-slick treat with buckets of violence but not a drop of gratuitous gore for gore's sake, and I haven't looked forward to reading more short stories by a horror author since early King.
If there is one thing I find fault with in this collection of gruesome, violent, scary, and very literate horror tales, it is that Laird Barron shows himself to be equal to Lovecraft in imagination and writing ability, but won't quite step out of the neurotic old pulp writer's shadow.
Of course it's hard to write about cosmic, nihilistic horror without echoing HPL. All the stories in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All invoke the horror of a cold, impersonal universe filled with dark things that will casually grind you between their teeth, which is practically the definition of "Lovecraftian," but Barron's stories are harder, grittier, filled with hunters, lumberjacks, gangsters and carnies, rather than Lovecraft's shrieking academics. Of course these rough men fare no better than university professors when faced with madness-inducing horrors and monsters that lurk in the shadows, but they put up a fight.
Most of the stories in the collection are set in the American northwest, and Barron has a fondness for period tales — the HPL/pulp influence again. Although some of the violence and horror takes place in cities, it's out in the backwoods where Barron really conveys the sense of how quickly civilization flickers and dies. I gather from other reviews that many of the settings seen here — Olympia, Washington, and the Broadsword Hotel — feature in his other stories. Just as Stephen King has turned Maine into King territory, Barron seems to have claimed the Pacific Northwest as his primary storytelling venue.
One of several period tales in the collection, "Blackwood's Baby" is a legendary buck haunting the woods around a rich man's estate. He invites a select group of hunters to join him in seeking this creature, but they have been lured there by a servant of the woods, and Blackwood's Baby is of course, as one hunter puts it, "no tender doe."
Mr. Williams leaned over him and Luke Honey almost skewered the man. Mr. Williams leaped back, staring at the Barlow knife in Luke Honey’s fist. “Sorry, boy. You were having a fit. Laughing like a crazy man.”
Luke Honey clambered to his feet and put away the knife. His scooped up his rifle and brushed leaves from his clothes. The glow had subsided and the two men were alone except for the idol which hulked, a terrible lump in the darkness.
“Sweet baby Jesus,” Mr. Williams said. “My uncle told me about these damned things, too. Said rich townies—that weren’t followers of Christ, to put it politely—had ’em shipped in and set up here and there across the estate. Gods from the Old World. There are stories about rituals in the hills. Animal sacrifices and unnatural relations. Stories like our hosts told us about the Blackwoods. To this day, folks with money and an interest in ungodly practices come to visit these shrines.”
The Redfield Girls
There are a couple of stories in this collection focused on women. The Redfield Girls is about a group of schoolteachers who take an annual weekend holiday at a local lake, reputed to be haunted. The cosmic horror is less pronounced here; it's more of a ghostly tragedy, but Barron's telling evokes yawning abysses of terror that go beyond merely being frightened by spirits of the dead.
After they disconnected, Bernice lay staring into the glow of the dresser lamp. She slowly picked apart what Li-Hua had said, and as she did, something shifted deep within her. She removed the cordless phone from its cradle and began to cycle back through every recording stored since the previous summer, until she heard the mechanized voice report there was an unheard message dated 2am the morning of the accident. Since the power had been down, the call went straight to voice mail.
"My God. My God." She deleted it, and dropped the phone as if were electrified.
Hand of Glory
Another period piece set in the 1920s, about a gangster's hired gun, following in his father's footsteps, who decides to seek vengeance when another gangster tries to kill him. This leads to an encounter with a magician, who claims his old man was done in by black magic, which leads the protagonist on a bloody quest into the backwoods to face witches and wizards of a decidedly non-Hogwarts variety, and devil-worshipping rednecks. This is a bloody tale with guns, knives, fists, cannibalism, sorcery,
To see an example of what I mean when I call Laird Barron a literary horror author, check out this fight scene. It's bloody and violent, as action-packed as a pulp adventure, but Barron uses carefully crafted words like a Nobel Laureate of Horror. This passage is where I started to fall in love with his writing.
Curtis Bane screamed and though I came around fast and fired in the same motion, he'd already pulled a heater and begun pumping metal at me. We both missed and I was empty, that drum clicking uselessly. I went straight at him. Happily, he too was out of bullets and I closed the gap and slammed the butt of the rifle into his chest. Should've knocked him down, but no. The bastard was squat and powerful as a wild animal, thanks to being a coke fiend, no doubt. He ripped the rifle from my grasp and flung it aside. He locked his fists and swung them up into my chin, and it was like getting clobbered with a hammer, and I sprawled into a row of trash cans. Stars zipped through my vision. A leather cosh dropped from his sleeve into his hand and he knew what to do with it all right. He swung it in a short chopping blow at my face and I got my left hand up and the blow snapped my two smallest fingers, and he swung again and I turned my head just enough that it only squashed my ear and you better believe that hurt, but now I'd drawn the sawback bayonet I kept strapped to my hip, a fourteen-inch grooved steel blade with notched and pitted edges—Jesus-fuck who knew how many Yankee boys the Kraut who'd owned it gashed before I did for him—and stabbed it to the guard into Bane's groin. Took a couple of seconds for Bane to register it was curtains. His face whitened and his mouth slackened, breath steaming in the chill, his evil soul coming untethered. He had lots of gold fillings. He lurched away and I clutched his sleeve awkwardly with my broken hand and rose, twisting the handle of the blade side to side, turning it like a car crank into his guts and bladder, putting my shoulder and hip into it for leverage. He moaned in panic and dropped the cosh and pried at my wrist, but the strength was draining from him and I slammed him against the wall and worked the handle with murderous joy. The cords of his neck went taut and he looked away, as if embarrassed, eyes milky, a doomed petitioner gaping at Hell in all its fiery majesty. I freed the blade with a cork-like pop and blood spurted down his leg in a nice thick stream and he collapsed, folding into himself like a bug does when it dies.
The Carrion Gods in their Heaven
Another contemporary story. Lorna is fleeing her abusive ex, seeking haven in a cabin in the woods. "Cabin in the woods" is your clue that things are going to go dark and squamous. Lorna's lesbian lover, Miranda, is there to take care of her and protect her, and in another genre or with another writer this would be some kind of dark chick-lit tale, but Barron mixes crime thriller and shapeshifter legends to turn it all dark and grisly.
"Don't worry, baby." Miranda took her hand and led her back to the cabin, and tenderly undressed her. She smiled faintly when she retrieved the revolver and set it on the table. She kissed Lorna and her breath was hot and foul. Then she stepped back and began to pull the hide away from her body and as it lifted so did the underlying skin, peeling like a scab. Blood poured down Miranda's chest and belly and pattered on the floorboards. The muscles of her cheeks and jaw bunched and she hissed, eyes rolling, and then it was done and the dripping bundle was free of her red-slicked flesh. Lorna was paralyzed with horror and awe, but finally stirred and tried to resist what her lover proffered. Miranda cuffed her temple, stunning her. She said, "Hold still, baby. You're gonna thank me," and draped the cloak across Lorna's shoulders and pulled the skullcap of the beast over Lorna's eyes.
I'll admit that this story made me wince a bit, because the protagonist, a chameleon-like white collar sociopath named Lancaster, is recruited by an intelligence agency and Barron demonstrates that he knows far less about intelligence agencies than he does the dark blood-matted pine forests of the Pacific Northwest or the spirit-haunted trails of the Alaskan wilderness. Ignorance of such prosaic details aside, this wasn't my favorite story in the collection, but it still had its moments of marvelous literary violence, as Lancaster discovers that darker powers operate between the gears in which he was a cog.
Mrs. Cook ended Dedrick's heroics. She grasped the barrel and jerked and the gun exploded again, shattering the rear window. She made her other hand into a claw and gently raked drab, blue-painted nails across his face. One of his eyes burst and deflated, and the meat of his cheeks and jaw came unstitched as if kissed by a serrated saw blade and his face more or less peeled away like a decal. The man dropped the gun and pitched backward and out of view.
More blood. More blood. More screaming. It was chaos. The limousine left the road, bounced into the ditch and plowed a ragged line through a wheat field. The occupants were violently tossed about, except for Mrs. Cook who sat serene as a padishah on her palanquin.
The car ground to a halt. The passenger door opposite Lancaster opened and Mr. Blaylock stood there in an evening suit. He said to Mrs. Cook, "Chop chop, my dear. Dark is wasting." He bowed and was gone.
Mr. Cook's dagger had flown from his hand and lodged in the plush fabric of the seat between Lancaster and Dr. Christou. Lancaster caught his balance and snatched the knife, and it was heavy and cruelly curved and fit his hand most murderously. He stabbed it like an ice pick just beneath Mrs. Cook's breast. the blade crunched through muscle and bone and slid in to the hilt where it stuck tight. He tried to climb through the broken rear window. She cackled and clutched his ankle and yanked him to her as a mother retrieving her belligerent child. She kissed him and life drained from his limbs and he was paralyzed, yet completely aware. Completely aware for the hours that followed in the dark and desolate wheat field.
Jaws of Saturn
Another gangster tale, though this one taking place in the present day. Phil Wary is an occultist/magician who shows up in several of Barron's stories, and here he is the antagonist again, confronted by a hired gun who wants him to stay away from his girl.
In Lovecraftian stories, of course, magic always beats gunplay, and the unfortunate Franco suffers full SAN loss.
An impossibly tall figure lurched from the shadow of the ornate support column. A demonic caricature of an old man, his wizened head nearly scraping the domed ceiling, hunched toward Franco, skinny fingers reaching for him, lips twisting in anticipation. Franco recalled the de Goya painting of the titan Saturn who stuffed a man into his frightful maw and chewed with wide-eyed relish. He fell back, raising his arms in a feeble gesture of defense. The giant took the fistful of Franco’s strings, the erstwhile ethereal cords of his soul, and yanked him from his feet; grasped and lifted him and Franco had a long, agonizing moment to recognize his own face mirrored by the primordial aspect of the giant.
Even in pieces, eternally disgorging his innards and fluids, he remained cognizant of his agonies. He tumbled through endless darkness, his shrieks flickering in his wake.
This is a psychedelic tale with Barron's imagination let loose as if laced with liberal doses of acid. The narrator is a tripping megalomaniac, and you can chalk his story of being the creator and destroyer of the universe up to insanity, or you can read it straight as cosmic metaphysical horror. The story rambles and twists and goes all over the place in time and space, but every paragraph is interesting if often opaque.
I stare at my freakish eyeball, gaze into the distorted pupil until it expands and fills the mirror, fills my brain and I'm rushing through vacuum. Wide awake and so far at such speed I flatten into a subatomic contrail. That grand cosmic maw, that eater of galaxies, possesses sufficient gravitational force to rend the fabric of space and time, to obliterate reality, and in I go, bursting into trillions of minute particles, quadrillions of whining fleas, consumed. Nanoseconds later, I understand everything there is to understand. Reduced to my "essential saltes" as it were, I'm the prime mover seed that gets sown after the heat death of the universe when the Ouroboros swallows itself and the cycle begins anew with a big bang.
Meanwhile, back on Earth in the bathroom of the shabby efficiency flat, my body teeters before the mirror. Lacking my primal ichor and animating force that fueled the quasi immortal regeneration of cells that in turn thwarted the perfect pathogen, the latent mutant gene of the Pod People activates and transmogrifies the good old human me into one of Them. Probably the last self-willed fungus standing—but not for long; this shit does indeed spread like wildfire. My former guts, ganglion, reproductive organs, and whatnot, dissolve into a thick, black stew while my former brain contracts and fossilizes to the approximate size of a walnut and adopts an entirely new set of operating principles.
The Men from Porlock
This was perhaps my favorite story in the collection, very similar in tone and time period to "Blackwood's Baby," but even more horrific. Think M. Night Shyamalan crossed with Stephen King crossed with Cormac McCarthy. A bunch of loggers go into the woods to bag some deer for their little encampment, in preparation for a visit by the big bosses. Of course the big bosses are coming, but not the ones they think. And in a hidden valley in the forest, they encounter a village populated by inbred pregnant women. Things get worse and worse, in stomach-clenching grisliness and hopeless terror.
Into the forest. And gods, the trees were larger than ever there along a shrouded ridge that dropped into a deep gulf of shadows and mist. He was channeled along a trail that proved increasingly treacherous. Water streamed from upslope, digging notches through moss and dirt into the underlying rock. In sections the dirt and vegetation were utterly stripped to exposed plates of slick stone, veined red with alkali and the bloody clay of the earth. The trees were so huge, their lattice of branches so tight, it became dim as a shuttered vault, and chilly enough to see faint vapors of one's breath.
The game trail cut sharply into the hillside and eventually passed through a thick screen of saplings and devil's club and leveled into a marshy clearing. A handful of boulders lay sunken into the moss and muck around the trunks of three squat cottonwood trees. Surprisingly enough, there were odds and ends of human habitation carelessly scattered—rusted stovetops and empty cans, rotted wooden barrels and planed timber, bits of old shattered glass and bent nails. Either the site of a ruined house, long swallowed by the earth, or a dumping ground. The rest of the men gathered at the rim of the hollow nearest a precipitous drop into the valley. Fast moving water rumbled from somewhere below.
The last story in this collection seems to be an extended inside-baseball satire of the contemporary horror field. Barron is the narrator as he goes to Poughkeepsie to meet a gang of his fellow horror authors. Everyone is named only by first name and last initial, and since I am not that familiar with all the current writers, I recognized many, but not all of the references. "Berkeley Nick and New York Nick" was an obvious shout-out, and the entire story seems to be a bit of a poke at Thomas Ligotti, whom I have not read.
Although it contained a lot of the same visceral imagery as the other stories in the collection, it was, for the most part, narrated as descriptive prose rather than an actual story, and since I'm not deeply immersed in contemporary horror, I fear it went a bit past me. Still an interesting read, but probably my least favorite in this volume.
"Yes, oh yes, you are in luck, mon frère. L's written a fresh book of essays, the companion volume to Horror of Being. No one other than his agent has even glimpsed the manuscript, but word is, it's his masterpiece. Distils fifty-odd years of spleen in one raging spume of a satirical opus. It's called The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. A howling void of blackness, I imagine." Michael said that with what I swore was a shiver of delight.
Verdict: Not every story in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All was 5 stars, but I wouldn't rate any of them below 4. Laird Barron has hit my list of "authors to read more of soon." I'm highly recommending this book, though I am scoring it not quite a 10 because I haven't read his other books yet and am not sure yet that this is his best. If you like your horror dark and two-fisted, like a less prissy, less squeamish Lovecraft, or a contemporary Ambrose Bierce, check this Barron guy out. 9/10.
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