Night Shade Books, 2010, 274 pages
Laird Barron has emerged as one of the strongest voices in modern horror and dark fantasy fiction, building on the eldritch tradition pioneered by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, and Thomas Ligotti. His stories have garnered critical acclaim and 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. His debut collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, was the inaugural winner of the Shirley Jackson Award.
He returns with his second collection, Occultation. Pitting ordinary men and women against a carnivorous, chaotic cosmos, Occultation's eight tales of terror (two never before published) include the Theodore Sturgeon and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated story "The Forest" and Shirley Jackson Award nominee "The Lagerstatte." Featuring an introduction by Michael Shea, Occultation brings more of the spine-chillingly sublime cosmic horror Laird Barron's fans have come to expect.
I became a Laird Barron fan after reading a couple of his stories in anthologies, and then buying his collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.
Occultation is his second short story collection (I haven't yet read the first, The Imago Sequence.) I found some of the stories good, but most didn't quite live up to the creepy heights of TBTTAUA. Barron is still a horror writer with a distinct style who, if you like his stories in general, is always worth reading.
Barron writes gritty modern horror, not splatterpunk or buckets of blood, but creepy backwoods horrors, or unsettling lurking things at the edges of houses, rooms, relationships. Lovecraft is obviously a big influence, though he doesn't write directly into the Cthulhu Mythos. His stomping grounds are Alaska and the Pacific Northwest — he populates the PNW with creepy abandoned lumber towns and forgotten sacrificial altars the way Stephen King populates Maine with alien child-eating monsters and freaky spirits.
There are nine stories in this collection; only one was truly a stand-out to me. I guess I was a little annoyed that several of the stories mostly consisted of long blocks of dialog between the characters, banter and clever quips punctuated by sudden "Oh shit!" moments. It didn't quite work to keep me in the mood, and made me think more of some buddy romcom being rudely interrupted by an axe murderer.
This was most true in the title story, Occultation, in which a couple check into a hotel, have lots of sex and drugs, and then creepy things come out of the woodwork, tromp across the parking lot, cut scene.
I also found Mysterious Tremendum annoying, though more atmospheric. Four gay dudes go off for a trek into the forest in search of a mysterious dolmen on a map, in a part of the world where no dolmens should be. There is macho posturing, bitchy gay romance drama, a bar fight, and then of course, a horrible fatal ending.
The Forest draws more directly on the Lovecraft vibe. A bunch of odd people gather at a rich guy's compound, ancient cult hijinks ensue. Barron populates this story with names that are obvious shout-outs to those familiar with both the classic and modern horror genre — there is a "Howard Campbell," a "Dr. Toshi," a "Beasley," etc.
The Lagerstätte is one of two stories in the book (the other being Catch Hell) about a woman who loses her child. The endings are different, one being a bit more of a psychological drama, the other veering closer to Rosemary's Baby territory.
Strappado is a weird tale about some debauchees who participate in a bizarre production put on by an "artist" who likes to make his audience participants. In this case, it's a nasty globe-spanning game of mindfuckery.
--30-- was another dialog-laden story, yet it was one of my favorites. Two people are stuck out in a remote observation post in the Alaskan wilderness, on an unspecified mission for an unspecified "Company." It's a bit like one of those stories set in space or at the bottom of the sea, except the monsters are just forest critters or maybe a feral human? And yet they're still spooky as hell when they come tapping on the outpost doors.
In Six Six Six, a woman in an unhappy marriage returns to the inherited house of her husband's fucked-up family. It predictably does not go well.
Finally, my favorite in the book: The Broadsword. Also the longest story, almost a novelette, it's about a man who's been staying in an old hotel (called The Broadsword) inhabited by many other long-term residents. His estrangement from his family, his relations with his neighbors, the possibility that he is losing his marbles, all play a part, but in the end the story goes into deep, dark Lovecraftian horror of the sort that Barron excels at (better than Lovecraft did) when he puts his mind to it.
Also by Laird Barron: My reviews of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and The Croning.
My complete list of book reviews.