Laird Barron's Occultation Reviewed

Monday, June 21, 2010

Since H.P. Lovecraft's death in 1937, many writers have sought to tap his visions and energies for their own literary purposes. Some have careened wildly into new territory as a result. None, however, has done so in quite the way Laird Barron has. When his first short story collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, appeared several years ago, Barron gained a cult following. Now he is back with a new book of nine stories called Occultation and Other Stories, which at times seems like a ritualistic tome designed to transmit Barron's dark fantasies into readers' souls. The vibrant sorcery that thunders from these pages has its origins in his challenging depictions of exotic characters and environments, as well as a scrambled version of Lovecraft's Cosmicism designed to invoke a timeless chill within our bones.

Many have classified Laird Barron as a Lovecraftian writer--a deserved identification--but one that should only be used with limited parameters. The sheer range of style and setting that appears in Occultation probes venues and records voices Lovecraft could have never dreamed of, people and places unexplored by most post-Lovecraft "Cthulhu Mythos" authors. The stories in this collection tear through boundaries presented by societies and geography, letting through unadulterated strangeness and terror in its purest form...everywhere. Beyond that, Barron manages to unearth new treasures, shining with a grim luster that does not owe its brilliance to Lovecraft's ghost, but to other influences and the author's own experimental designs.

The book's remarkable diversity is inescapable, and much of it stems from Barron's large storytelling toolbox. In the title story, "Occultation," a nightmarish situation centered around a strange shape on a cheap hotel's wall unrolls itself through innocuous dialogue. These are the words of a hapless couple trying to deny the insanity of what is happening a few feet from their bed, in exchanges that are painfully human. However, the subconscious denial expressed here is feeble, and rightfully so. The collapse of safe, dependable anchors in Barron's worlds is so thorough that neither his fictional subjects nor his readers can successfully negate the transmutation carried out by outre actors. Subverting "known" reality is Laird Barron's specialty, and his faithfulness to this principle drives his dimensional membrane ripping styles.

Barron's ability to seamlessly integrate equally unsound dreams and realities is the most frequently marshaled technique in his narrative arsenal. Nowhere is this better applied than in "The Lagerstatte," where a disorienting trio of hallucination, nightmare, and faded life struggle for dominance over a woman who has lost her family in a plane crash. This is an enshadowed representation of madness intersecting with dark, primal spirits, who bring unwelcome reminders of loss to the tortured protagonist and beyond the book's covers. Another frightfully uncertain atmosphere settles over the wasteland of "--30--." Here, an alienated pair are stuck in an artificial module, far from civilization, tracking natural phenomena on land tainted by a bizarre cult's mysterious history. As in "The Lagerstatte," emissaries of the uncanny and unknowable intrude into minds that are already distraught by past burdens and frequent nightmares. No blows are withheld in the story's awful climax, and the excruciating collision engineered by Barron will leave readers inventing their own interpretations about the mechanics of the supernatural and the subconscious.

The Imago Sequence won broad appeal in part because its characters depart wildly from traditional Lovecraftiana. Unbalanced strongmen and clumsy elites suffered equally as they fell to forces they could never hope to understand. Occultation's cast includes a few familiar personality types, but its main characters are more diverse than in Barron's first collection. The professions, genders, ethnicities, and sexual preferences vary wildly in an egalitarian distribution of cosmic terror. None are spared. Similarly, no two environments envisioned by Laird Barron are the same, despite his slight preference for northwestern America's familiar stalking grounds. His cities, countrysides, forests, and deserts have their names--real or imaginary--but all of these places wind up as putty built to heighten each story's horrors, as backdrops for madness and menace.

While Barron's plots, characters, and styles are as unique as they come, there are strong echoes of a worldview familiar to H.P. Lovecraft readers in more than half the stories in Occultation. In fact, the clarity with which Barron presents H.P. Lovecraft's philosophical legacy marks him as one of the few writers working in the genuinely Lovecraftian tradition--not by dropping names of curious sounding entities and books, but by boldly showing mankind's dust speck like place in the universe. "The Forest" follows a renegade entomologist and his well-to-do buddies on a quest to breakthrough the barriers of time and species to communicate with humanity's insectoid successors. Extraterrestrials with an insatiable hunger are the chief threats in "The Broadsword," an anxiety boosting tale that chronicles an invasion by hostile voices and visitors at an old hotel converted into residences. In these stories, the horrors actually decipher themselves, but there is no comfort found in knowing their monstrous workings. The Lovecraftian theme of forbidden knowledge surfaces in the novella length "Mysterium Tremendium," which covers a group of gay friends and lovers on their trek to the Kalamov Dolmen mentioned in The Black Guide, a tome as unsettling and magical as any rattled off by Lovecraft. The sanity and relationship shattering encounter at the story's conclusion is practically expected by the time it occurs, but the full revelation of an ancient evil's true form is as surprising as it is disturbing.

Barron's unique modernization of Lovecraftian Cosmicism will probably be the book's main attraction, but another subset of stories presents a worthwhile contrast especially suited for more general readers of weird fiction. In these tales, the distant influences of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood supplant Lovecraft. They also testify to Laird Barron's capable handling of weird fiction at large, not just the Lovecraftian. "Catch Hell" is easily on par with this collection's best Lovecraftian pieces. Dark gods and black magic forever alter the disjointed lives of a couple trying to have another child after the shock death of their first. This story houses an original breed of possession, and eerie questions about mortality and fertility, questions that have never been asked in the gruesome way posed here. More traditional markers of evil also take center stage in "Six Six Six." As might be guessed from the story's title, Satanism and archaic occult powers cease to be banished when an heir occupies his family's ancestral home. Old shadows consume the present. Psychotic, ugly truths about the heir's family are exposed to his wife, who follows her husband into a black pit unbound by time. Finally, "Strappado" is quite different from any other Barron tale. An artistic performance in a foreign land turns equal parts criminal and mysterious, leaving one broken participant to drown himself in futile denial, even as acidic questions about the will to live wash over readers in a torrent. Questions raised by this story, like the others in Occultation, are designed to haunt and hurt well after completing an initial read. And a second, and a third, and so on. Barron powered queries are never comfortable, but they are definitely enlightening.

Occultation really is a well balanced collection that builds on the solid foundations left by The Imago Sequence. Laird Barron serves up more of the wonderful Lovecraftian fare his previous readers expect. His experiments in new directions pay off exceedingly well, and may foreshadow horrific vistas of future short story collections and novels. Occultation may be analyzed one day not merely as another successful collection of weird tales, but as an important transit point in Barron's literary career, leading to evolutionary paths as alien and vivid as his fictional horrors.

-Grim Blogger

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