“Mr. Connell thought like an animal, unfortunately; he was trapped in the electrochemical web of cognition, wherein curiosity leads into temptation, temptation leads into fear, and fear is considered an impulse to be mastered. He came into the barn against the muffled imprecations of his lizard brain. Curiosity did not kill the cat all by itself.”
I had to return to Laird Barron sooner rather than later, and for some reason, I’m wanting to read his collection in order. So, today I turn to the second story in The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, published by Night Shade Books in 2007. In case you don’t already know, and you ought to as I am considerably late to the party, Mr. Barron is the real deal. His work breathes originality into the Lovecraftian scene, where it oozes masculinity as the vastness of the cosmos he calls upon seeps through your defenses and blends the mostly real with the not possible on the grim palette of your imagination. This story immediately felt like a lot of Lovecraft’s shorter works, where character and plot play second and third fiddle to atmosphere. I forget who said this, and I’m not even sure I’m getting the paraphrase right here, but someone smarter than me once posited that one of the great achievements of the old gent from Providence was his ability to cause you to feel the dread thundering in the distance, that there was true world-ending danger out there, imminent, though not yet. It would make you shudder outright, if only it were slightly more perceptible. As it is, you are left wondering why you have goose bumps. This story by Barron accomplishes that feeling pretty perfectly.
It opens fairly pragmatically on a scene in Eastern Washington state, a geography I’m sadly not very familiar with myself, but I’m told is beautiful in a way you might not immediately associate with the state of Washington. (I tend to think of Seattle, forgetting there’s anything else to the state.) An elderly man answers a knock at his door to find a burly sort of fellow standing on his stoop by the name of Murphy Connell, though no introduction is forthcoming. For our senior citizen we are also given no name, but by the end of the story one is neither needed nor would one really fit. Mr. Connell claims to be a state property inspector, but our man sees through this thin, alibiing concoction and calls our attention as the reader to what he really is, an investigator of some sort. Seems there’s been some disappearances recently. Disappearances that seem random, but which have one thing in common: they’ve all happened around this general area, and the only thing in this general area is this man’s farm. Mr. Connell would like a look around.
This turns out to be a bad idea for Mr. Connell, as there is far, far more to the elderly gent of the farm than even just a potential mass kidnapper/murderer. But he is so old, so innocent seeming, that surely he couldn’t be the perp, right? There has to be someone else. Connell is careful as he explores. Eventually he uncovers something which I take to be some sort of mythosian artwork, comprised at least in part by the body parts of the missing. It’s an overwhelming visage, indescribable, and horrific. And it’s the last thing Connell sees before he becomes a part of it. Whatever it was, Barron attempts to describe it briefly, and deploys one of the coolest words I’ve come across in recent memory, a word that was singularly difficult to look up: obliquangular. It means obliquely angled but at least to my ears it carries a wet, biological sound that reminded me of the word “coagulate” and left me uncomfortable. It’s total free association I know, but there you have it. (Later, he busts out with “pyrgoidal,” which I also had to look up: it means tower-shaped. But “obliquangular” still takes the prize.)
Now, the story could have stopped there but this really only marked the halfway point. The rest of it, which I don’t want to share too much about, takes us on an aeons long journey through time and space and things get really weird—and really cool—really quick, driving forcefully towards an ending sentence that rings like the last solemn toll of a gong, after which nothing else may be. I told you, Barron’s the real deal.
In At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Out of Time, and others, HPL apprised his readers of the dismaying news that not only were we human beings not alone in the universe, but that we were unimportant, insignificant, a recent blip on the radar screen of the Old Ones. In fact, in AtMoM, he describes how humans were created as a joke by the Old Ones. A joke! Not only are we cosmically small and insignificant, not only is there no order to the universe, no loving God, but that we were created by the only things we might call gods as an afternoon’s amusement. In the latter half of this tale, Barron taps into that wellspring of despair and brings it to the fore for us readers in a fresh way. We read about time before man, and we hear whispers of time before time, and of how we have no place there. “The oceans have been decimated several times in the last billion years. Sterile water in a clay bowl. Life returned unbidden on each occasion. The world slumbers, twitches and transforms. From the jelly, lizards crawled around the fetid swamps eating one another and dying, and being replaced by something else. Again, again, again…”
This one, as you can see, is really a tale in two parts, two separate stories almost, both good in their own right. I do wonder at their connection, though. (This’ll be the most microscopic of criticisms, as this story is amazing!)
It feels almost as if the first half was like the first paragraph you put down so you don’t have a blank screen anymore. Now, it’s awesome and portentous reading, but I get the sense that the second half is really what it’s all about. Well, it is, from my perspective. So, why the overly long introduction to get there? Perhaps so we had an actual story instead of a fragment like HPL’s “Azathoth,” for example. Don’t get me wrong, I think it works, but I almost wish the tendons holding them together were stronger, though I don’t want to make too much of this molehill. Have you read it? If so, let me know what you think about this in the comments (or anything else you’d like to say).
This review was composed whilst relaxing to the soothing sounds of “Red Soul Burning: Wood Flute Music” by Kevin Doberstein.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
Blasphemous utterances of the Mouth: “Everyone is looking for the answer. They do not want to find the answer, trust me. Unfortunately, the answer will find them. Life—it’s like one of those unpleasant nature documentaries. To be the cameraman instead of the subjects, eh?”