Shiva, Open Your Eye, by Laird Barron

“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.”

9700e0bd051e375cb21ee9cafd07ffa5[1]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.)

1-GDeichmann-India-Ajanta-Ellora00607[1]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!)

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“Mouth of God” by Deviant Art user: carpet-crawler
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,
~The Bibliothecar

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?”

 

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Old Virginia, by Laird Barron

“The men dressed in hunting jackets to ward the chill, loaded shotguns for possible unfriendly contact, and scouted the environs until noon. Fruitless; the only tracks belonged to deer and rabbits.”

Ok, I get it. I’ve been hearing about this Barron guy for a while, and now I’ve read a story by him and I get it.  He’s good.  More than good.  This is the first weird fiction short story I’ve read in a long time that actually had me looking over my shoulder.  I read at night, when the rest of my family has gone to bed.  I sit up late in my chair in the living room with one light on and read until my eyelids can physically no longer remain in the upright position. (It doesn’t take all that long, actually.)  But then I turn out my light and walk to my bedroom in the dark.  Only, when I finished this story, I didn’t want to turn out the light and walk the measly fifteen feet down my own hallway in the dark!  I get it.  But is Barron the second coming of Lovecraft as some have dubbed him?  Well, maybe.  And maybe not.

cover+-+Imago[1]This story is found in the numero uno position of Barron’s first anthology (trust me, I’ll be getting the others) entitled The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, published in 2007 by Night Shade Books.  The cover design and artwork are gorgeous and subtle with a crispness to the text.  I have to say this, and it may be geeky, but I really like the font of the title. Not sure what it is, but if you do, I’d enjoy knowing.  The first year the Shirley Jackson awards were given out “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic,” guess what book won for best collection?  Yep.

The story opens with these words, “On the third morning I noticed that someone had disabled the truck.  All four tires were flattened and the engine was smashed. Nice work.” Immediately, we know that this is not Lovecraft. This sort of action and even violence are just not typical Lovecraftian fare.  Neither is our narrator, a military man of some renown, though now aging and arthritic.  I’ve been told most of Barron’s protagonists are manly men who shave with a bowie knife and read those Chuck Norris memes for inspiration.  HPL’s protagonists, meanwhile, are bookish fellows, a bit squeamish (though I  do believe our man faints in this one as well – at least it’s hinted at), and haven’t darkened the door of a gym since grade school.  To say nothing of a general unfamiliarity with firearms.  Which is fair, right? Cause shooting at Cthulhu doesn’t exactly get you very far.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that our hero, the leader of a mercenary band, is charged with protecting (against what?) a group of scientists who are out in the jungle doing experiments on human beings.  Totally legit. We learn it’s actually only one human being experiment on, an elderly woman, and from there on out, things get weird.  The candy shell of this tale is the ole CROATOAN legend, and the lingering question of what doom befell those colonists.  Spoiler (highlight to read): Given how the story is titled and ends, I’d be curious to know if you think one of the things Barron is suggesting here is the land itself is the devouring mother?

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Then, Barron throws in, just for good measure, the declassified CIA project known as MK ULTRA, an all too real mind control program studied and worked on for over a decade under the aegis of Uncle Sam.  That’s a real photo to the right here.  The subject, as it were, is about seven or eight years old and her name is Ellen Atkin. (For another fantastic treatment of this nightmarish chapter in American history, check out the horrifying film Banshee Chapter…oh lawd it’s scary and it has Ted Levine!) MK ULTRA victimThis combination of American legend and scientific investigation proves potent for puissant storytelling and atmosphere.  Shades of Stranger Things here too, or since this came first, does Stranger Things have shades of Barron? I don’t know. In any event, the mood Barron conjures isn’t as dark and brooding as a Lovecraft story; it’s much more balled up energy and fully loaded ammo clips. “Five of my finest men were ground up in the general slaughter. Two were captured and tortured. They died without talking. Lucky for me … I bumped into Hatcher, hanging upside down from a tree branch. He wore an I LIKE IKE button.”  I don’t know about you but I can’t help but think of that scene in the original Predator where Sonny Landham’s character, I think it was, meets a similar fate. I don’t want to say more about the story because I don’t want to ruin it for you, but as I mentioned, the ending is haunting.

Barron’s writing is superb, as is his ability to set a scene and create a mood.  It just isn’t a totally Lovecraftian one in this story. And that’s perfectly fine!  I loved this story. You can see how he takes what he’s learned from Lovecraft and creates his own thing here, and I’ve gotta say, isn’t that really what it’s all about? I mean, unless you’re setting out to write straight up pastiche.  Barron’s originality is on full display, and I suspect it only gets better.  His writing is brisk. His sentences, curt. His descriptions? Amazingly visual given the preciseness of his language.  So no, I don’t see Barron as the second coming of Lovecraft, and I’m fine with that.  In fact, I’m satisfied without a second coming of Lovecraft at all (as it might also entail something from the outer spheres making an entrance…) because Lovecraft was unique. He can be emulated, but not reanimated. Got that, Ward and West? If there was anything that bothered me about this story, that challenged my willing suspension of disbelief, it was that when our main character, our macho, ex-military mercenary sits down to have a drink, he drinks a whiskey sour.  Really?! I mean, don’t get me wrong, a whiskey sour is a tasty drink and all, but for this guy I’d expect him to hold everything but the whiskey and rub the glass with dirt.  Maybe it’s period piece dress, I don’t know.

Anyway, I will leave you with this truly terrifying thought about MK ULTRA. There are conspiracy theorists out there who do not believe the government ever shut this program down. That they’re still experimenting, still learning.  Some of the worst of these foil-hatted friends think MK ULTRA could be behind some of our most tragic domestic scenes, like some of those mass shootings. Here’s one final image from a website I never once imagined I might visit:

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Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Particularly eldritch words: “Mother won’t take meat unless it’s alive.”