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.”

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