by Laird Barron
256 pages, Night Shade Books (publisher)
Review by S.P. Miskowski
Laird Barron is well known to readers of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Five of the nine stories in this collection were first published there. His work also appears in about two-dozen anthologies and numerous magazines online and in print. He's the winner of a Shirley Jackson Award for The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, and has received seven International Horror Guild Award nominations and five nominations for a Locus Award. If you haven't read much fantasy fiction lately and you're under the impression that speculative writing is dreamlike or disconnected from every day experience, Barron's fiction will change your mind.
The tales in this collection fuse the supernatural and the quotidian with disturbing results. Barron creates a world that looks, feels and smells like reality. Yet just outside this world, touching the edge of the picture and threatening to cross over into it, are the shadows and shapes of something dreadful. Like the conjured images of a Rorschach test, the longer you look at these shapes, the more ominous they appear.
I was amused but not really surprised to read that the author of these psychologically piercing stories used to raise huskies in Alaska, and that he had extensive martial arts training. The lower echelon political figures, cynical real estate tycoons, broken soldiers of fortune and former athletes and beauty queens who populate his stories resonate with a graphic sensibility writers can only gain from experiences unrelated to the literary arts. When these characters speak, it is with a weariness born of too much knowledge about the human condition. When they finally decide to act--and they seldom do so on a whim--it is with a grim understanding that the future may easily hold greater pain and horror than the present, for there is no end to horror in the history of our race.
From the aging paramilitary protagonist of "Old Virginia" to the guilt-ridden mogul in "Hallucigenia" there is a deep and adult sense of mortality that darkens even the most casual exchange. "Shiva, Open Your Eye" follows the spiritual journey of a serial killer whose self-justification is profound and global in its proportions. The compromised characters of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories search for lost works of art and hidden records in attempts to explain the inexplicable. Like a Werner Herzog film, their dangerous yet well documented adventures lapse into obsessive, nightmarish enterprises that lure them ever onward to their doom.
This is the only collection of stories I have ever read that actually entered my consciousness to the degree that I dreamed about its landscapes and characters. Chalk that up to the author's extraordinary prose style, which is densely descriptive; and his ability to weave hardboiled action reminiscent of Lawrence Block together with allusions to another dimension that would make H.P. Lovecraft shiver. Barron's universe walks and talks like this one, but it is haunted by a greater darkness just beyond our influence, and making its way toward us with an alarming determination.