by Laird Barron
300 pages, Night Shade Books
Review by S.P. Miskowski
Sometimes while reading Laird Barron's stories I become so immersed in the densely detailed, highly descriptive prose that I have to take a break because I feel like I might be going insane. Only the films of David Lynch affect me in the same way: Afterward, for a short time, I am able to see real objects and people but I have an eerie sense that nothing is what it seems. At any moment walls will talk and people will be sucked sideways into another dimension.
So why don't I just stop reading?
If I stopped I would miss some of the most original, thrilling and fully realized horror fiction in print today. Of course I would also stop waking up and staring at pieces of furniture, wondering: "Did that thing say something?"
Occultation is Barron's second book of stories. With his first collection, The Imago Sequence the author established credibility with elaborate horror tales of adventure and relationships gone wrong. He continues in that vein with this new book, but he has developed greater proficiency at the final fictional twist, the kink that puts everything that went before into new and more troubling perspective. For Barron, perspective is crucial. Consider the title of the book.
"Occultation" occurs when background objects become obscured by action or objects in the foreground. The term is used regarding computer-generated images when an up-close object or figure briefly eclipses changes occurring in the background. More than just the title of one of the nine stories in this volume, occultation is a significant theme throughout the book. As an event, it happens when the author introduces a strange element, allowing literary sleight of hand to change the direction of the narrative. It also happens when characters are distracted by something weird, so that they fail to recognize a major shift in their environment.
In "The Forest" two old friends meet while one of them is undergoing a shocking metamorphosis. The story was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
The story "Occultation" plays on a natural sense of dislocation felt by travelers staying at a motel. Beginning with a verbal game and an odd stain on the wall, the story accumulates an inescapable feeling of dread. By the time one of the characters spots something bizarre, it doesn't seem outlandish at all. But that isn't the end of the story. I dare you to read the last paragraph, and then turn out the lights and go to sleep.
"The Lagerstätte" (another Shirley Jackson Award nominee) is a melancholy study of survivor guilt. Through an intricate history of therapy, despair and reckless action, the heroine comes to recognize a place of destruction that inexorably attracts people who have already lived through the worst personal catastrophe.
In "Mysterium Tremendum" the most recent addition to a group of friends and lovers begins to unravel their violent history. The discovery prompts him to reach for greater maturity during a camping trip that turns into a savage, macho challenge.
The protagonist of "Catch Hell" knows that her husband pursues and photographs sites of pagan worship and sacrifice. But his current activities following the death of their infant daughter make her question her relationship with him, her fitness as a mother, and her sanity.
"Strappado" confirms every fear you've ever had about traveling at the mercy of guides more proficient in the local language and more daring in pursuit of dangerous forms of entertainment. Here's a tip: If you think you're out of your element, you probably are.
"The Broadsword" is a funky apartment building where a retired man begins to hear and see odd things. Doubting his mental acuity, he has to test the reality of his situation against the experience of his neighbors and against the demons of his past.
"--30--" reunites two colleagues to study inexplicable animal behavior and changes in vegetation at a remote site. At first the scientists live in a pristine habitat and receive supplies by air shipment. But soon they find their activities, both physical and mental, are breaking down as the boundary between their protected environment and the damaged world outside disintegrates.
"Six Six Six" is creepy, creepy, creepy. As in "Occultation," Barron adopts an uncharacteristically blunt prose style to present a more traditional horror tale. This one is set in an inherited house with plenty of family secrets.
In Laird Barron's fiction the world is not an illusion. It is concrete and it has dimensions we can describe. But it is not the only place where humans reside. Our internal landscape and the space we occupy physically are often at odds with one another. So if another world (the kind H.P. Lovecraft feared obsessively) seeps into this one, will we know it? Will we have the words to explain it? Or will we call it madness?
Occultation becomes available from Night Shade Books in May.