I don't read much horror, but I enjoy it when I do; I love the Great Old Ones such as William Hope Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft, there's Clive Barker of course, Joe Lansdale and Dan Simmons have some powerful stuff too. I've recently discovered Joe Hill and am entranced by his style. (I understand his father has written some books as well.) When a horror story really works for me, I throw the book against the wall with a shriek and hide behind the sofa. Then, trembling, and in tears I crawl across the floor in supplication and pick up where I left off. Laird Barron does this to me.
It seems the best horror conveys an utter hopelessness against the Unknown. All the extensive arcane lore, mad skills, or big guns we might have is futile against that which lurks in our nightmares. Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos is legendary for its vast eldritch deities brimming with power, but generally oblivious to humanity's petty actions. Woe betide the hapless mortals who opened the wrong book or wandered through an innocently shambolic ruin. Like Lovecraft, that Eskimophobic shut-in from Providence, Mr. Barron's tales peel back the flimsy facade of reality and the Universe suddenly boils over in maggots, chitinous genitalia, and biting eyeballs.
Although clearly a student of the master's themes, Barron has his own voice, which is about as far away from H.P.'s fussy antiquarian style as you can get. The writing in The Imago Sequence has been hard-boiled in mescaline, like Jim Thompson tripping his balls off. Rather than adopting Lovecraft's bestiary of unpronounceable space gods, Barron has devised his own collection of creepy creatures. One major but as yet unseen figure is the malevolent entity that some worship with the name Belphegor. In at least three of the stories he uses an interesting theme of Lovecraft's: Scary Old People. They could be a symbol of ancient knowledge and the and the impending fate that awaits us all, or just childhood memories of having to kiss wretched Great-Aunt Mildred. Either way Barron reminds us to respect our Elders, otherwise they will eat our brains.
Many of the stories take place in the present day in the American Northwest particularly around Olympia and Eastern Washington state. There are some notable exceptions. The previously unpublished "Procession of the Black Sloth" is a bleak disorienting descent into Hell set in Hong Kong. A grizzled Pinkerton agent tracks down a vicious killer to a Gold Rush town in "Bulldozer", it could be described as Cthulu in Deadwood. "Hallucigenia"is about a wealthy man trying to come to grips with a bizarre and horrible incident that has left his life shattered. It made me think of the best of Clive Barker, only better. The title story deserves to hang in the same nightmarish gallery as "The Picture of Dorian Grey" and "Pickman's Model". "The Imago Sequence" is a notorious trio of photographs sought after by rich and eccentric collectors. One of these sends his agent, an ex-wrestler turned kneecap-busting debt collector, to hunt down the mysterious third image. His investigation uncovers a labyrinth of conspiracy, crime, and macabre cults, or something even worse.
No wan, scholarly dweebs here. Barron's protagonists are often Big Tough Guys. These bruisers have seen hard times and done whatever it takes to survive them. Of course this can't prepare them for what the author has in store for them. From each opening line you know these guys are Doomed — but you're compelled to follow them to their fate. And readers really will feel for them. These aren't cookie-cutter macho cartoon goons. Each one is a nuanced and complex character with interesting backstories. Men who struggle to make sense out of a world that's bigger and more dangerous than they realized, and then they end up in a Laird Barron story. Tragic really.
The imagery in The Imago Sequence is especially vivid. Barron's language can be disturbing brutal, but always quite lyrical. He cites the poet Wallace Stevens as another influence. He claims to be working on a novel and I know for a fact his publisher is eagerly awaiting it. I am too. Horror fans will enjoy these creepy, terrifying and beautiful tales of damnation. Certainly scared the crap outta me and I liked it.
You can purchase The Imago Sequence from Night Shade Books
or support your local independent bookseller.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the mindless gibbering dancers as Christopher Hsiang. He is sleeping with the lights on although he knows it will be of no help when They come for him.