Book Review: Swift to Chase by Laird Barron

From the very first words of ‘Screaming Elk, MT’ in which Jessica finds her fate entangled with the cursed company of a traveling carnival, we are made aware that we’re experiencing something that transcends the bounds of traditional cosmic horror.

If you’ve been reading horror fiction for any length of time, then you’ve likely heard of and even read Laird Barron. If you haven’t you should probably go see what all the buzz is about. Barron is the author of several brilliant collections and novellas, tales of the strange and cosmic with a heavy pulp noir flavor and literary sensibilities, and he’s pretty much the single author who sets the bar that likeminded writers strive to reach. His most recent novellas, X’s for Eyes and Man with No Name were groundbreaking works of literary cosmic noir and fine examples of the new directions Laird tends to move the genre in with each new release. Now, with Swift to Chase, his newest collection from Journalstone, he once again pushes the boundaries of genre fiction, defying established norms and redefining the structure of horror.

When Laird Barron writes a short story, it stands firmly on its own, independent of any other story or narrative structure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t closely related—at the very least—to other stories he’s written or will write. Swift to Chase is a perfect example of that. Literally every story in the book was published at a different time and in a different publication, yet the conglomerate is a unified whole, a story that moves around in time but manages somehow to feel chronologically well-ordered and logical in its anatomy, feeling almost like a full length, albeit surreal, novel.

The first part of the book, ‘Golden Age of Slashing’, starts out with a series of Jessica Mace stories, including what is basically her origin story, the brilliant and horrific  ‘Termination Dust’, Swift to Chase tells of a darkness, a crack in the world that runs through everything, built upon the bones of a mythology that once again proves that, while Barron is adept within the confines of other mythos, he’s not bound by them and is more than adept at building his own cosmos and populating it with terrors of his own making. From the very first words of ‘Screaming Elk, MT’ in which Jessica finds her fate entangled with the cursed company of a traveling carnival, we are made aware that we’re experiencing something that transcends the bounds of traditional cosmic horror, a construction built entirely from Laird Barron’s imagination. Jessica Mace is a perfect pulp noir protagonist. Desperately broken, amoral, with a damn the torpedoes approach and a willingness to accept collateral damage when necessary, she’s seen more than an average person’s share of darkness, each time coming through just a little bit darker and meaner for the experience.

The second part of the book, ‘Swift to Chase’ gives us some of the most powerful stories in the book, including the haunting and surreal ‘Ardor’, a disturbing, darkly cosmic tale of a man hunting for someone in the wilds of Alaska. In addition to just being an all-around brilliant story, this one demonstrates something that’s been mentioned about Laird Barron’s work in the past; he writes LGBT characters better than most authors in horror. The fact that the protagonist is gay is a primary aspect of his development, but a secondary, well integrated aspect of the tale itself. And Laird doesn’t treat him as a stereotypical homosexual male. Sam is rough and mean as the Alaskan outback in which a lot of the story takes place, a grizzled, unscrupulous individual who fits perfectly with the heavy noir undertones of the story.

Laird Barron is a master linguist, a virtuoso wordsmith whose every sentence is poetry, every paragraph perfectly crafted and beautiful, as in the following opening passage of his story, ‘Ears Prick Up’:

“My kind is swift to chase, swift to battle. My imperfect memory is long with longing for the fight. Gray and arthritic in the twilight of retirement from valorous service to the Empire, my hackles still bunch at the clink of metal on metal. My yawn is an expression of doom sublimated. I dream of chasing elk across the plains of my ancient ancestors. I dream of blizzards and ice fields that merge with the bitter stars. In my dreams, I always die.”

The imagery Barron renders is vivid, as stark and clear as a crisp winter day when the sun shines across the frozen tundra, creating a lasting impression and demonstrating Laird’s love of language.

In the third and final section of the book, ‘Tomahawk’, Barron ramps up the strange and cosmic, starting out with ‘Black Dog, a sharp little pinprick of a story about a blind date that ends with a bizarre and chilling twist. Following that one is ‘Slave Arm’, easily one of the best and most disturbing tales in the book, it’s a short read with large aspirations as it brings several of the other stories in the book full circle, tying up loose ends, answering a few questions and, in the process, raising several more. And the final entry in the collection does much the same, bringing several recurring characters and storylines back into play for a noteworthy and fascinating finale to this tour de force of short horror fiction from a master of the form and the genre. Laird Barron is never less than remarkable and this book shows that he only gets better with time. Swift to Chase is the best collection of short fiction that Barron has put together so far, and likely to be among the top such books to be produced in our current decade. If you like your horror edgy and dark, with strong flavors of cosmic weird and pulp noir, Laird Barron is the author you’re looking for and Swift to Chase from Journalstone Publishing is exactly the book you need.


Publisher: Journalstone
eBook: (383pp)
Release Date: 7 October, 2016

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