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Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos: Laird Barron

laird-barron

Ask any reader of weird fiction for their A-list of writers of the genre and they’ll invariably include Laird Barron in that list. When it comes to contemporary writers, Barron easily comes to mind as the most accessible, and the most able to set his own course. He consistently delivers the goods with engaging characters faced with the strange, the unexplainable, and the other-worldly. The fact that he has managed to do this without completely relying on the old Lovecraft crutch, basically creating his own mythos, now immortalized within the pages of his very own tribute anthology, The Children of Old Leech, speaks volumes of just how influential his work is on the emerging crop of weird writers.

Barron grew up in the harsh landscape of Alaska. Before unleashing his fiction to the world, he worked as a fisherman and raced the Iditarod several times. He then relocated to the Pacific Northwest, where many of his stories are set. This is especially important to note, as much of his fiction is set in the outdoors. There’s a certain ruggedness to his work; a compassion and respect for nature. The wilderness is the landscape many of his characters chose to explore, and they rarely escape unscathed. Yet his stories never beat you over the head with paragraph after paragraph of description of his locales. Barron is ultimately more interested in how we interact with nature, both environmental and human. Setting is the backdrop where he paints his dramas, just one piece of the canvas of human condition. Even when Barron sets his stories in more urban locales, you can’t help but feel his confidence with his characters. Indoors, outdoors, it really doesn’t matter, as ultimately you’ll find his stories inhabited with people we can all relate to.

Characters, all of them different in so many ways, is what sets Barron apart from many other writers of weird fiction. Whereas so many tales rely on formulaic plot mechanics and visceral accounts of places and monsters often indescribable, Barron often lets those fictional devices take a backseat to his portrayal of well-developed humans from all walks of life. He is comfortable in any voice, whether it be an impressionable teenaged girl or a gay man with a fondness of exploring the great outdoors, as in “Mysterium Tremendum”. Barron approaches these voices with respect, casting against type while avoiding the stereotypical. And there still seems to be an underlying “sameness” to his characters, which probably lends itself more to style than anything else. If there is something to say about Barron’s style, it’s that it is robust and fearless, confident enough to seep through his many voices to fit the horrors he is revealing without drifting into pastiche; unless, of course, that is his intention. The adage “write what you know” permeates all of his fiction, and when combined with his literary influences, his tales leap off the page with vibrant energy and the benefit of experience.

Though he published his first story in 2000 and has steadily published fiction and nonfiction since, most know Barron from his collections, The Imago Sequence & Other Stories and Occultation & Other Stories. Featuring reprints alongside fresh material, these two collections cemented Barron as a regular fixture of weird fiction. 2012 brought us his first novel, The Croning, and then a year later his second novel The Light Is the Darkness arrived. Both novels are fully realized stories that prove Barron does indeed have the chops to the go the distance with longer narratives, but where he truly shines are with his short-stories and novellas. Weird fiction works best in the short-story form, often better in the novella form, for it allows the writer to examine a character a little closer without having to string-out a plot for word-length. Thankfully, the internet has heralded the triumphant return of the novella form, and now publishers both large and small are realizing the power of such tales in our short-attention span world.

After his collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All was released, a strange thing happened. Keep in mind, as fiction trends often recycle, that weird fiction and cosmic horror were already on the rise, building steadily as readers clamored for dark subjects and even darker characters. We can thank television shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and writers like James Ellroy, Daniel Woodrell, and Jack Ketchum for our need for dark, complexly flawed characters. HBO decided to go dark once again, this time enlisting writer Nic Pizzolatto for a seasonal anthology procedural called True Detective. Here we see Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as we’ve never seen them before; damaged, corrupted, broken down and teetering on madness. It certainly helped that the series had a small spoonful of weird laced through and through, with ritualistic killings and a close proximity to the cosmic. The series rode the razor’s edge of the natural and the supernatural. Once HBO premiered True Detective and viewers grew interested in everything weird, Barron was already established with a growing fan base. Several websites trying to cash in on the True Detective craze published reading lists fans could check out for writer Nic Pizzolatto’s influences. Among listings for Robert Chambers, Thomas Ligotti and Ambrose Bierce was Laird Barron, the The Imago Sequence cover proudly displayed. With Pizzolatto on record saying he was definitely influenced by Barron, the world quickly came to know his work, and saw he is a force to be reckoned with.

In 2014, we saw Barron take on the role of editor. Already established in this capacity with his work with Phantasmagorium, Barron edited the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 1 with Michael Kelly. 2015 announced the release of his novella X’s for Eyes, a rollicking wild-adventure with weird overtones and a pulpy attitude readers gobbled up with glee. Strangely enough, Barron seems to have come full-circle, embracing the pulpy style of yesteryear to continue his journey exploring the weird. With Man With No Name (2016), readers are introduced to Nanashi. A member of the Yakuza, Nanashi is tasked with kidnapping a wrestler. Things go wrong, and weird, quickly as this tale of the underworld unfolds. Rumor has it this will be a recurring character for Barron, and we can only hope this rumor comes true.

October 2016 brings us the release of Barron’s latest collection, Swift to Chase. We are introduced to Jessica Mace within the first two tales, and what an introduction. A hardened survivor, Jessica is a refreshing voice in Barron’s ever-growing repertoire. Barron continuously twists perspective and plot within these stories, confidently striding over and beyond his influences with a muscular prose reminiscent of Robert E. Howard. The thing with Barron’s fiction is that there are only traces of his influences. It’s as though his imagination drew from inspiration right before it grew tired of it, longing for release. This is where the best writing happens, when the words align perfectly with character and story and send the reader directly into a world at once familiar and alien. He captures his characters in such a way that we feel we already know them, regardless of if they’re an international spy or someone enjoying a little camping on the weekend. The thing is that we only think we know these characters. When faced with horrors unimaginable, it is then that we truly know the nature of Barron’s people, and we can’t even look away from it.

At a time when weird fiction and cosmic horror is taking the front seat within the speculative genres, it’s refreshing to know there are writers like Laird Barron that have forged their own path, garnering well deserved praise and acclaim. His fiction has been nominated for the Stoker, World Fantasy, and Locus awards many times, and he frequently shows up in year-end “Best of…” anthologies with increasing regularity. Barron has won the very prestigious Shirley Jackson award three times. Many consider Barron’s work to be of a more literary nature, and if that is the case, no one is complaining. It’s easy to see where that comes from, but perhaps it’s much deeper than that. By examining the human condition against the raw brutality of nature, Barron’s work resonates with readers because we see ourselves in his characters. We see our fantasies and fears played out before us from the safety of the pages in our hands. Barron gets us as close to the unknown, the twisted, the unrelenting horrors, as we can get, and we just can’t get enough of it. Laird Barron doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Let’s just hope we can all keep up with him.

 

BOB PASTORELLA

 

Buy books by Laird Barron.

 

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  1. News Roundup: WFA, David G Hartwell | Laird Barron

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