In The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, the third collection of short stories from two time Shirley Jackson award winner Laird Barron, interjects that penultimate form of 20th century dread, Cosmic Horror, with fresh blood – incorporating elements of gritty gumshoe noir, hardboiled action, folklore, ghost stories & metafiction, and ultimately explores and expands each genre, in the process.
Laird Barron has the kind of backstory that dreams and legends are made of. Born and raised in Alaska, where he raised dogs and trained to race the Iditarod, which he did three times. He spent his formative years reading seminal horror authors like Lovecraft, Poe and Arthur Machen, along with pulp noir by the likes of Philip Marlowe, by flashlight, huddled in a tarp lean-to, while the vast, empty expanses of the Alaskan wilderness raged outside. That’s a pretty extreme immersion in the shock & awe that comes from real, face-to-face interaction with Nature. It’s a humbling experience, that shows Humanity’s place in the cosmos.
Cosmic horror, best known by the works of H. P. Lovecraft, illustrate mankind coming to grips with it’s increasing insignificance, as science began to look further and further afield, with satellites and radio telescopes penetrating the vast emptiness of deep space. It was a continuation of the crumbling anthropocentrism since Copernicus declared that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Look at the persecution of Galileo at the hands of the Inquisition, as he forwarded Copernicus’ ideals, just goes to show how strongly people react, when reminded of their dust-mote stature.
Unlike most Cosmic Horrorists, who are content to merely expand upon Lovecraft’s infamous mythos, connecting dots and filling gaps, Barron is actually doing something new with the genre, re-invigorating it, strengthening it, and beautifully illustrating some of the more extreme and underground currents of contemporary horror, in the process.
First and foremost, Barron goes against the typically effete, dry and academic tone of most Lovecraft imitators, with a genuinely red-blooded masculine voice, full of Raymond Chandler anti-heroes, femme fatales, bullets, blood & ACTION! This is like Jack London finding the Necronomicon, or Cormac McCarthy investigating Pacific Northwestern witch cults. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All negates the frequently slow and dull pacing of a lot of Cosmic Horror, and stands to pull in a whole new generation to Lovecraft’s vision.
While Barron’s writing tends to be masculine, in the extreme, he is not limited to this stereotypical worldview. He writes convincingly of women, in stories like “The Redfield Girls,” which tells the tale of an aging group of veteran teachers from Redfield Memorial Middle School in Olympia who visit a damned and hidden lake, or “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven,” which explores the paranoid terror of a Lesbian couple, hiding from an abusive ex- in the wilderness, before suddenly and magnificently transmogrifying into a lycanthrope story. Barron’s gained praise in the past for writing convincingly of homosexual characters and minorities. It just goes to show that Laird Barron is concerned with that most literary of pursuits – imagination and empathy. Imagining what it is like to be someone else, and imagining what these constructs would do in these extreme circumstances.
The next notable theme of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is the use of the landscape as a central character. While Barron was a born-and-raised Alaskan, he’s been residing in Washington since 1994. His outsider’s glance makes him see the primordial majesty of sprawling Pacific Northwestern forests all the more clearly, and nearly every story happens in some era of that region’s past or presence. There are haunted deer stands and cursed lakes, even a damned town in the spirit of Lovecraft’s Arkham, in the fictitious berg of Ransom Hollow, located outside of Seattle. The most beautiful (and craziest) illustration of this is in the story “The Men From Porlock,” which has a group of hapless lumberjacks stumble into a hidden village of cultists, keeping the Old Ways alive. This story actually manages to convey an echo of the intimidation and dread that can come from being lost and alone in the forest, a sensation that many denizens of the modern world have lost touch with. Let me tell you, when you are alone in the woods, dwarfed by the trees and the sun is starting to fade, the ancestral memories suddenly become REAL pertinent, as the amygdala fires up, and you are suddenly a small briar hare in the night, surrounded by predators. That feeling of awe, terror, ecstacy and elation are one of the most fascinating and rich by-products of the best horror – your nervous system comes alive in the dwindling light. Your vision takes on a razor sharp acuity, you can feel your blood pumping, you listen for the slightest twig crack, with a nearly hallucinogenic intensity. You are truly LIVING, in the prospect of death. It is an experience of the sublime, and it almost makes all the terrible things you have to endure worth it.
Barron is finally expanding the New England-centric viewpoint common to Lovecraft’s Mythos, and investigating other terrains and eras. I would like to see more authors continue in this vein, discovering the folklore and landscape of many disparate geographies and eras, opening up Cosmic Horror, which is full of possibilities, beyond the realm of formal studies and genre re-creation. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and reading The Beautiful Thing makes me appreciate my home anew, makes me yearn for the outdoors, makes me want to dig into hidden histories – such is the power of Fiction.
A number of the stories in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All feature re-occurring motifs, creating an immersive fiction, making a complete world, a NEW mythos to explore. The cursed hamlet of Ransom Hollow, the symbol of a broken Uroboros, a fantasist field guide. It creates a sensation of familiarity, an uncanny perking up of the hackles, makes you want to read it again and again, to find the hidden Easter Eggs, the connecting threads.
Lastly, in conclusion, I want to look at the final story, the metafiction “More Dark”, which shows the current state of Cosmic Horror, and theorize where it’s headed. In “More Dark,” Barron creates a shadow version of a modern horror convention, with pseudonymous versions of the superstars of the modern horror universe. The protagonist, on the edge of suicide, heads to the convention with a group of dangerously hard drinking comrades, to see a rare appearance from the enigmatic and reclusive author Tom L, a barely concealed caricature of the most famous modern Cosmic Horrorist, the Grimscribe Himself, Thomas Ligotti.
Thomas Ligotti has been exploring the myth of Free Will, the lie of meaning, the emptiness of space, the looming void behind the appearance of everyday reality. Starting with short stories, Thomas Ligotti has spun out into incendiary prose, with his philosophical tract called The Conspiracy Against Humanity, espousing the unpopular viewpoint of anti-natalism, that views all birth as a mistake, as life as pointless, endless suffering. He makes Nietszche seem like Anthony Robbins. It’s pitch blake and utterly hopeless, and makes even Lovecraft look like an optimist.
Reading modern horror, this kind of nihilism and extreme philosophy is something you have to contend with, to contemplate. It’s an ice hand memento mori, squeezing your heart, asking impossible questions and making you decide for yourself where you stand. Like uncle Friedrich famously stated, “Stare into the abyss long enough, and the abyss stares back into you.” Reading Barron and Ligotti, you will spend many long nights contemplating void. It’s stern stuff.
This piece of colorful prose, issued by the puppet, lets you know what you have in store, between the covers of The Beautiful Thing…
“Imagine the heads of everyone at every table in this room disembodied and attached, like ripe fruit, to the branches of a tree in a field. A huge, leafless tree in a wide and grassless field. The field is black dirt and the tree is also dark, fleshy and warm, however it does not live so much as persist, suckling the life force from its own fiber, its own fruit, in essence a cannibal of itself.
“The hanging heads: your comrades, your neighbors, yourselves, do not speak, cannot speak, for their mouths and yours are crammed with bloody seeds. You and they hang from the black tree in the black field, this tableaux illuminated by interior flames from the heads, for the seeds glow with fire, swelling and frothing maggots of deathly light. You sway in the breeze like Jack O’ Lanterns and cannot utter protest, or question your Maker, or petition your Accuser. You are muted by choking mouthfuls of gore. And this is Hell, my friends. It will continue and continue unto Eternity, until it becomes something worse. Something worse.” It repeated something worse at least twenty times, imperceptibly lowering its voice until the words trailed off.”
This is the kind of terror that seeps into your soul.
After careful reading and consideration, Laird Barron doesn’t seem like a nihilist or defeatist, however. He seems like a scrapper. He seems like a explorer. He’s pushing for the future, while he’s investigating the past. His is a song of passion, a hymn to strength. If we are living in a cold, meaningless universe, Barron is determined to define his own meaning, dedicating to exploring every inch of the outer limits of human imagination.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All invites us to do the same – to explore and appreciate. He reminds us to wander and wonder at our surroundings, whether you live in the primordial Pacific Northwest or Alaska or the ‘burbs. Invites us to investigate the past, to find what treasures 20th century genre fiction afford. And last but not least, he reminds us to explore reading. He writes from a pure and true love of words, and of story, and of imagination.
Laird Barron is my newest Favorite Author Ever.
You can read More Dark, in full, at Revelator Magazine.
If your sanity and life is intact, grab the whole thing here: The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All