I enjoy good weird fiction like any other introverted guy who enjoys creeping the normies out at parties by discussing the books he reads. Yet so much weird fiction these days seems to be just a regurgitation of what Lovecraft already wrote, with only few exceptions. So when I was given the chance to review The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron and saw the inevitable comparisons to Lovecraft, I was hesitant to try the book. In the end I decided to give it a shot since I have not read an anthology of short fiction for quite some time.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All collects nine of Barron’s short stories. Some are stand alone, but many are set in the same weird fiction universe. Just like Lovecraft had his Miskatonic County, Barron has his Ransom Hollow, an isolated valley in the Pacific Northwest ruled by people who follow the “old ways” and prey on all the peasants who are just trying to get by. Despite having his own horror filled fictional region, Barron’s monstrosities are actually quite original. They come off more as demonic or dark versions of old human fables instead of otherworldly gods who wouldn’t have noticed if they wiped out New York City when they sneezed. Barron’s evils actually do care about us and love us in a way a demented father loves his family right before he hangs them up on meat hooks and decorates the halls with their small intestines.
Without going into much details on the individual plots, some stand out stories include “Hand of Glory”, a horror-noir which featured a delightful and original character who practiced a form of satanic deism. “More Dark” also was an amusing critique of the authors, publishers, reviewers and fans who make up genre fiction. I was also surprised to learn that I had already read some Barron short fiction when I started “Vastation” and realized I had read this story in Cthulhu’s Reign (which holds the distinction of being the last book I bought from Borders, RIP), an anthology of stories set after the Great Old Ones return to Earth. It is a bizarre tale of an immortal who takes on many forms as he is reborn again and again throughout the eons. My favorite story by far was “The Men from Porlock” which captured that odd sense of dread you get when you are out camping after the sky gets dark and suddenly feel surrounded by unseen enemies.
All the stories feature realistic characters with the protagonists’s morality usually being different shades of gray and more often than not a very dark shade of gray. Barron really captured the human condition in his stories and how we handle what happens after the curtain is pulled back to give us glimpse on how the universe really works. Despite everything I said so far, however, I finished this book with a feeling a disappointment. I mostly blame the introduction written by Norman Partridge. He praised Barron so highly with his mastery of horror that I expected to ruin my pants the moment I read the first story. Instead I finished the anthology and while I could confidently admit the author was quite skilled, I failed to experience the horror I was promised besides a few moments of discomfort. The anthology had been so hyped by the introduction that it reminded me of my experience with The Hangover. All of my friends couldn’t shut up about how great it was that when I finally sat down to watch it I kept wondering when the jokes would start.
Part of the problem could be myself. I have read and listened to a lot of fans proclaim that you need to have the right atmosphere when reading horror books. So in this case I should have read The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All in a dark room illuminated only by a candle and drinking a suspiciously dark glass of red wine, instead of on the train heading to work while wishing the person a few seats ahead of me would turn the volume off their phone while playing Candy Crush Saga. The problem is a good story is supposed to be good no matter where you read it. I am sure I would give Twilight a good review if I read it while on a white sandy beach in Maui after I just learned Bill Gates had paid off my student lone debt. Atmosphere is an excuse used by fans who are blind to the quality of the work their favorite author produced.
The problem is from a purely intellectual view, the stories found in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All are actually good and Barron is an author I am probably going to keep my eye on. Sadly I went with such high expectations from Partridge’s introduction and the knowledge it had won a Bram Stoker Award that I finished it feeling rather underwhelmed. Hardcore fans of horror literature will likely enjoy this collection, but more casual fans should only pick it up if they don’t plan to read the introduction.