Laird Barron’s Occultation

It didn’t take much for me to become a fan of Laird Barron’s writing.  I first encountered the horror author’s work in the wonderful anthology Haunted Legends, and Barron’s story The Redfield Girls stood out as a beautifully written and haunting story.  Soon after I read Barron’s 2007 short story collection The Imago Sequence, and it only reinforced my high opinion of his writing.  Work and life slowed down my reading for a while, but recently I finally found the time to go through Barron’s more recent 2010 collection Occultation:

What a wonderful set of stories!  Laird Barron has pretty much solidified a spot in a short list of my favorite horror authors with this collection.

Occultation collects nine of Barron’s stories, two of which have never been published elsewhere.  The stories are longer than the typical magazine short fiction, and Barron takes his time to build a sense of dread.

In The Imago Sequence, most of the stories seem to deal with issues of masculinity and emasculation; in Occultation, my impression is that the stories are centered on feelings of loss, guilt and, specifically, survivor’s guilt.  Most of them involve unnatural horrors, and several straddle the amorphous boundary between horror and science fiction.  All the tales are well worth reading; a description of few of my favorites is given below.

  • Occultation.  A couple, spending the night drunk in a darkened and seedy motel room, tell scary stories and try to ignore the shadowy thing that seems to have moved into the corner during the discussion.
  • Mysterium Tremendium.  While shopping for road trip supplies, a couple stumbles across a book called The Black Guide, a travel guide of uncertain provenance that describes sightseeing stops of sinister and arcane nature.  A decision is made to visit an ancient ruin that is listed in the book, a ruin that shouldn’t exist.
  • Strappado.  A pair of lovers traveling in India get an invitation to a rare showing of a van Iblis exhibit.  Van Iblis is infamous around the world for scandalous and illegal artwork, involving both the living and the dead.  With a small international group of sightseers, the lovers decide to attend the exhibit, not knowing what sort of horrors might be awaiting them.
  • The Broadsword.  A retiree named Pershing, now living in the aging Broadsword Hotel, overhears a conversation through the air vents of the decrepit building.  The conversation seems to involve the gleeful contemplation of murder, and even worse, the participants seem to discover Pershing’s eavesdropping.  People are in fact disappearing from the hotel, and strangely the incidents seem somehow connected with the disappearance of Pershing’s work partner many years before on a remote jungle expedition…

These stories are beautifully told, and written with an amazing dexterity.  To give an example that stood out for me: one tale involves a gay narrator, which I instinctively knew from almost the very first sentences.  I soon realized that I had figured this out entirely from the tone of the narration, and that nothing explicit (like a name) had been necessary to convey this information.

It’s hard to explain exactly what is so compelling about Barron’s stories that make them stand out from the mediocre modern horror that is common in print and film.  H.P. Lovecraft famously said that the “oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, and really haunting stories always have this element of the unknown.  I’ve decided that truly scary stories require something more than the unexplained, however: they must provide enough hints to suggest to the reader that something crucial is hidden just out of reach of their understanding.  “Clues” have to be provided that get the reader’s brain struggling to solve an unsolvable mystery.  After completing each of Barron’s stories, I found myself flipping back through them to look for that extra piece of the puzzle that would make sense of the events told — of course, I never found that piece.  At least two of the tales still haunt me to this day, and that is the sign of a great horror author.

I found the horrors of Occultation to be much more subtle than those in the earlier The Imago Sequence, and readers new to modern horror fiction would probably be well-advised to start with the first collection.  Nevertheless, Occultation is a masterfully written set of stories that I enjoyed immensely, and is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves remotely interested in horror fiction.  Highly recommended!

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