(Taking a short break from entanglement and Rome posts to catch up on some fiction blogging!)
Laird Barron is, in my humble opinion, one of the most talented authors of horror fiction working today, and will be regarded historically as one of the greats of all time. I quickly snap up anything new by him — though sometimes it takes me a little while to become aware of it!
I recently read Barron’s Swift to Chase, which came out in October of 2016. It is the fourth major collection of his short stories, after The Imago Sequence (2007), Occultation (2010), The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013).
(There is also a special limited edition collection, A Little Brown Book of Burials, that came out in 2015.)
Every collection of Barron’s is different from the last, and I think it is fair to say that Swift to Chase is his most mature and thoughtful collection yet. It consists of twelve stories, broken into three sections: Golden Age of Slashing, Swift to Chase, and Tomahawk.
Long ago, in my discussion of The Imago Sequence, I implied that the stories felt like an exploration of masculinity, featuring older men, often “tough guys” like detectives or spies. In hindsight, one could interpret the stories as looking at the vulnerabilities and failings of stereotypical masculinity (though I won’t claim that this was the conscious decision of the author). Reading Swift to Chase, I felt like Barron was addressing the issues of masculinity from the woman’s perspective this time, as many of the stories are centered on women who have suffered trauma at the hands of cruel men. The first three stories — Screaming Elk, MT, LD50, and Termination Dust — are narrated by Jessica Mace, a woman who has become famous nationwide for surviving an attack by a serial killer and killing him herself. In Screaming Elk, MT and LD50, she squares off against other men who could arguably be called “toxic.”
A striking aspect of the stories in this collection is their interconnectedness. Most of the stories refer to, and are haunted by, a fateful night in Eagle Talon, Alaska, many years before, a nice in which Jessica Mace dealt with her attacker but during which many of her friends lost their lives in a massive fire now known as the Frazier Estate Inferno. Not all of the stories are obviously connected — Ears Prick Up is a science fiction story about an intelligent cybernetic dog — but I may very well have missed some subtle relationships.
The collection as a whole feels a bit like a puzzle, one that I have not yet completely figured out. The events of the Frazier Estate Inferno are referred back to multiple times and from multiple viewpoints, and the accounts don’t always feel consistent with one another. This is certainly deliberate: Barron is too good a writer to make a sloppy narrative, and instead gives us a bevy of stories from unreliable narrators. A couple of the stories only seem to make sense as a part of the bigger puzzle.
The subjects of the stories range from science fiction, Lovecraftian horror, ghost stories, what may be (?) vampire fiction, survival horror, and more conventional serial killer tales. (Also, there’s a lot of Andy Kaufman, in a very unsettling role.) They are all, as one expects from Barron, masterfully written and convey an admirable sense of dread.
The use of unreliable narrators and stream of consciousness in the stories makes it Barron’s most challenging collection to date. I wouldn’t recommend it as one’s first exposure to his work, and would instead start folks on The Imago Sequence and Occultation. For those interested in a challenging, dark, interconnected collection of stories by a mature master of the craft, however, I can wholeheartedly recommend Swift to Chase.