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9.23.2010

Occultation, by Laird Barron

Occultation is a downright frightening collection of short stories. It's not often that I get to write that, and I haven't read a collection that was this vibrantly unsettling since Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts.

Barron's prose style is crisp and keenly observational, guiding the reader through landscapes rich with horrific imagery. He introduces us to three-dimensional characters--some courageous and some filled with treachery, but always believable. He dabbles with form a little here, writing in the epistolary structure; his stories are effective in both the first and third person. My favorite stories in the collection are the longer "Mysterium Tremendum" and "The Broadsword," although the short "Occultation" just lingers with the reader long after the final word. That one is a genuine creeper.

"Mysterium Tremendum" is the alcohol-fueled tale of four youngish bull males tramping through the forests of Washington State in search of a fabled ruin. A common theme in a number of these stories is a fascination with the black arts and, in this case, the men have come into possession of one bad little book: the Black Guide. I enjoy stories steeped in the esoteric and, while I know very little of the occult, the plot details in Barron's stories feel authentic. Barron builds the tension expertly here through the thoughtful perceptions of Willem, an essayist who finds the book in an outdoors surplus shop. When the hikers come across the ruins in question, they pay a steep price for their bold acts of hubris.

It's also a story of loss--a story about the loss of personal identity and the disintegration of meaningful relationships. Barron's eye for mundane horror and his ability to turn a phrase gets under the skin. Consider this passage, as Willem confronts an apparition that has appeared in his living room:

"This is an idiotic imaginary conversation," I said. There wasn't anything imaginary, however, about the searing alcohol in my burps, or the fact my head was wobbling, nor the flutter-flutter of my heart. "Shoo, fly, shoo."

Tom didn't answer. The cherry of his cigarette dulled and blackened. A split second before his shape merged with the darkness, it changed. The room became cold. A woman said, There are frightful things. I couldn't tell where the whisper originated. I finally gathered the courage to switch on the lamp and I was alone.

The simplicity in the statement There are frightful things is the beauty of Barron's ability to unsettle. His stories are peppered with elegant and mundane phrases and observations that simply pucker the hair on the forearm.

"Occultation" is a lesson in narrative economy, a short tale that reminds me of William Friedkin's underrated film Bug. A couple is drinking tequila in a rundown hotel room in the desert, frightened by a shifting shadow that could be nothing more than a water stain on the wall across the room. Of course, it might be something else altogether...

"Catch Hell" is another yarn driven by an examination of the dark arts. In this case, an obsessed anthropologist and his wife, unable to conceive a second child, visit an infamous ruin in Washington State with the hopes of getting pregnant. Oh, and how it works!

"Strappado" is a tale of sacrifice and thrill seeking, an examination of performance art and esoteric secret societies. Makes me thankful I'm not a hipster...

"The Broadsword" is a fantastic haunted house story. Man but there is some malevolence dripping from the pages of that story! If you enjoyed Stephen King's "1408," then you'll want to read this one...

"The Forest" is a rich examination of humanity's frailty and the power of personal connection. It's a great way to start a journey that only picks up steam as it progresses.

This is a great collection of stories--original, sophisticated, literate and damned scary. Highly recommended, particularly as we indulge in the first hours of the fall...

2 comments:

Aaron Polson said...

I'm a fan of Laird Barron. I have to take his stuff one at a time, though. Too much at once and I want to find the nearest cliff off which to jump.

Daniel W. Powell said...

Yeah, that was how this collection went for me. It was like running the gauntlet, but I got through. Some of his stuff is dark, dark, dark...

Nice job over at Redpenny, Aaron. Great piece!