Friday, May 4, 2012

TC Book Review & Interview: Laird Barron Weaponizes the Weird in Debut Novel ‘The Croning' from Night Shade Books

Laird Barron made me gain five pounds.

No, he didn’t hold me down and shovel deep fried butter wedges into my gaping yapper (although, dare to dream). What he did was write a colossal piece of fiction that was nearly impossible to put down, even at the gym, where I do much of my reading every morning. As I hazily recall, just before cracking open Barron’s debut novel The Croning some weeks back, I marched my happy ass off to the local garishly lit LA Fitness, eager to absorb a few pages in between moving weighted objects from one place to another. Forty-five minutes later I found myself on the floor, sprawled in some lazy stretching pose, peering at the pages in front of me with wide, slightly twitching eyes while sadly oblivious meatheads preened in front of mirrors around me. I was hooked, boated, and clubbed, and stayed that way until I closed the last page some blurry span of time later. As I became doughier, I also became more willing, suppliant. I was fattened and ready for the provender plate of dear Old Leech. Just like They wanted it.

Barron’s storytelling has that rare power of grip, weaving a particular strain of beautiful, sinewy prose that somehow possesses enough tiny microfibers to pick up the grit and sharp things swept into the corners of forgotten history. Both beautiful and monstrous, his evocative imagery lures you into the forest with the cadence of lost eons, leaves you in expectant silence, and then rips back the shading canopy, exposing you to the terrible realities that lie waiting under the thin veneers of bullshit “civilization”.

Not surprisingly, the writing is a reflection of the writer and his unique experience set. Barron grew up in the wilds of Alaska and spent several years fishing the murderous Bering Sea and racing the Iditarod on arctic tundra like some goddamn throwback to a time of brawnier, more road-tested scribes, who could lay down some poetic verse before laying you out in a pool of your own teeth for spilling his drink. Papa Hemingway. Jack London. Dashiell Hammett in a parka. All sitting in the corner booth of the Bar on the Borderland, waiting for their Weirdling pals from the Pulps to show up and swap stories of the violent and strange.

Indeed, his meaty, imaginative style is an amalgam of all of these rough and smooth elements, taking shape as a barrel-chested ballerina, a professional wrestler moonlighting as an ice skater. A pagan ninja hopped up on blood saki, beautifully weaponizing the sublime and stuffing horror into documented and geological mysteries long buried for a reason. Barron respectfully nods his heads to his forebearers, but is truly his own man, blazing his trail through the wild, untamed places to find the haunted ruins. The cryptic mounds.  The dolmens... This is Weird fiction boiled hard.

Unfairly or not, Barron is often compared to (elder)godfather of cosmic horror  H.P. Lovecraft, but in many ways, Barron’s work is far more bleak than the Gentleman from Providence. In Lovecraft’s Mythos, profoundly alien Great Old Ones and Outer Gods were mostly oblivious or apathetic to our meaningless existence. The horror often came from the realization of unimaginable truth.  Much like Barron, HPL’s protagonists reflected the man, and as such, were bookish and aloof, ghosts in the coal powered machine, sneering strangers in the hated crowd. In Laird’s “Barronic Mythos” (an increasingly legitimate construct that I may or may not have just given a name), the unearthly entities not only know where we are and what we’re doing, they pop in from time for a bite, and/or to continually fuck with us just because they can. His characters ARE the crowd, reflecting all strata of life, from the aristocratic elite to the shithouse dogs. Barron understand them all, and spares none. All are claymation figurines caught up in a Game Unutterable organized before the beginning of time. All of them are doomed, and Barron allows us a front row seat to the slow, excruciating execution.

The Croning, Barron’s first full-length novel after making his bones and racking up accolades as a conjurer of short fiction, is a perfect reflection of what he does as a writer, while serving as a stage one culmination of much of his storytelling from the past decade. Characters, artifacts, and even families that were introduced in such short stories as “Mysterium Tremendum” and “The Men From Porlock” reappear in The Croning ready to cast off their potential and reveal their dreadful destiny. After a prologue of sorts, which serves as more than just a pitch-black origin story of Rumpelstiltskin, we are lead through three life stages of the affable geologist Don Miller, and together, we follow Don as he follows his brilliant and headstrong wife Michelle, forever living in her secretive shadow as she chases arcane anthropological discoveries around the world, when not locked away in her study researching her family tree, obsessing over the hard-to-find root system buried impossibly deep in the antediluvian loam. As Michelle pursues her own path that occasionally intersects with her husband, Don is left to reflect on his own life barely lived, and in doing so, starts to unspool – with the help of off-the-grid intelligence agencies, old money eccentrics, and even his own son – the mind shattering reality of what has been slithering around his ankles and through his home for decades, and his role in ongoing Outer Machinations older than the cosmos and twice as dangerous. Cults and conspiracies. Secret societies and powerful bloodlines with grand designs forged through unwholesome alliances dating back to the Stone Age. Mind snuffing dread born beyond the reach of time and space. This is the world of The Croning, and this is the writing of Laird Barron, who effectively synthesizes science fiction with science fact, creating a New Kind of Truth that can be as mortifying as it is wondrous. And it all works. Perfectly, it works.

Much like Bloch, Carter, Lumley, Campbell, Klein, and even Ligotti before him, and with the curiously scarred crone looming protectively behind him, Laird Barron has emerged as the new poster boy of cosmic horror, thankfully without a shred of pastiche anywhere in the shot. The Croning shows an already masterful writer fully in the throws of his own, unique style somehow getting better, and that bodes well for us, his readership, which grows by the hour.  We are the Children of Old Leech, and we love you.

In the end, and after all of this convoluted blather, I supposed the highest compliment I can pay The Croning is that it’s the sort of novel I wish I had written had I not first read it. It’s a gift of cosmic naturalist horror that will force you to re-examine everything and everyone around you, if only slightly. The X-Files in print, only infinitely scarier and hitting far closer to home.  It will make you fear the trees.  It will make you check for zippers.

I reckon that’s not too shabby for a first novel.

(The Croning can be purchased directly from Night Shade Books [recommended by The Cosmicomicon, because it's the right goddamn thing to do], and from Amazon for you corporate-felching cheapskates who hate Santa Claus a little and Ross E. Lockhart even more)

As you process the jibber jabber above, please enjoy the second installment of the The Cosmicomicon Book Review & Interview (the first of which was christened upon the diamond cut abs of Simon Strantzas).  I'd like to thank Laird for making time to sit down with me across the table o' ether, as I know his hours were limited in the days leading up to the hugely anticipated release of The Croning.  As such, I kept my questions as brief as possible, attempting not to repeat inquiries covered in other interviews.  The resulting answers show a very candid, free-form/riffy side of Laird that I don't think I've read before.  Fantastic stuff, that I'm honored to share with you all below.

TC:   Your writing is often compared to that of classic cosmic Weirdists H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, etc. (including by yours truly above), but there seems to be far more at play under the surface of your prose.  More contemporary, brawnier, bare-knuckled stuff.  Just as much Lawrence Block as T.E.D. Klein.  Who are your influences, both conscious and subconscious?

LB:  My earliest influences were pulps and adventure novels. H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, that was my crowd as a kid. Big men with axes, naked alien princesses, exotic landscapes, fantastical beasts. Rivers of blood. Hell of an escape from my family’s sub-Arctic shack.

My interests have shifted over the years. I enjoy Martin Cruz Smith and Kelly Link in equal measure. I riff on Lovecraft and McCarthy if the firing solution calls for it. But my love of the pulps is always there and ever inflecting what I write.

TC:  Charlie Parker had a great quote that always stuck with me:  “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”  Based on your diverse, wide-ranging jobs, pursuits, and travels – many of them often taking place in some pretty gritty, unforgiving locales - you’re a writer who has certainly “lived it” out under the sun and rain, in contrast to a more reclusive individual like Lovecraft or Thomas Ligotti.  How important do you think it is for a writer to get out into the world in order to write about it and the homo sapiens taking up so much space, or can the same time be spent researching to achieve a similar result?

LB:  A good artist had better be able to fake it until he makes it. There’s a reason I do what I do, however. I look at the more desolate portions of my youth as a sacrifice to the muses.

My professional writing career has spanned a decade. What was I doing before that? Digging my way out of the hole provenance dropped me headfirst into as a baby. I know what it feels like. To be punched, kicked in the balls, frozen, dragged, bitten, betrayed and heartbroken. I’ve fired guns and swung clubs when my life depended upon them. I’ve set aside years to train in combatives, and I’ve used them too. I’ve gone completely off the deep end from too many months alone in the wild and come all the way back again like a drunk who drinks himself sober. If a man’s going to write about damaged human machinery it doesn’t hurt to have spent time on fishing boats among ex cons and addicts. Doesn’t hurt to have bunked with bikers and trappers and professional ne’er do wells. I don’t have to invent much when I write. I just reach into my pocket and pull out some bloody receipts.

TC:  I’m sensing that you wouldn’t trade one second of it - the many hardships, tough upbringing, and dangerous scrapes you’ve been through.

LB:  There are moments here and there I’d do anything to change. Just like everybody alive. In the end, it’s all grist for the mill.

TC:  The natural world features heavily into your brand of cosmic horror (I call it “cosmic naturalism”).  Do the wild places on earth – places where you’ve spent quite a bit of time – truly terrify you, or are you instead mining what you know and enjoy, and then twisting it to the dark side?

LB:  I lived in Alaska for about twenty-five years. My family was nomadic. We chased the snow in order to train huskies for the racing circuit, and most especially the Iditarod. Of course the more fabulous elements of my stories are fabricated. But there’s no dismissing the sinister grandeur of primeval wilderness. There’s got to be some natural force in Alaska that fucks with human circuitry. I think Lovecraft’s head would’ve popped like a balloon if he’d found himself trapped in some of the places I’ve been.

TC:  Your memoirs could be a piece of Weird Noir.  Have you ever thought about publishing something entirely autobiographical?  Or hell, maybe you already have.

LB:  Oh, perhaps someday. In the meantime I’m working on a sequence of stories that deal in more explicit terms with Alaska and what I saw there during my youth.

TC:  When writing previous tales like “The Men From Porlock” and “Mysterium Tremendum”, did you know that the characters, locations, situations, and/or Mythology would someday evolve into a novel?  Into this novel?

LB:  With a tiny handful of exceptions, my entire body of work exists within a continuous universe. A few stories, such as those you highlighted, indeed feed directly into one another. I seldom write something that doesn’t inflect or reference every other piece I’ve done prior. I don’t write for an anthology or magazine, regardless of theme, without plotting how it’ll fit in to the mosaic.

TC:  Building on the previous question, are you intentionally constructing a Mythos, or perhaps adding onto that which was initially crystallized by Lovecraft?

LB:  I owe debts to every piece of fiction I’ve read, every man I’ve fought, every woman I’ve loved, every musician or artist who’s taken my heart out then handed it back, changed. The classical masters of dark fantasy and cosmic horror perfected a tradition of the weird story that generally features aloofness and restraint. For better or worse, I am not that guy.

The old tradition’s hallmarks include those of repressed sexuality, violence hinted at or understated, vagueness, iciness. Lovecraft is a giant in the field and I don’t believe the canon needs a contemporary update from me. I don’t repress jack shit. There’s going to be fucking, fighting, blood and thunder in a Barron tale. When I write in this tradition, I’m interested in weaponizing it.

TC:  You’ve emerged as a standard bearer, of sorts, for whatever we’re calling the brutal amalgam of Weird fiction/dark fantasy/cosmic horror these days.  I’ve personally described “Barronic verse,” and I’ve seen “Barronian” used as an adjective.  Did you ever foresee this sort of impact on speculative fiction from the back of a dogsled heading up into the frozen white all those years ago?

LB:   No. My dreams were humble. I was usually too worried about starving or whether freezing my dick to the side of my leg would have long term consequences.

TC:  In a perfect world, what would you be writing in twenty years?

LB:  In a perfect world I’ll be alive twenty years.

TC:  What’s next on the docket for you?  Longer term, what’s a personal or professional goal still unachieved?

LB:  There should be a new horror collection out next year. Deal just needs to be inked. I’ve several stories set to appear soon. Longer term, I’m working on a crime novel. Right now, my main goal is just to keep moving forward as a writer. Keep pushing myself to the breaking point.

TC:  Who would look better poured into a tight pair of spanking new Jordache jeans?  Robert E. Howard or Ramsey Campbell?

LB:  Considering how much weight Mr. Howard has lost these past decades, I’d say Mr. Campbell wins it in a landslide.

"Laird Barron" by JD Busch


  1. Amazing post Ted, so well done. I am almost done with "The Croning" myself, dragging out the last couple of chapters so I don't miss anything. A stellar book, in every sense of that word...

  2. Isn't it, though? I'm staggered by it.

    When someone as talented as Laird shows that he's actually getting BETTER as a writer, I can't even imagine what the future holds for all of us readers.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words about the piece. Some subjects make my job easy...

  3. Great stuff here, both of you. I'm psyched to see Laird mention Martin Cruz Smith, one of my own favorite writers and influences.

  4. Thanks, Jeffrey!

    (better late than never with my response, I reckon :) )