Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Story Excerpt: "Free Fireworks", Published in 'Horror for the Holidays', Edited by Scott David Aniolowski for Miskatonic River Press

As we sally forth into the heated months while still lurching from the shadow of Memorial Day - summer's unofficial launch party - we now look forward to the next holiday on the docket, which has always been one of my favorites.  Independence Day.  The 4th of July.  The Night of Lost Fingers.

Hot on the heels of my acceptance into Dead But Dreaming 2 for Miskatonic River Press, renowned editor and writer Scott David Aniolowski put out the call for submissions for MRP's follow up anthology, titled Horror for the Holidays.

I batted around a few ideas like a brainless kitten sparring with a semi-sentient ball of string, until I struck upon a setting in a near future world that reflected much of the horrors that are currently loosed upon this tired planet, while adding in a healthy dose of what could happen if the stars align just right (which, in turn, would be so very wrong).  The result was the story "Free Fireworks," which I am excerpting below.  What I've provided gives nothing away, but also might foster the impression that this is just a war story.  I've set it up to be a bit more than that, but to say anything further would spoil the fun.

Please note that contrary to the understandable misconceptions of some, Horror for the Holidays is NOT just Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa stories, but covers a full raft of those special days created to bring us such comfort and joy, as the ToC shows:

Horror for the Holidays
Table of Contents
Introduction by Scott David Aniolowski

The Tomb of Oscar Wilde by W.H. Pugmire

Love and Darkness by Oscar Rios
Be Mine by Brian Sammons

Cthulhu Mhy’os by Lois H. Gresh

And the Angels Sing by Cody Goodfellow
The Last Communion of Allyn Hill by Pete Rawlik
Mrs. Spriggs’ Easter Attire by Joseph S. Pulver Sr. and Tara VanFlower
Seasons of Sacrifice and Resurrection by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Mother’s Night by Ann K. Schwader

Free Fireworks by T.E. Grau
Doc Corman’s Haunted Palace One Fourth of July by Don Webb

Translator by James Robert Smith

Hallowe’en in a Suburb by H.P. Lovecraft
Moonday by Will Murray
The Trick by Ramsey Campbell

El Dia De Los Muertos by Kevin Ross

Treason and Plot by William Meikle

The Dreaming Dead by Joshua Reynolds

Entrée by Donald R. Burleson

Keeping Festival by Mollie Burleson
Wassail by Tom Lynch

Krampusnacht by Joshua Reynolds
The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise by Thomas Ligotti
Letters to Santa by Scott David Aniolowski
Keeping Christmas by Michael G. Szymanski
The Nativity of the Avatar by Robert M. Price

There are some BIG names in there, folks.  And it isn't often that you can pick up an anthology that lines up Ligotti with Campbell, Lovecraft with Price, Pugmire with Goodfellow.  This is a rich, deep, varied collection of horror and Mythos tales that truly belongs on the shelf of any full realized Weird Fictionista.

Give the excerpt a read if you're keen, and if you enjoy it just a bit more than a kick in shorts, please pick up the complete version of the story  in Horror for the Holidays, available directly through the Miskatonic River Press mothership, or via the industry-consuming creeps at Amazon.com.

Free Fireworks
by T.E. Grau

The sun was setting, finally, and the cicadas took up their song.  The daylight hours of July 4th seem to last an eternity, adding anticipation to that moment when the night sky first goes from dead to alive, thrilling and frightening in equal measure.
From the rooftop of their apartment building, William took a deep breath, and caught a waft of countryside air, blowing in from the west, pushed on by the sunset.  For a brief moment, he could smell the honeysuckle, flavored with fresh tilled loam of the farm where he grew up, where he used to run through the wooded creek beds and crawl through culverts, playing war.  It was mid summer now, and the crops would have been growing so quickly you could hear the corn stalks creaking and popping in the fields as they thickened and reached up toward the hazy sun.  The beans needed to be walked, and the hogs were fattening in the mud, looking for a low spot in the fence.  The bailers would be out, scooping up the first cutting of fragrant alfalfa drying in the fields, exposing a hidden civilization of earwigs and clicking beetles that gathered under the hot wetness beneath.  William closed his eyes and took another breath, hoping to uncover more memories, but this time only smelled smoke.  A neighbor had just lit up one of those ridiculous cone fountains on the far side of the roof.  Children danced around the guttering sparks like wild Indians; like the heathens we all once were.  Jacob got up from his contemplation of a late-lingering Junebug and joined in.
William frowned.  He had grown to hate the smell of smoke, of burning things, which now filled him with horror when it was such a pleasant experience in his youth.  He hated that he was an expert in smoke, noticing the nuanced differences of chemicals and wood, rubber and flesh.  He hated the things he had done while other things burned.  He missed the smell of burning trash on the farm, when the sharp pungence of combusting plastic was just a Kool Whip container dripping into the coals, when the odor of burning hair and muscle was just the calcine remains of a bird shot squirrel.  
Down below, a muffled hush swept the Square, nudging William from his reverie, as the mournful strains of “Taps” began.  This was the lament of the widows and the heartbroken left behind.  William looked back at the door leading to the roof.  He fetched Jacob and brought him close, listening to the song begat during the Civil War – the first Civil War – but made so common the last few years that it became an Independence Day hymn.  It was written by a youth from the North, who ran away from his family to attend music school in the South.  There, he wrote a simple, mournful tune.  That young man died on the field of battle, fighting for the Confederacy, and the song was discovered in the pocket of the bloodied corpse by his shocked father, who was an officer in the Union Army.  The officer asked his superiors if the Union band could play it for his dead son.  They refused his request, as they’d be damned if their band would play a tribute to the enemy.  He pleaded, and was finally offered a single bugle.  The grieving father gave the song to the bugler, who played the funeral dirge to the lone body who had written it.  “Taps.”
William looked down at Jacob, who was watching the veterans’ parade with right hand raised to brow in a stiff salute practiced for so many hours in front of the mirror.  His grandfather, who fought, killed, and died a little in the haunted jungles of Vietnam, would have been proud.  William smiled sadly, wishing that Jacob would run away to music school, to leave this city and this war and this grim and uncertain future behind, but Jacob would have nowhere to run.  Music schools were the stuff of fairy tales these days.  Music was the drum beat of battle and schools were now campuses of war.
            The battalion band took over, playing John Phillips Sousa as the parade proceeded through the Square.  A shout went up, and grew.  Men saluted.  Women threw flowers and blew kisses.  Children watched with wide eyes.  It was a celebration of those who survived and sacrificed so much to keep this country free. 
As the sun dipped below the horizon, bathing the world in that sweet hue of magic hour blue, the first volley of organized fireworks launched into the air, exploding in bellowing showers of multicolored sparks taking on fantastical shapes… Flowers, sunbursts, fiery spirals like the flash of galaxies.  Jacob jumped up and down, clapping his hands and trying to whistle through his fingers like his father taught him.  Somewhere in their apartment, William could almost hear the dissonant sax music rising in volume.  Abigail needed to be up here, but she just couldn’t.  William understood that, as best he could. 
            The fireworks continued, unleashing burning glory in the sky.  Brief, fiery sketches thrilled the crowd.  The Square cheered each glimmering salvo.  Bellowed like Vikings.  People were drunk now, forgetting their fear in the haze of liquid hope.  William watched the burning patterns branding the darkness reflected in Jacob’s eyes.  He picked up his son, so he could get a better look.  
William heard a sound behind him, and turned.  Abigail stood in the roof access doorway, holding a lit sparkler in her hand, a tired, bleary smile on her face.  He set Jacob down and went to her; took her pale face in his hands and kissed her deeply, like they used to kiss when every second mattered before the porch light came on.  He looked into her bloodshot eyes, and pressed his forehead against hers.  “Thank you,” he said.  Her soft hand against his face told him everything he needed to know.  She held up the sparkler as it fizzled to a red, glowing stick, then frowned, pouting like a little girl.  William laughed and kissed her again, sometimes feeling as much her father as her husband.  He took her by the hand and walked her to the edge of the building to their son.  Jacob’s eyes lit up, but he said nothing as he hugged her tight around the waist.  William put an arm around his wife, and brought his son in close between them.  For the first time in a long time, it all felt right.  The way it was supposed to be.  The way it once was.  The All-American family, enjoying the 4th of July under a dying sunset, with fire in the sky and without a thought for tomorrow.
Just then, a boom much lower and louder than the others shook the cobblestones.  The parade stopped abruptly, the band’s trumpeter trailing off like a deflating balloon.  Fireworks continued to fly, as the fuses were already lit, but no one was watching anymore. Murmuring silence choked the Square.  Abigail looked at William, whose face told her everything she needed to know.  Another muffled blast sounded, and another.  Triangulation.  The citywide PA system croaked to life.  Orders chattered into the night.  Sirens wailed.  Abigail fell to her knees and wept.  William looked down at her, as if it was happening in slow motion. 
A plume of black smoke billowed up from the Old City marketplace, four blocks over from the Square.  The throaty belch of a heavy machine gun fire chewed through the din.  Screams littered the Square, as the crowd scattered, grouped, rallied. 
God damn them…  On our holiday.  Just like last time.
Jacob looked down for Abigail, but she was gone.  His stomach turned.  He didn’t want to gear up and head out like this.  William took a deep breath and turned to the roof door.  A hand stopped him.  It was Abigail, holding Jacob in front of her.  She blinked away tears and smiled, laughing in spite of herself.  He walked to her and she kissed him, whispering into his ear.  William smiled, gripping the small of her back, re-etching the familiar curve into his memory.  He then hugged Jacob and looked into his son’s eyes.  William wanted to say that he loved him, but he did it so rarely, that he was worried that the boy would take it as a final goodbye.  So he just nodded.  Jacob nodded back.
And then, only two stood on the rooftop, and William was gone.  White smoke drifted over the Square.  Black smoke rose beyond.  Abigail closed her eyes. 


William strode quickly onto the street, wearing starchy fatigues, a modified M-240 in his hand and a heavy pack slung over his shoulder.  He blinked a few times, trying to orient himself to the frantic commotion of the Square after dressing in the silent apartment.  All around him, fellow soldiers, male and female, young and old, kissed their loved ones goodbye, while others emerged grim faced from apartment blocks still littered with bottles and trappings of the party that hid them from the outside world just hours before.  A banner of red, white and blue dangled limply from the awning of a shuttered storefront.  Under it, an old man leaned on a cane and looked up for the stars of his youth.  He didn’t move, only stared.  William looked up at the roof, where he knew Abigail and Jacob were watching, and waved.
Another explosion two neighborhoods over shook the ground and shot red-gutted smoke into the sky.  Infiltrators.  Spies gone active.  Peace had made security soft.  Made all of them soft, William thought, adjusting the tight Kevlar vest under his jacket that always fit him so loosely before.  He was adding inches, while the city was giving them away.  Give them an inch, they’ll blow up a mile.  Gunfire ripped into the night, sending everyone but the soldiers scurrying for doorways.  The man under the striped banner was gone.
William jammed a receiver into his ear and a walkie talkie to his mouth, as he jogged toward the outer wall ringing Old City, receiving intel and barking orders.  He had to man his post. 


The walkway cresting the wall was crowded with crouching troopers, weapons bristling outward like deadly whiskers, just like the days of castles and keeps that thrilled William’s childhood.  A teenage private, still a bit woozy after fear burned off most of his drunk, lit up a cigarette.  William shot a glare in his direction.  The kid blanched and quickly stamped out the smoke under heavy boot tread.  William shook his head.  A glowing cherry earned you a sniper’s bullet exiting the back of your mouth.  Some of these guys need more training, more time.  There was never enough time anymore.
William returned his gaze down his scope, scanning the frustrating darkness below.  He knew they were out there.  Knew they were watching, praying to the empty sky.  He could smell them.  Smell their smoke.  Exhaust, campfires, dank Turkish cigarettes… What were they waiting for? 
It had been hours since the last of the suicide attacks rattled the city and dawn was on the creep.  Insurgent recon was lacking, as they leveled a recently emptied ammo dump and part of the Old City prison, freeing two spies awaiting trial just long enough for proper justice to be rendered with the gavel fall of hollow points.  Their slapdash Trojan horse failed to open up the enemy from the inside.  Terrorists didn’t win many battles.  They just wore you down until you gave up and lowered your head.  But tonight, there would be no ‘wearing down’.  This would be to the death, and whatever waited beyond. 
William’s earpiece crackled to life.  Air support was on its way, but they were coming in from the nearest base in the Rockies, a good thousand miles away.  William tested the breeze, hoping to find a westerly tailwind.  Nothing.  Everything was still.  Quiet, within and without.  The holiday was over.  The Air Force would be late.
He looked up to the queer stars arranged in new constellations that knew not nor cared not what was happening below.  He didn’t think he’d ever get used to them, even after all he’d seen.  A shooting star carved through a patch of grayish black with a dim trail of stratospheric sparks.  Free fireworks. 
A commotion went up from the troops manning the west section of the wall.  Dots of light appeared on the hilltop about a mile outside Old City, on the grounds of what used to be a high school.  William looked through his scope as the sun groaned through the pre-dawn, dimly lightening the sky and giving the first glimpse of what was waiting in the dark.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Publishing News: "A Late Season Snow" Accepted for Publication in 'Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology' for Obsolescent.Info

2012 has got to be the year of the octopus.  It seems you can't avoid these slithering, majestic beasts these days, from the home and hearthy pages of Country Living to retailers like Anthropologie and Plasticland.  Etsy is blissfully littered with octopodes (that's pronounced "oc-TOP-a-dees", kids... Yeah, I had to look it up, too), while Zazzle has literally thousands of octopus designs from which to choose.  Even liquor pimps are getting in on the tentacly action (or are just big fans of Clash of the Titans), tying the oddly hilarious and always euphemistic phrase "Release the Kraken!" with sugary hangovers and half remembered drink orders that included tiny umbrellas and plenty of fruit.

I often wonder if this new cultural interest in the octopus isn't somehow tied with the often cartoonish - but fully encouraged - attention lavished on Cthulhu the last few years, which only seems to grown by the day.  Indeed, the Great Priest has made tentacles sexy to humans young and old in a way that old school Japanese erotica couldn't to all but a handful of devout raw seafood lovers.

But regardless of the reason, this squid ain't complaining, as I love the amazing little buggers, who seem so alien to this earth, but have been here longer than almost all of us, making them truly more earthly than any living thing scuttling across the dusty, dry surface.  This planet was populated by more of them and for far longer than we can even comprehend.  Oh, BTW, have you seen the vid of an octo aping its Big Uncle C and marching across dry land like it owns the joint?  Check it:

Scouting mission, obviously.  He might seem awkward moving on terra firma, but these suckers are fast learners, 400 million year survivors, and masters of camouflage.  One might be sitting next to you right now.  Check out how long they spend at the water fountain.  Anything more than five seconds and you just might have a cephalopod double agent in your midst.

Keenly on trend, an perhaps to appease the rise of our invertebrate overlords, small press obsolescent.info (not an e-publisher, but one of proper pulpy pages) founder and head dreamer David Joseph Clarke put out the request for submissions for Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology late last year, and Ives and I answered the call.  She concocted a fabulous, extremely twisted noir fairy tale ingeniously titled "Vulgaris", which was accepted soon after submission.  As I karate chopped through a few deadlines, I put together a shorter piece titled "A Late Season Snow", which was born after an early morning vision burrowed into my head and wouldn't leave.  I don't want to give anything away, but I chased a particular image backwards until it revealed its birth, and then put fingers to keyboard.  I shoehorned my way in just as the door was closing.

This will be my first published tale that is decidedly non-Lovecraftian (tentacles notwithstanding), and hopefully hints of things to come as I venture out from Arkham more and more in the coming years.  I'm getting my sea legs, and although I will always come back home to the legend haunted shores of Kingsport and Innsmouth, I'm excited to also explore what interesting and often horrifying vistas lie over the horizon line, far removed from Lovecraft Country.  But still, you can take a boy out of the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the boy, so...

Aside from the honor of being in the company of a distinguished group of writers (most with whom I am unfamiliar), this also marks the first  time my beloved Ives and I will appear in a book together.  Gods, monsters, and creativity willing, this won't be the last time either, if I can hold up my end of the Devil's bargain.  Her story "Vulgaris" is a sweeping, elegant yet brutal piece that shows exactly what she can do with a quill dipped in blood.  I'm rarely awed by living writers, but I am constantly awed by her chops and ability to adapt voice and tone for the settings and characters at hand.  She's a literary tsunami bearing down on the shore.  Hard.  I suggest you all take cover.

The recently announced ToC reads as follows:

Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology presents eleven stories about the most fascinating of marine animals, the noble octopus. Due for release in July 2012, this book is the premiere anthology of obsolescent.info and will be available at fine bookstores nationwide and online.

Table of Contents (in no particular order)

“Unearthly Pearl”, Brenda Anderson
“Daughters of Tethys”, Camille Alexa
“Empathy Evolving as a Quantum of Eight-Dimensional Perception”, Claude Lalumière
“Talk to Us”, Danna Joy Staaf
“The Octopus Garden”, D. Thomas Minton
“Three-Hearted”, Elizabeth Twist
“A Stranger Returns From An Unexpected Trip to the South China Sea”, Henry W. Ulrich
“Vulgaris”, Ives Hovanessian
“Obey the Octopus”, Joe Jablonski
“Venus of the Waves”, Karen Munro
“A Late Season Snow”, T.E. Grau

Hawk your baubles and pawn your trinkets and set aside a few shekels for this anthology, which will be available in just over a month.  It's shaping up to be a very special book for a variety of reasons.

Step lively and be kind to the reef, for these are the Days of the Octopus, and I bow humbly and willingly to our ancient cousins as they plot the reclamation of the earth.  Hopefully they'll spare those who have sympathetic literature on their shelves.  Maybe you can write off the purchase of Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology as a new clause in your life insurance policy, filed under the subset labeled Catastrophic Global Destruction via Squishy Aquatic Ancestors.  It's definitely worth a shot.  What do you have to lose, other than everything?
Ridiculous cuteness cannot mask their ambitious intent

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pretty Pictures of Terrifying Things: Artist Kris Kuksi Melds the Horrific and the Political in a Stunning Three Dimensional Apocalyptic Vision

You've seen the Churchtank.  Everyone's seen the Churchtank.  It made its social media rounds a few months ago, and knocked me off my pins, as it was the perfect combination of ungodly (pardon the pun) talent and biting sociopolitical commentary in a post-NeoCon age.  I had no idea the Churchtank was birthed by Kris Kuksi.

Prior to this - in November of 2010, back when I was old and this blog was young, and I was still posting more about the cosmic side of "cosmic horror" rather than annoying the TC readership with self serving writing updates (also know as "The Golden Age of The Cosmicomicon" to many disgruntled head shakers) - I ripped a piece of art from the 'net to use in a blog about dark matter and finally being able to see the Universe as it really is and was.  The work that I included was a wide shot of what you see below, and even though I attributed it to the the artist, I still had no idea who or what Kris Kuksi was all about.

Well, I now know who Kris Kuksi is and what this guy does, thanks to Ives, who had her mind blown last week, and then blew mine (an official call to kindly keep your mind out of the gutter, pervos) when I got home.  This is Hieronymus Bosch meets Steampunk meets The End of Everything.  This is gathered object, mixed material sculpture on a scale I never thought possible.  Sci-fi hellscapes conjured by the worst acid trip of all time, built in Ed Gein's living room.  This is waking Nightmare personified, with a enlightened lesson on human nature, politics, and religion (and the unhealthy alliance of the three) folded inside.  This is horror and majesty at its most vivid and visceral.

And because now I know, I want all of YOU to know, as I was always taught to share.  So, behold, the monstrous, terrifying, beautiful, extraordinarily badass sculptural art of Mr. Kris Kuksi.

Because I'm a slacker, and more importantly a lad who knows his place in the pecking order in the Dark Fantasy Collective, I'll let a better known Name write this sucker for me:
“A post-industrial Rococo master, Kris Kuksi obsessively arranges characters and architecture in asymmetric compositions with an exquisite sense of drama. Instead of stones and shells he uses screaming plastic soldiers, miniature engine blocks, towering spires and assorted debris to form his landscapes.

The political, spiritual and material conflict within these shrines is enacted under the calm gaze of remote deities and august statuary. Kuksi manages to evoke, at once, a sanctum and a mausoleum for our suffocated spirit.” - Guillermo del Toro

Kuksi's biography:
Born March 2, 1973, in Springfield Missouri and growing up in neighboring Kansas, Kris spent his youth in rural seclusion and isolation along with a blue-collar, working mother, two significantly older brothers, and an absent father. Open country, sparse trees, and alcoholic stepfather, all paving the way for an individual saturated in imagination and introversion. His propensity for the unusual has been a constant since childhood, a lifelong fascination that lent itself to his macabre art later in life. The grotesque to him, as it seemed, was beautiful.

Kris Kuksi garners recognition and acclaim for the intricate sculptures that result from his unique and meticulous technique. A process that requires countless hours to assemble, collect, manipulate, cut, and re-shape thousands of individual parts, finally uniting them into an orchestral-like seamless cohesion that defines the historical rise and fall of civilization and envisions the possible future(s) of humanity. Each sculpture embodies the trademarks of his philosophy and practice, while serving as a testament to the multifaceted nature of perception – From timeless iconic references of Gods and Goddess, to challenging ideas of organized religion and morality, to the struggle to understand, and bend, the limits of mortality. None is complete without a final and brilliant touch of satire and rebuke all conceived in the aesthetic essence of the Baroque fused with the modern day industrial world.

In personal reflection, Kris feels that in the world today much of mankind is oftentimes frivolous and fragile, being driven primarily by greed and materialism. He hopes that his art exposes the fallacies of Man, unveiling a new level of awareness to the viewer. His work has received several awards and prizes and has been featured in over 100 exhibitions in galleries and museums worldwide including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Kris’ art can also be seen in a number of international art magazines, book covers and theatrical posters. Kris’ art is featured in both public and private collections in the United States, Europe, and Australia that include individuals such as Mark Parker (Nike CEO), Kay Alden (three time Emmy award winning writer for Young and the Restless & Bold and the Beautiful), Fred Durst (musician, and film director), Chris Weitz (movie director The Golden Compass & Twilight: New Moon) Guillermo del Toro (movie director Pan’s Labyrinth & Hell Boy 2) and Robin Williams (Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actor).

As a staunch Lovecraftian, J.S. Bach Head, and part-time Purple Prosist, I worship at the sumptuous, fetid, overladen alter of Baroque and Rococo (as my triple adjective usage suggests).  Naturally, Kuksi's explosive, densely packed art (which is more than just sculpture, but also paintings and drawings) scratches me right where I itch, from the inside out.

I hope, gentle reader, he provides a spiritual backscratcher to you as well.
Kuksi, dwarfing us

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