October is here! Time for another month of scary, horrifying, or just downright creepy books.
First up is Laird Barron’s 2013 short story collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. The title of the book is misleading to say the least, unless you have a completely different interpretation of what “beautiful” means. But something is most definitely is waiting, oh yes, and we won’t know exactly what it is until it’s far too late.
Like most of Barron’s works, the stories here are all connected…somehow. The upper Northwest features heavily, and various place names will crop up again and again. You may also notice a reference to previous stories or novels; I just finished reading The Croning for the first time a few months ago, and the ouroboros from the cover image for this collection turns out to be an echo of the cult symbol from that novel. All of this adds to the feeling that the stories are part of a much bigger design that us poor pitiful humans can’t hope to understand.
The nine stories in this book feature everyday, flawed, sometimes pretty awful characters caught up in anything from mundane tragedy and depression to full-blown cosmic horror. In “Blackwood’s Baby” a down-and-out former soldier is invited to the Olympic Peninsula to join a troupe of wealthy layabouts on a hunt for a legendary stag. Johnny Cope in “Hand of Glory” is a skilled thug in the 1920’s looking for revenge for the murder of his father, and the characters in “The Men from Porlock” are just a handful of loggers on a spur-of-the-moment deer hunt who stumble across a village they really should have kept far, far away from.
Some of the characters are more used to shaky dealings than others. Lancaster is a successful businessman (moonlighting as an NSA operative) in the story “The Siphon”, employed by a company that’s very unspecific about what it deals in. And Franco works as a bodyguard for a millionaire, but “Jaws of Saturn” isn’t about his work as hired muscle, it’s about his attempt to get his girlfriend away from the control of a mysterious hypnotist.
Not all of these stories feature thugs. “The Redfield Girls” is about a group of women – teachers and best friends – who spend their vacation in a cabin near the shores of a cursed lake. Barron explores the trope of a woman in hiding from her abusive ex in “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven”. The narrator of “Vastation” might be a godlike creature who destroys and recreates himself throughout the millennia, or he could just be a lunatic who thinks that’s what he is. And “More Dark” is a funhouse-mirror view of the world of horror literature, with a writer dragged off to a public reading, done by a reclusive and eccentric author who performs in full costume.
Did you get all that? Well it won’t help much if you did, because I’m afraid none of those summaries are even close to what’s actually going on in this book.
You can’t trust anything the author shows you, because you never know if what you’re seeing is a nightmare, a horrifying vision, or otherworldly conflicts where humans are completely unwelcome except as food. And the plots are sometimes exactly like something out of a fever dream. The person who murdered Johnny Cope’s father is the son of Eadweard Muybridge (this Muybridge), who’s looking to take advantage of a series of unsettling movies that might be able to steal souls. Lorna’s attempt to hide from her ex is complicated by her girlfriend turning into a werewolf. And the plot by an ancient evil looking to feast on humanity completely overshadows a bit of character development in “Siphon” that for any other author would be the pivotal moment of the entire damn story.
In Barron’s prose everything is alive, even inanimate objects; gravel road unrolls like a tongue, shadows reach like fingers or claws, homes in a bog are raised on stilts like spiders, a hidden lake sprawls across the forest like a scar. These stories jump from past to present to millions of years in the future, and sometimes they just stop without warning.
And then there’s the horror. These stories offer several different flavors of fear, all of them extremely effective. There’s the tragic memory you can never escape. The violent death and/or gruesome torture. Group death by shambling creatures from the stars. Stepping from an elevator into a hotel lobby that’s now ruined, and too large, and horrifying for no reason. The voice mail you will never be able to bear listening to. I can’t fully explain just how good Barron is at being terrifying; it’s one thing to say that someone’s going to suffer for all eternity, it’s another thing altogether to make you realize what that would actually be like.
The overwhelming sense from this book is dread, a bleak sense that the universe is out to get us. If you’re looking for a nice neat resolution for any of these then you’d better keep walking because you won’t get one. And yet for some reason this kind of eldritch horror was exactly what I wanted. I may be able to grasp exactly what’s going on in most of these, but I can’t seem to turn away from watching it happen.