Laird Barron’s third and most recent short story collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All almost needs no introduction: it’s Laird Barron’s third collection. For many enthusiasts and proselytes of the current renaissance in dark and weird fiction, that’s all they will need to know. Superlatives fall from its hide like Geatish spear points from Grendel’s. And such wide, and wide-eyed, acclamation might seem open to question if it weren’t for the (almost) uniform excellence of the contents. This is the kind of collection destined to find the same sort of place in the history of its genre currently occupied by the volumes of M.R. James or Ambrose Bierce.
That said, this collection also gives yet another opportunity to see what all the fuss is about, and for a certain class of Barron’s fans, it’ll read like a vindication. Three of the stories here are fantastic period pieces: “Blackwood’s Baby,” “Hand of Glory,” and “The Men from Porlock” – all set in a Twenties busily screaming or gibbering rather than Roaring. They also all partake of what some other dark fiction insiders call Barron’s Pacific Northwest Mythos, sharing characters and locations as well as tropes between them. And they drip with juicy period details like the entrails of a gralloched stag.
And therein lies the problem, with some of Barron’s readers, rather than Barron himself – the type who are looking for testosterone-fueled escapism from milieux that mock their muffled machismo. It’s easy to caricature Barron as the kind of writer who “would make HPL cry for his momma,” but I doubt that Barron himself would ever say that about HPL. I rather doubt that HPL himself, longtime friend and correspondent of “Two-Gun Bob,” Young Mister Conan, Robert E. Howard, would have thought that way either. Barron escaped from a testosterone-filled youth that would have pulverized most fans of armchair brutality, and he did it chiefly by writing.
This may be a problem for some of the fan base, but Barron shows again here that it’s not a problem for him as a writer. “The Siphon” and “Jaws of Saturn” once again cast cosmic horror in more contemporary contexts, to devastating effect, while “The Redfield Girls” and “The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” take slightly more traditional genre approaches to equally disturbing subject matter. As I’ve noted before, Barron writes women very well, as he does here in and in “The Redfield Girls,”, he manages the most horribly chilling conclusion without any reference to tentacled deities or rage against the dying of the light at all. But it makes no difference whether the protagonists fight or fail, whether the menace is demonic or entropic: science, religion, WMDs and all the “the tiny works of men” are useless against a vast, indifferent universe whose irony surpasses all others, and whose traps lurk between the trees and between the galaxies.
And if that sounds like more, and more, of the same, well, Barron reads like he’s fully alive to the risk of disappearing up his own fundament, along the lines (or rather, circles) of the Worm Ouroboros he uses as a signature image. “Vastation” is the Lovecraftian apocalypse to end all stars-come-right apocalypsos – or at least, ought to, if there was any justice in this carnivorous, capricious cosmos. “More Dark” is an extended dark/weird-literary in-joke so incestuous that it could beget its own Pharaonic dynasty, with an extensive walk-on (or rather, marionettesque shuffle-on) part for Thomas Ligotti. Those same literary scholars likely to place Barron on a level with James or Bierce might have a donnish chuckle over it half a century hence – although the fact that it also manages to be more than a little unsettling in its own right is all down to Barron’s talent. Plus, a number of these stories simply seem to be doing Barron even better than Barron did Barron before. Are you still hesitating? Go on: bite the bullet.