Public health warning: This book has been known to induce anomie, despair, alienation, disenchantment, toxic doubt, and pervasive crawling fear. It has also been known to make people write about it ecstatically. I’m not the first to succumb. And this isn’t a new book review: The Imago Sequence has been around spreading terror and acedia since 2007, picking up a Shirley Jackson Award along the way. It also, incidentally, put its author on the map – in the same way that the 1883 eruption put Krakatoa on the map. The geography of horror would never be the same again.
Rather, this is an appreciation, in two senses: of the book itself, and for the kind and principled gesture that put it in my hands (well okay, on my phone). But it’s not a payoff or a schmoozefest. Would I really be grateful for something that perceptibly loosened my hold on reality? There’s no question of schmoozing when the combo of this book and a little beer transforms one’s Sunday afternoon into something very unsettling indeed. The only other author I can think of who breaks the fourth wall of wilful suspension of disbelief so effectively and actually messes with your real worldview is Thomas Ligotti, and there’s a definite Ligottiesque strain here along with all the other influences (most notably in “Shiva, Open Your Eye”). So, if your disposition is remotely unstable, anti-social, easily alarmed, or prone to depression, avoid this book and don’t buy it. That might push down Laird Barron‘s sales figures enough to absolve me of any charge of cosying up – as well as giving mental health statistics a lift.
The Imago Sequence gathers nine stories loosely classifiable as cosmic horror or weird fiction, interwoven with strands from other genres, such as hardboiled noir or Jack London-style wilderness romances. But they form the most powerful and effective updating of this tradition at least since Ligotti, and possibly Stephen King (depending on whether you think King actually developed cosmic horror or merely shopped some of its tropes downmarket for a family audience); perhaps even since H.P. Lovecraft himself hatched the genre. And you can argue about what cosmic horror is, but one pretty undeniable element in it is that it is not about the supernatural, but rather about deeper insight into natural laws that render not only poor weak humans, but even human understanding, powerless to embrace or influence the greater forces that shatter their minds and grind their bodies. Barron is all about that.
Hence the smooth elision of this kind of weird tale into the other kind of dark and dangerous tales that I just alluded to. Barron has described his work as “tales that smash up noir, crime and horror,” but I can’t imagine any crime fan reading these stories without a huge WTF moment and a lasting sense of dissatisfaction. Because crime is about things getting solved, and here nothing is resolved (dissolved, maybe, yes …) Not so positive critics of Barron in general, and this collection in particular, have complained that he layers on effects of mystery and ambiguity to conceal a fundamental banality and literalness: “”The Innsmouth gambit’ … a transparent obliquity, a complication without complexity.” You can agree or disagree that so many stories offering the same worldview lose, rather than gain, by close proximity, but I don’t concur that they let down the reader by reducing things to a mundane explanation. Plenty gets hinted: nothing gets explained.
You can also argue that the overall proposition of cosmic horror (and Barron’s cosmos) is easily reducible to “we are helpless nonentities in a malignly indifferent universe,” but “God is all-powerful” never exactly held Christianity or Islam back, even though it’s an even briefer tenet, and Barron never leaves the reader (or at least, this reader) feeling intellectually short-changed about the thought behind the dark curtains of mystery. The hints are part of the genre pizzazz: pointing towards certain well-known outcomes but uncannily falling short or going off in different directions – and if anyone needs an example of Barron building a tale to culmination in a highly charged enigma, look at “Parallax.” Lovecraft may or may not have blown his gambits on some pulpy – in the literary, not the octopoidal, sense – conclusions, but just because Barron’s prose and worldview recalls Lovecraft does not mean that he falls victim to that same error. Nor, as some critics charge, does he use ambiguity simply because directness is declasse and uncool: How else are you supposed to write about a world whose fundamental proposition is that it is an insoluble, literally brain-destroying puzzle?
What Barron does so well is to use the Lovecraftian techniques of hinting or alluding at a mystery, and gradually progressing towards it, with dread building every step of the way. Genre tropes facilitiate this partly because you’re leading readers down some well-traveled paths – which suddenly trail off into howling darkness. And this is helped by the fact that there is simply some extraordinarily good writing going on. Barron’s upbringing in the stark wilds of Alaska (not so much redneck as frostbite-neck), didn’t get in the way of him becoming a superlative prose stylist with command of a whole scale of registers and voices, which he plays off against each other at times to devastating effect. Anyone who subscribes to the dictum that horror is a feeling rather than a genre will find touchy-feely heebie-jeebies here by the ice-bucketful.
And if all that sounds like airy generalizations without getting to grips with the actual stories, well, go buy the book. Or rather, if you value your sanity, don’t buy the book. There, happy that I haven’t been puffing now?