A Dark, Lonely Wood: Talking With Laird Barron About Horror & The Abyss
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Laird Barron is one of fiction’s worst kept secrets. He’s the author of two novels — The Croning and The Light is the Darkness (2012) — and “a loose trilogy” of short story collections — The Imago Sequence (2007), Occultation (2010) and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013). At the young age of 45 he’s also been feted by his very own tribute anthology: The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron (2014). Say his name in the company of today’s best speculative fiction writers and readers, and you’ll get mostly “Oohs” and “Aaahs.” That’s because in the last several years Barron has become known — alongside writers like Brian Evenson, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Victor LaValle, and Kelly Link — as one of the more stylistically elegant and thematically eclectic heirs to the tandem-throne of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Nic Pizzolatto digs him, too. Say his name to your average reader of literary fiction, however, and you’ll often receive a blank stare followed by the words: “Cool name!” To that I’d say: you bet your ass! But also: I pity you, piddling mortal! And so, on the occasion of nothing more and nothing less than the week leading up to Halloween 2015, I sat down to email with Laird about his forward to Penguin Classics’ reissue of Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan, the parameters of “Gothic horror,” Lovecraft fatigue and humankind’s puny insignificance in the scheme of the universe.
Adrian Van Young: In your forward to Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan (1962), which Penguin Classics re-issued this month along with another classic of horror, Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti, you cite Russell’s novel as “a primary source in the modern iteration of gothic horror.” To be clear: all horror fiction isn’t “gothic horror.” That seems to me a very particular sub-set. I know that I write it and I know that you write it, but I’m interested to hear from you what characterizes it uniquely — in Russell’s work and in the work of others?
Laird Barron: Yes, a fair analysis, although other categories of modern horror are often tributaries of that black river.
Gothic horror is concerned with certain boilerplate elements — tradition versus progress, a sense of historical place (a manor, castle, rectory) and isolation, brooding atmosphere, the impingement of the supernatural upon the mundane world, although not necessarily a full or overt manifestation of the unknown, and good versus evil. Customarily there’s a mystery to be unraveled and what’s at stake is often the innocence (if not the physical and psychological well-being) of a vulnerable person, usually, but not always a young woman. A domineering figure and a caretaker are prominent. These figures manipulate or direct the innocent and/or the investigation. Ira Levin is the obvious go-to here, but see also Thomas Tryon, especially Harvest Home wherein the imperiled innocent is a hapless man.
Interestingly, early slasher films fulfill many of the requirements of a Gothic story. Take John Carpenter’s Halloween: Michael the domineering male, Loomis the caretaker, Laurie the vulnerable but intrepid heroine whose very existence starts dominoes falling. The only missing component is a substantial mystery, although perhaps the mystery of Michael’s transformation from knife-happy shithead tyke to engine of indestructible evil suffices.
In any event, The Case Against Satan maps to a Gothic blueprint and updates it for the 1960s reader, if not beyond. Russell gives us a sense of place redolent with tradition (yet with cracking modern dialogue that was scandalous during its time); a heroine in mortal peril; an iron-fisted father; and of course, a real mystery. Is supernatural evil at work in the world and does it have its claws in a young woman? Or are the priests merely confronted with the Dickensian banal evil? I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Russell imbues his novel and what is historically a more circumspect or genteel investigative process with the toughness and directness of a crime novel. It’s a rare talent to preserve a measure of ambiguity to such a narrative while occasionally punching the reader in the gut.
AVY: Hot damn. That sounds good! I will read it on your recommendation. And I love what you say about early slasher films mapping onto the boilerplate of “gothic horror” — there is something elemental and certainly operatic about them that I’ve always connected with as a writer, even. You’re largely known for your forays into Lovecraftian cosmic horror (on which more in a minute) — and yet, as I mentioned, I do think much of your work fits into the aforementioned subset of “gothic horror.” Specifically, I’m thinking of stories like “Strappado” from Occultation or “Blackwood’s Baby” from The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Overall, in the latter book, I felt you were moving away somewhat from the cosmic horror-heaviness of your first two collections and your novel, The Croning. Does more fully embracing “gothic horror” and other sub-sets of the genre represent any kind of evolution in your work?
LB: Yes, that’s a fair cop. “Strappado” was written for Ellen Datlow’s Poe anthology and “Blackwood’s Baby” was solicited by Nick Gevers for a Gaslight Age-themed book. I grew up reading the classics, so my appreciation of the Gothic is deeply embedded. That may be more of the spine of my aesthetic than cosmic horror. A few years back I spoke of moving away from cosmic horror — Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, all that. Lately my conclusions have shifted. It isn’t necessary to abandon any particular mode. Now that writing full-time has become plausible, I’ve simply expanded my scope. I’m producing a significant amount of material which permits me to circle away from the stories I’m known for and to create new characters, such as Jessica Mace and Johnny Cope, and venture farther afield into purer forms of crime, noir, fantasy, and yes, occult horror. I come home whenever I wish.
It has always been my intent to move forward with each new book, at least in some minor regard. “Procession of the Black Sloth” in The Imago Sequence pointed toward a heavier Gothic/occult theme in Occultation & Other Stories. Likewise, “ — 30 — “ from Occultation was included to signpost the wilderness elements of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. I wrote those three books as a loose trilogy that is primarily an examination of cosmic horror traditions with forays into noir and occult modes. The next collection (landing in fall 2016 from JournalStone), Swift to Chase, veers much farther inward into psychological horror, slasher fiction, and earthy weirdness. I privately refer to this book as the “Alaska collection” and expect a couple more to follow in the cycle.
AVY: What you say about a “loose trilogy” is fascinating. Of course, that’s evident in the proliferation of the Old Leech mythos over the course of the three books but also the encroachment of wilderness — both physical wilderness — “30” and “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” — and psychic wilderness — “The Lagerstatte” and “More Dark” — working in concert with some greater eldritch threat. Which seems to herald the new collection’s turn inward, as you say — away from the so-called “darkness between the stars” and onto new yet familiar vistas. Jeff VanderMeer recently went on a social media rant about feeling exhausted being lumped in with Lovecraft, and I have to admit what he said made some sense. I, for one, have been feeling that Lovecraft fatigue. He’s the wellspring of everything horror these days. As a sometimes-Lovecraftian, can you relate?
LB: Sure, we are fatigued. Authors are expected to be “on” twenty-four seven thanks to the double-edge blade of instant communication and social media. Part of the job, however, is to know when to step away from the internet. And, yep, it can be exasperating when reviewers and critics use shorthand to define your work. Friends, that’s the territory.
I don’t suffer from the anxiety of influence — it’s too much work.
Jeff forgot the first rule of Author Club: once you collect your paycheck and that story is out in the world, it isn’t yours any more. It belongs to everyone (cue Gary Oldman’s iconic barbaric yawp in The Professional). It’s a question of perspective. The hell of it is this: far better authors than Jeff VanderMeer or Laird Barron diligently toil with less notice than they deserve, so let us count our blessings. You want to compare me positively to one of the most famous authors in the English language? I’m not going to spit in your eye because I was hoping you’d align me with some other literary heavyweight. I don’t suffer from the anxiety of influence — it’s too much work.
AVY: That’s a pretty even-handed and affirming view of things. Which is something I see you approaching, albeit with copious misdirection, in even your bleakest fiction. In your introduction to The Case Against Satan, you write about your childhood in Alaska:
“There were moments when the sun coagulated between the teeth of distant peaks and the brass shell of sky peeled back to reveal the stars welded to a deeper darkness, and the moon would heave, yellow as an old cracked skull bone of some massive space-faring thing. I would be reminded with the cold that seeped up through the soles of my boots and stole into my blood that I was minute and impermanent, that every work of civilization is a speck upon the face of speck floating upon an infinite abyss.”
Am I correct in detecting that you find something affirming, even comforting in the cosmic horror worldview?
LB: Death is death. Whether we are blasted by an X-ray from a distant star, or the magnetic poles flip flop and the molten core of the planet vents, or a super flu, a super war, or depletion of vital resources does our species in, it’s all death. Humankind is terrified of forces larger than itself and so we name them and create mythologies around them, and convince ourselves everything was set into motion on our behalf. Cosmic horror posits humanity is nothing special in the big scheme. It doesn’t exactly comfort me. However, I accept my supernumerary designation in the cosmic play. After I die the universe will persist with my subatomic particles embedded in there somewhere. Good enough. It has to be good enough.
AVY: You see, there’s something comforting in that for me — that reincorporation. And, moreover, on the level of facing your own mortal certitude and cosmic insignificance. Like, being aware of that is how I’m able to put one foot in front of the other, day by day. Though you’re looking at it through what strikes me as a uniquely naturalist lens. From the towering forests of Washington to the icy barrens of Alaska to the baked townships of India, nature plays a tremendous role in your fiction. Can you elaborate on how it figures into your vision as a writer?
LB: Nature and its wilderness aspect left marks that become more pronounced as I age. The farther away I travel from my youth, the larger it looms in the rear-view mirror.
Whether I qualify as a dyed in the wool naturalist is debatable. It’s a theory and a method I apply liberally. I was born in Alaska in 1970, about eight months after Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the moon. The 70s and 80s were a different time in more ways than you can imagine unless you were there. And Alaska back then? Brother, Hunter S. Thompson wouldn’t have needed to get high to freak out, although it would’ve helped. I’ve talked about my early days elsewhere — small cabin, wilderness setting, privation. My family spent years on a homestead where our lamplight was the only human light for miles after dark. I read Jack London and Robert Service. Their words captured and translated the inchoate emotions I struggled with as a kid living under the pressure of low-level fear. Fear was reasonable because danger existed with not much between it and our tender flesh. The tales of London and Service, Poe and Hawthorne are musty classics to typical children. For me, they read more like current events. At that time, I inhabited a pocket universe that felt much closer to the age of the Gothic than it did to modern day North America.
Wilderness is the vacuum of space, the flaming gas that floats on its tide, and the blackness between. A dark, lonely wood, all of it.
Nature and the wild dominate my aesthetic. The wilderness is immense. Nature is implacable. Make one mistake, it will grind you to a fine powdered nothing. Do everything right but be unlucky, it will obliterate you. One moment you are there, in the way. Then not. One moment you exist, then not. In my philosophy, wilderness is not solely defined by remote landscapes or deep sea environments, or the deep desert. Wilderness is the vacuum of space, the flaming gas that floats on its tide, and the blackness between. A dark, lonely wood, all of it.
AVY: That’s very well said. I love how you characterize your “[childhood] pocket of the universe [feeling] much closer to the age of the Gothic than it did to modern day North America.” You currently live in the Hudson Valley — a truly beautiful part of the country. In fact, right now, not far from where you live, I believe, there is a film crew shooting an adaption of your short story “30.” Can you give us, briefly, the gist of the story along with a sense for what it’s been like to have your fiction adapted for the screen?
LB: “ — 30 — “ was an original novelette in the Occultation collection. It was inspired by a real life CSI expedition to the Manson Ranch back in the latter Aughts. The team went digging for burial grounds in the high country.
I narrowed the scope in “ — 30 — “: A pair of biologists travel to a wilderness property to document aberrant animal behavior. A Manson-style thrill kill cult once inhabited this area. The biologists’ investigation leads into real and awful darkness.
Filming should be wrapping as we speak. The director, Philip Gelatt, wrote Europa Report. He aced the script for “ — 30 — “ and I have a strong hunch this is going to be a sleeper. I went up to the film site in Salem, NY and spent the afternoon observing. These guys are meticulous and everything has to be just so before they sign off on a scene. It’s slightly surreal to watch something I wrote years ago brought to life by professional actors. I now live with a shred of guilt over what I put the crew through with various scenes. The physicality of a wilderness film can be arduous.
AVY: Can’t wait to see it. Europa Report is a fine film. Truly slipstream — if there is such a thing, cinematically speaking. Science fictional horror married to what struck me as a very art-house sensibility. Reading your work over the years I’ve always been highly cognizant of influences from both sides of the aisle, so to speak: Robert R. McCammon and Peter Straub, Cormac McCarthy and Angela Carter. Granted, these sorts of authors pivot between genres and sometimes threaten to render the distinction of “genre” as a moot point — though I do feel like discussing “genre” when we talk about literature can be useful as it ushers us into a greater understanding of the work itself. That said, I’ve heard a lot lately from so-called literary writers who claim that the line between genre fiction and literary fiction has been effectively obliterated, yet I haven’t heard much from writers who identify primarily as genre writers, such as yourself. How are you seeing our genre traditions? Have they achieved the sort of omega point of hybridization that so many seem to claim?
LB: You are dead on. I try to take a story for what it is and writers for what they are. Regarding an omega point, no, it doesn’t seem likely. Art is in a constant state of transformation, or mutation. The wheel keeps rolling and it won’t stop until we all do.
I learned to write without shame. Good writing and bad have never been defined by genre categories or the lack.
If there was a positive side effect to my misspent youth, it’s that I was largely isolated from the genre wars. Thanks to that long stretch of relative innocence I became a true omnivore of literature. From a young age I read Harold Robbins and Barbara Cartland; I read CS Lewis, Herman Hesse, Luis Borges. Golden Age and New Wave Science Fiction? Noir and Crime from Hammett to Ferrigno? Spy Thrillers by Martin Cruz Smith and Le Carre? Carter and Jackson’s reshaping of fairytales and suburban fantasy? McCarthy’s horrification of the Western? Hemingway brute force aethetics? I absorbed it all without shame. I learned to write without shame. Good writing and bad have never been defined by genre categories or the lack. Writing well is a fight. My armor and weapons are an alloy of the spectrum that is literature.
It amuses me when folks from either side of the fence beat their breasts about it. So long as writing is marketable there will be categories and divisions. That’s how the market works and it’s how authors and critics work. Enough of us buy into the zero sum theory the scuffles will persist. What I think of the pissing contests? Spend more time doing the work and less talking about it or using it as a bludgeon.
AVY: Well, all right. Done and done. Last and inevitable question: what are your plans for Halloween?
LB: Thank you for the talk.
In the past I have tried to summon Nadelman’s God, to no effect; although my trashcans went missing. These days I live out in cow country in upstate New York. We’re decorating the porch with two pumpkins — a large one and a small one. It doesn’t appear as if many trick or treaters live nearby, but we’re stocking lots of candy and booze, nonetheless. At precisely 8pm I fully intend to shut off the lights, eat all the candy, drink scotch, and watch John Carpenter’s The Thing.