Imago, Imago, Imago

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007) containing the following stories: Old Virginia (2003); Shiva, Open Your Eye (2001); Procession of the Black Sloth (2007); Bulldozer (2004); Proboscis (2005); Hallucigenia (2006); Parallax (2005); The Royal Zoo is Closed (2006); and The Imago Sequence (2005): Barron’s fictional cosmos, in which most and possibly all of these early stories take place, exudes dread. Barron himself is a marvelous writer who seemed to arrive fully formed in 2000, as good or better than all of his contemporaries, and then proceeded to get better over the following decade.

As with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, Barron’s fictional cosmos deploys many of the trappings of supernatural fiction in service to what is really science-fictional horror. What seems to be supernatural is really the result of beings and sciences too far beyond humanity to be fully fathomed by Barron’s protagonists. None of the seemingly supernatural beings we encounter is remotely benign.

Humanity isn’t so much cattle to many of these beings, per Charles Fort’s classic construction, as it is game. Modern, 21st-century game animals, hopelessly doomed by the firepower of the modern hunter, still striving to escape while terrible things laugh at their impotency in the face of torture, death, dismemberment, or worst of all, transformation at the hands and tentacles and proboscises of their tormenters.

What helps set Barron apart from the majority of those who have followed in Lovecraft’s squamous, gambrel, rugose footsteps is the nature of many of his protagonists. Most tend to be the hardest of hard-cases: professional killers, enforcers, former soldiers, Pinkerton men. When they come face to face with the ravenous, cloachal, aggressively sadistic god-monsters that populate the dark place of the Earth, they find themselves punching way, way above their weight class. But by God, many of them keep punching. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

Barron’s keen eye for both psychological and physical description is a joy to behold, regardless of the awfulness of what it is he’s beholding. Even the worst protagonists seem benign compared to what they’re facing.

There’s a real sense of pathos in “Hallucigenia,” to cite one example, in which a millionaire real-estate developer whose business practices are mostly loathsome but legal — he specializes in displacing the poor in places such as Viet Nam so as to build factories — comes up against…something. Something in an abandoned barn in the Pacific Northwest, where many of Barron’s stories are set. Is he being punished? Well, no, I don’t think so: Barron’s universe, like Hemingway’s, doesn’t discriminate morally in terms of who it kills. Or eats. Or tortures. Or transforms.

There are awful wonders here, and marvelous images, and a measured approach to the accumulation of psychological detail. There are oddities I can’t recall reading in any other horror writers. And there’s a tremendous amount of re-readability, both to catch all the things you missed the first time, and to make the connections among the stories collected here and elsewhere. The stories can all stand alone, but the various intersections of characters, names, and locations often add extra levels of dread and delight. Highly recommended.

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