Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron, containing the following stories: The Forest; Occultation; The Lagerstatte; Mysterium Tremendum; Catch Hell; Strappado; The Broadsword; –30–; and Six Six Six (2010): Laird Barron’s second collection of short stories shows a writer unafraid to broaden his reach and his grasp. He’s a fine horror writer committed to his craft.
For example, this time around we get three female protagonists, two stories with gay protagonists, and one gay narrator. All are handled sympathetically, all ring true to my ears. Of course, even Barron’s least likeable protagonists can be made sympathetic when juxtaposed with the horrific entities and situations they are set against. Barron’s fictional cosmos is a cruel abattoir shot through with brief flashes of hope and defiance — to quote Michael Ondaatje, very faint, very human.
Which stories sing the loudest? “The Lagerstatte” deals with mourning and depression subtly, though there’s some nebulous form of cosmic horror amplifying the human loss in the story. “Mysterium Tremendum” grants the reader a greater understanding of the Necronomicon of Barron’s fictional universe, The Black Guide. That The Black Guide is a malevolent guide to tourist sites that tends to be found in homey country stores is deeply hilarious and practical at the same time.
Really, all the stories are tremendous, whether dealing with mysterious insect intelligences (“The Forest”), rundown hotels formerly of glorious aspect (“The Broadsword”), or monsters wearing human disguises with detachable heads (a Barron staple, and an attribute of the horrible Children of Old Leech, about whom I will only add AIM FOR THE CENTRE OF BODY MASS!!!). “The Broadsword” may be the most weighted with tragedy, along with “The Lagerstatte,” but both are tragedies of the loss of self, and whether or not one can stop that loss before greater horror sets in.
To quote a doom-fraught line from another Barron work, “They enter as slaves and emerge as kin.” It’s not just that characters in Barron’s universe have to make decisions about remaining human or becoming monster — it’s that sometimes even that decision is stripped from them. Their transformations will be terrible. But what price has the reader paid to become what he or she is? Highly recommended.
Cults of Horror, edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, containing the following stories: The Feast of St. Dionysus (1973) by Robert Silverberg; Devils in the Dust (1935) by Arthur J. Burks; The Questing Tycoon (1954) by Leslie Charteris; The Peacemaker (1983) by Gardner Dozois; The Legend of Gray Mountain (1979) by Emily Katharine Harris; Sword for a Sinner (1959) by Edward D. Hoch; The Shaker Revival (1970) by Gerald Jonas; The Red One (1918) by Jack London; The House of Eld (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson; Sticks (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner; Overkill (1990) by Edward Wellen; In the Abyss (1896) by H. G. Wells; and Fear Is a Business (1956) by Theodore Sturgeon (Collected 1990):
Fun and typically wide-ranging anthology from master anthologists Waugh and Greenberg. Boy, is it wide-ranging both in time and genre! There’s an excellent novella by Robert Silverberg from Silverberg’s artistic peak of the early 1970’s. There’s an adventure of Leslie Charteris’s Saint. There’s a story by science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells. There’s a weird bit of extraordinarily racism and misogynism from Jack London. There’s Karl Edward Wagner’s legendary “Sticks.” And there’s a piece from the 1930’s by Arthur J. Burks about the Dust Bowl that reads like one of Robert E. Howard’s fever dreams (if he had such things). Well worth picking up should you see it in a used bookstore. Recommended.
Just Behind You by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories: Fear the Dead; Digging Deep; Double Room; The Place of Revelation; The Winner; One Copy Only; Laid Down; Unblinking; Breaking Up; Respects; Feeling Remains; Direct Line; Skeleton Woods; The Unbeheld; The Announcement; Dragged Down; Raised by the Moon; Just Behind You; and Safe Words (Collected 2009):
Strong collection of Campbell’s early 21st-century short stories with the usual generous and explanatory afterword by Campbell. Cellphones become instruments of horror, though perhaps in “Digging Deep” there’s as much bleak humour to the proceedings as anything. Homages to M.R. James (the title story) and Arthur Machen (“The Place of Revelation”) work marvellously while maintaining that slightly hallucinatory Campbellian diction. “Safe Words” plays as non-supernatural comedy of embarrassment, as its narrator’s life goes off the rails thanks to a few mistaken assumptions about a fellow teacher.
“Skeleton Woods” is also a marvel of narration, as it uses first-person present-tense in a way that amplifies the horror of the last few paragraphs. Teen-aged fears and social class help form the horrors of “Dragged Down,” while “Fear the Dead” gives us a little boy with some very unnerving problems involving bullies, squabbling parents, and a grandmother who doesn’t seem to want to stay dead. In all, another strong outing from Campbell. Recommended.