Thursday, 10 November 2016

Laird Barron: Primeval Horrors

" 'Out there' is a relative term, it's closer than you might think. Oh my, the great Dark is only as far away as your closet when you kill the your reflection when it thinks you aren't looking." (Laird Barron)

My latest post is about an author who is definitely my kind of writer-  Laird Barron, an intriguing practitioner of weird fiction.  Barron has a similar thematic approach to H.P Lovecraft, as he writes in the realms of cosmic supernatural horror. The likes of Lovecraft, Poe, and Arthur Machen are his principal influences. His monsters and antagonists are ancient horrors originating from the primal soup of our planet's past- although these alien, demonic entities tend to exist in other dimensions of existence, and occasionally outside linear time/space (the title story, "The Imago Sequence" from the collection of the same name is a good example of this). However, they have the power to manifest in our own reality, or only to certain individuals. These ancient entities pre-date all modern religions and are of primordial or inter-dimensional origin, although they are the source of many legends and myths. Their existence is only hinted at in ancient pagan rites, and discredited occult and arcane knowledge. Similarly yet again to Lovecraft, Barron's short stories and The Croning are all set in the same malevolent universe and are part of a cycle concerning these evil entities who are known by several names or identities, such as the 'beings that live in the cracks'.

The human characters in Barron's stories, such as Don Miller in The Croning, are usually the victims of such evil entities; the agents of these beings (whether unwitting or manipulated into being so); sometimes these human characters are transfigured or transformed by malevolent forces.

My collection of Laird Barron's works

Barron has written and published three short story collections (The Imago Sequence, Occultation and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All) two novellas (The Light in the Darkness, Xs for Eyes), and one full length novel, The Croning. The Croning reminded me of T.E.D Klein's The Ceremonies in terms of evil entities manipulating human behaviour, remote settings and dark evil conspiracies. It uses the fairytale of 'Rumpelstiltskin' as a point of origin. The phrase 'The croning 'refers specifically to a type of ritual described in the novel; it also refers obliquely to the masked evil and the gradual transformation of the central character's wife, linking her to witchcraft. There's a particular sinister description in the novel when Don Miller's son tells a story about a supernatural experience he had with a frightening entity that materialised, a manifestation of the evil that is hovering around the family, and threatening Don.

The settings for Barron's stories are usually the remote forest, lake and mountain areas of Washington State. The wildernesses of the Pacific Northwest region of the United States are to Barron as the New England of the 18th-early 20th century is to Lovecraft, and Maine is to Stephen King. There are many references to temples, stone mounds, megaliths and dolmens, evil sites and locations such as the Mima Mounds, Crescent Lake, Ransom Hollow, Slango, the Broadsword Hotel, - some anachronistic or incongruous to the modern North American setting; and it is heavily implied that said traditions and rites have historically been brought from Europe by the original settlers and colonists; or have manifested themselves through supernatural means.

There are certain locations and particular mysterious characters that re-occur and re-appear throughout Barron's fiction, in different stories. Sometimes they are mentioned in passing or are central to a particular story.  Crescent Lake is mentioned in passing in several stories, and is central to the narrative of 'The Redfield Girls' in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Characters that re-appear and are prominent in particular stories include Dr Toshi Ryoko (mentioned in The Croning, several short stories and appears most prominently in 'The Forest' (Occultation); Boris Kalamov; Phil Wary (who also goes by the name Helios Augustus in 'Hand of Glory' -The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All- and is a black magician). There's also a mysterious book filled with dark, arcane occult secrets called the Morderor de Calginis which re-appears in several stories, and most prominently in 'Mysterium Tremendum' (Occultation). It's an evil volume whose text is constantly in flux, similar in concept to Lovecraft's Necronomicon. Also a curious party game called 'Something Scary' is mentioned on numerous occasions in Barron's fiction. Barron also refers to conspiracy theories and historic mysteries such as the disappearances on Roanoke Island, and MK-Ultra in his fiction.

I found that Barron's novellas The Light in the Darkness and Xs for Eyes are not typical of the rest of his work; and instead are written in a form of hyper-reality/fantasy/alternate history, similar to comic book fiction, but with horror and speculative fiction elements. I enjoyed both novellas but felt they lacked the depth and sinister atmosphere of his shorter stories.

My favourite Barron short story is 'Hallucigenia' (from The Imago Sequence); it begins with the wealthy protagonist, Wallace, and his younger wife being driven by their chauffeur through the Black Hills; their car breaks down near a remote farmhouse; and then the story takes unexpected and disturbing turns.

There are notable differences with Barron's work compared to Thomas Ligotti, who I wrote about in my previous blog article. Unlike Ligotti, Barron's protagonists attempt to fight back and resist the powerful evil forces which they are forced to confront. Barron's central characters are usually younger and more vigorous men and women of action, rather than Ligotti's paranoid, flawed and helpless characters and unreliable narrators. In fact, in the case of the novellas, Barron's central characters possess unusual , or superhuman powers. I prefer his short stories to the novellas, but his novel The Croning is as strong as anything he's written so far. It's an excellent horror novel, as frightening and brilliant as any novel I've read in the genre. I'm looking forward to more wonderful stories from Laird Barron.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Thomas Ligotti: Dreams are Doorways

I wanted to publish a blog post about one of my favourite authors at the moment: the American author of supernatural/horror/weird fiction, Thomas Ligotti. I should point out at this juncture that so far I've read four volumes of Ligotti's work: the short story collections Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (re-published together in one excellent edition by Penguin Classics recently); another collection of short stories, Teatro Grottesco; My Work is Not Yet Done (a novella and two short stories); and The Spectral Link (two novellas, 'Metaphysica Morum' and 'The Small People'). So that means that I haven't yet read Noctuary, The Nightmare Factory (two more short story collections), The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or any other little bits and pieces. In fact, Ligotti has published only sparse amounts in the past three decades, since his first collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer was originally published in the mid-1980s.

Funnily enough, I only discovered Ligotti's work two or three years ago, and it was not through any literary links: I had enjoyed the first season of the American television detective drama, True Detective. I read somewhere that the show's creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, had been influenced by the unsettling writings of this author, Thomas Ligotti. I researched Ligotti and discovered he'd received much literary acclaim- he'd been compared with some giants in horror fiction, and was regarded as one of the great modern writers of supernatural and weird fiction. So of course, I was compelled to investigate further and make myself familiar with his work. I should also admit that after reading some of his stories, his style influenced one of my own- 'The Vacancy', which was published in my collection Echoes and Exiles, and in KZine 13.

I want to encourage people reading this blog article of mine to also read Ligotti, so as with previous blog posts I don't want to give too much away about the plots of Ligotti's stories and ruin them beforehand (no spoilers) However there's some room to analyse aspects of his writing without giving too much away.

Firstly, how to define his style? Ligotti is able to create a sense of the bizarre and strange even in the most routine and mundane contexts. His fiction is dreamlike and eerie; both illogical and surreal. The novella 'The Small People' in The Spectral Link is one example representing Ligotti's sense of the uncanny, in terms of the narrator's idiosyncratic perception of reality as he relates his confessional monologue. The link with dreaming or nightmares is fundamental- I think Ligotti owes his success as a writer due to his ability to tap deep into the subconscious and connect with the deep irrational fears that are most peculiar and disturbing. However, although morbidity is one of his inherent traits as a writer, his stories are also laced with a dark twisted humour. I found his dry humour and black comedy most evident in the corporate satire of My Work Is Not Yet Done. His protagonists are frequently outsiders, those on the fringe of society or those who are paranoid and disaffected. Oh, and labyrinthine might just be his favourite word.

Come here if you're interested in a selection of quotations from Ligotti's work. I tend to find Ligotti's fiction/storytelling more interesting than what might be described as his mission statements. This is why I haven't been attracted to reading The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and why I wasn't such a fan of his deconstructive approach to the horror story in 'Notes on the Writing of Horror: a Story' and 'Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror'. I think these wittily sarcastic pieces perhaps might appeal to (or, hopefully, annoy) anyone who is more inclined to be a critic of fiction.

The earlier collections owe a great deal to HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and I suppose the gothic tradition of supernatural fiction. By Teatro Grottesco, it seemed clear to me that Ligotti had perfected an eerily morbid, bleak and ominous style which works to unsettling effect.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer, favourite stories: 'Les Fleurs'; 'Dream of a Manikin'; 'Dr Voke and Mr Leech' (like a dark, sinister Laurel and Hardy); 'The Sect of the Idiot'; 'The Music of the Moon' (eerie and surreal, like a nightmare)

Grimscribe, favourite stories: 'Flowers of the Abyss' (reminded me very much of HP Lovecraft); 'In the Shadow of Another World'; 'The Cocoons'; 'The Glamour' (a hideous witch story); 'Miss Plarr' (very mysterious and eerie)

Teatro Grottesco, favourite stories: 'Purity', 'The Town Manager', 'My Case for Retributive Action', 'The Bungalow House' , 'Our Temporary Supervisor' and 'Gas Station Carnivals'.

Themes and tropes in Ligotti's fiction

·        Protagonists who roam dark, mysterious streets and find themselves in danger. This occurs in a number of stories- My Work is Not Yet Done, 'Notes on the Writing of Horror', 'The Troubles of Dr Thoss', 'Masquerade of a Dead Sword', 'The Music of the Moon', 'The Journal of JP Drapeau', 'Vasterien' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer), 'The Last Feast of Harlequin', 'The Dreaming in Nortown', 'The Cocoons', 'The Night School', 'The Glamour' (Grimscribe) and 'Purity', 'The Town Manager', 'The Clown Puppet', 'In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land', 'Teatro Grottesco', 'Severini' and 'The Shadow, the Darkness' (Teatro Grottesco)

·        Locations such as crumbling and ominous factories, mansions, warehouses, mausoleums, sanatorium, or decaying old buildings in general. Again, many examples- the derelict warehouse in My Work is Not Yet Done; 'The Lost Art of Twilight', 'Dr Locrian's Asylum', 'The Sect of the Idiot', 'The Music of the Moon' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); 'The Last Feast of Harlequin', 'Flowers of the Abyss', 'In the Shadow of Another World', 'The Cocoons', 'The Night School', 'The Glamour' (Grimscribe); 'Purity', 'The Red Tower', 'Our Temporary Supervisor', 'The Bungalow House', 'Severini' and 'The Shadow, the Darkness' (Teatro Grottesco)

·        Small town gothic: gloomy, mist-wreathed small towns with dark secrets; bleak places in the middle of nowhere. Stories with this feature include 'The Small People' (The Spectral Link), 'The Frolic', 'Dr Locrian's Asylum', 'The Sect of the Idiot', 'The Greater Festival of Masks' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); 'The Last Feast of Harlequin', 'Flowers of the Abyss', 'The Dreaming in Nortown', 'The Shadow at the Bottom of the World' (Grimscribe); and 'The Town Manager', 'My Case for Retributive Action',  'Our Temporary Supervisor', 'In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land' (Teatro Grottesco)

·        Flesh and decay; degeneration/corruption: My Work is Not Yet Done; 'Alice's Last Adventure', 'Dream of a Manikin', 'The Nyctalops Trilogy', 'Notes on the Writing of Horror', 'The Lost Art of Twilight', 'The Troubles of Dr Thoss', 'The Sect of the Idiot' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); 'The Spectacles in the Drawer', 'The Cocoons', The Glamour', 'The Library of Byzantium', 'The Shadow at the Bottom of the World' (Grimscribe), 'Purity', 'The Red Tower' and all of the stories in the 'Damaged and Diseased' third section of Teatro Grottesco.

·        A hidden fourth dimension underlying or parallel to the real world if we are prepared to 'lift the veil': My Work is Not Yet Done; 'The Frolic', 'Les Fleurs', 'Dream of a Manikin', 'Dr Locrian's Asylum', 'The Sect of the Idiot', 'Vasterien' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); 'Nethescurial', 'The Dreaming in Nortown', 'The Mystics of Muelenberg', 'In the Shadow of Another World', 'Miss Plarr' (Grimscribe); 'The Shadow, the Darkness' (Teatro Grottesco) The existence of a fourth dimension or 'other worlds and dimensions of existence' may be implied in other stories too.

·        Transformations- can take the form in Ligotti's fiction as characters who are tortured, possessed, disfigured or transfigured by evil entities, or transform physically in a supernatural sense of their own volition or caused by extraordinary events. This appears in stories such as My Work is Not Yet Done; 'Les Fleurs', 'Dream of a Manikin', 'The Nyctalops Trilogy', 'The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise', 'The Lost Art of Twilight', 'Masquerade of a Dead Sword', 'The Sect of the Idiot', 'The Greater Festival of Masks', 'The Music of the Moon' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); 'The Last Feast of Harlequin', 'The Spectacles in the Drawer', 'Flowers of the Abyss', 'The Dreaming in Nortown', 'In the Shadow of Another World', 'The Cocoons', 'The Glamour', 'The Shadow at the Bottom of the World' (Grimscribe), 'My Case for Retributive Action', 'In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land', 'Severini' and 'The Shadow, the Darkness' (Teatro Grottesco)

·        Evil entities/presences/demonic forces- these are in nearly all of Ligotti's stories, and so there are too many to list, there is no point. Sometimes these entities take shape and appear prominently. Sometimes Ligotti only suggests, implies or hints at their presence and their manipulation of events, and of both dreams and reality. Sometimes they manifest with shocking clarity within a story. Sometimes they may be a figment of a damaged or ill character's mind.

·        Carnival, masks, clowns, dolls, simulacra or shrunken versions of people, puppets and mannequins/manikins- very common features of Ligotti's work. Sinister 'miniature people' are central to the plot of 'The Small People' in The Spectral Link. The 'manikin hands' of My Work is Not Yet Done are another mention of this theme. More obvious examples are 'Dream of a Manikin', 'The Nyctalops Trilogy', 'The Greater Festival of Masks' (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); 'The Last Feast of Harlequin'; 'Nethescurial' (Grimscribe), 'The Clown Puppet' and 'Gas Station Carnivals' (Teatro Grottesco)

·        Witches and witchcraft- referred to obliquely in a majority of stories, but Ligotti has written two stories in particular where an evil witch and witchcraft feature, which I like: 'My Case for Retributive Action' in Teatro Grottesco; and 'The Glamour' in Grimscribe.

·        Mysterious, sinister doctors or doctors as vital characters: a long list, starting with Dr O. in 'Metaphysica Morum' (The Spectral Link); the narrator of 'The Small People', also in The Spectral Link, relates his monologue to an unseen doctor. Dr. David Munck is the central character of 'The Frolic'; Dr Thoss in 'The Troubles of Dr Thoss' (a Dr Raymond Thoss also appears in 'The Last Feast of Harlequin in Grimscribe); Dr Voke in 'Dr Voke and Mr Leech'; Dr Locrian and his descendant in 'Dr Locrian's Asylum' (all Songs of a Dead Dreamer); Dr N. in 'Nethescurial'; Dr Dublanc in 'The Cocoons' (Grimscribe); Dr Klatt and Dr Zirk in 'In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land'; Dr Groddeck in 'Teatro Grottesco'; Dr Fingers, a sideshow act in 'Gas Station Carnivals' (Teatro Grottesco)

·        Dreams/Nightmares: Dreams are doorways, providing contact with beings and entities outside reality/the waking world. Or ironically, dreams in Ligotti's fiction provide lucid exposition that reality fails to do. Ironically, reality is fog while sleep offers clarity. The role of The Dealer in 'Metaphysica Morum' (The Spectral Link) is an example of a plot working in this way. Dreams are obviously a central theme of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and 'The Dreaming of Nortown' in Grimscribe.

·        Evil clowns- if you suffer from fear of clowns (coulrophobia) then Ligotti is the writer for you (or perhaps not!) His fearsome clowns are the equal of anything in weird/horror fiction, perhaps even more sinister than Pennywise in Stephen King's It. See the short stories 'The Clown Puppet'; the Showman in 'Gas Station Carnivals' (Teatro Grottesco) and 'The Last Feast of Harlequin' (Grimscribe)