fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOccultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron

According to Webster’s, “occultation” means “the state of being hidden from view or lost to notice” or “the shutting off of the light of one celestial body by the intervention of another; esp: an eclipse of a star or planet by the moon.”  Both definitions seem appropriate to Laird Barron’s collection, Occultation and Other Stories, the latter as metaphor, because Barron can scare you as much with what remains hidden in his stories as with what he drags from the shadows and exposes to your horrified view. This second collection by this relatively new horror writer builds on the promise of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, and makes it clear why no “year’s best” gets issued these days without at least one piece by Barron in it.

“Strappado,” for instance, is one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and it haunts me even though it’s been a couple of years since I first read it in Ellen Datlow’s anthology, Poe. It’s the story of a couple of wealthy men, dissipated but still interested in new experiences of vice, art, and drink. After a passionate sexual interlude following a chance reunion in an Indian tourist town, they make their way to a disco off the beaten path. After drinking themselves almost into oblivion, they hear of a chance to see a Van Iblis exhibition. Van Iblis, it seems, is a guerilla artist, unwelcome in most countries “[b]ecause the shit he pulls off violates a few laws here and there. Unauthorized installations, libelous materials, health code violations. Explosions!” The excitement of seeing one of his exhibitions cannot be denied, and the men crowd into a rental van with a number of other thrill seekers for a long drive inland. The setting for the exhibition doesn’t seem too exciting:  prefabricated warehouse modules and storage sheds, a bulldozer and, ominously, plastic barrels of hydrochloric acid. The longer you read, the more you can feel the jungle starting to close in, and the more things start to feel off kilter; this just isn’t right. Very much not right, as things turn out, though I’m not going to tell you another word about it, except to say that I’ve begun to reconsider having red as my favorite color. If this story doesn’t give you nightmares, it’s only because you haven’t read it yet.

A few of the other stories make it clear that Barron is doing for the Pacific Northwest what H.P. Lovecraft did for New England (except that Barron is a better writer). There are Old Ones living in the forests, and they mean us no good. In “Mysterium Tremendum,” Willem finds a book entitled “Moderor de Caliginis” – “The Black Guide” – in a Seattle general goods store off the beaten track. It promises to contain directions to “secret attractions, hidden places, and persons ‘in the know’ regarding matters esoteric and arcane.” It seems just the thing for planning a camping trip he and his lover and another couple will be taking soon. One particular site catches his eye: a dolmen on Mystery Mountain.  Glenn, Willem’s partner, had told him that there were no megaliths or dolmen in Washington State, but the guide seems to differ. It sounds to him like an ideal place to explore.

The four head out in a sky-blue Land Rover for their trip, spending the first night in an old hotel in Olympia and heading onward to the Dungeness-Sequim Valley just in time for the Lavender Festival. A night of drinking in a local tavern turns into a hell of fistfight when some of the drunks decide they don’t like the gay foursome drinking in the same place they’re drinking. The four prevail rather bloodily and head for the wilderness – and now things start to get strange. The road they’re on is almost impossible to navigate, the sheer mountainside to their left and a cliff to the right. The first night of camping leaves the group with “horror-show dreams,” they all wake up aching from the fight, and it’s time to go hiking for the dolmen, which seems like a much spookier prospect now than it did when they were making plans.

They find it. It would have been better if they hadn’t.

Barron doesn’t use Lovecraft’s word “eldritch” once, and the goriest his story gets is in describing the fight, not in telling what happened at the dolmen. By no means, though, should you get the impression that this means he doesn’t write enough. He is a master at writing just the right amount of description for your mind to run away with images of places you’d really rather not visit. I, for one, don’t expect to ever encounter a dolmen in the woods of Washington State; Barron even writes in the story that there aren’t any there. I’d suggest that you not attempt to confirm this, because if a dolmen exists in Washington, it’s definitely home to things that don’t love you. Or maybe they love you too much? Either way, you don’t want to meet them.

“The Broadsword” is another story that helps build up the alternate reality of Washington State that Barron is creating. The wilderness there is vast and deep, something those who keep to Seattle don’t think about too much, and a man can get lost in those forests. That’s what happened to Terry Walker on a surveying trip; his partner, Pershing Dennard, never saw him again. Well, at least not until much later in his life, and under considerably different circumstances. See, he didn’t exactly get lost; he got taken. And now he has the opportunity to take Pershing along with him:

Pershing was taken through a hole in the sub-basement foundation into darkness so thick and sticky it flowed across his skin. …

An eternal purple-black night ruled the fleshy comb of an alien realm.  Gargantuan tendrils slithered in the dark, coiling and uncoiling, and the denizens of the underworld arrived in an interminable procession through vermiculate tubes and tunnels, and gathered, chuckling and sighing, in appreciation of his agonies. In the great and abiding darkness, a sea of dead white faces brightened and glimmered like porcelain masks at a grotesque ball. He couldn’t discern their forms, only the luminescent faces, their plastic, drooling joy.

Can you hear the Lovecraft?

Barron would like you to read “—30—“ only after dark, and preferably when you’re alone, but really, in order for this story to completely creep you out, none of that is necessary. A team of two naturalists, one male and one female, is studying an area in the hills is what seems to be Eastern Washington (yes, the wilds of Washington State again). There’s a coyote den that doesn’t seem to be quite right, and the insects aren’t behaving the way you’d expect them to, and wow, it’s really isolated where they are, and isn’t she starting to act rather strangely, now that he thinks about it? When he starts having dreams in which he “limp[s] across a plain that stretched beneath a wide, carnivorous sky,” the end doesn’t seem like it can be long in coming, but you’re only halfway there.

Occultation and Other Stories contains nine stories, three of which are original to this volume. There is a smart introduction by Michael Shea, the author of The Autopsy and Other Tales. The book is published by Night Shade Books, a small press that I much admire, and they’ve put together a nice product with a cover painted by Matthew Jaffe that is appropriately odd – his first published cover art.

As I’ve been writing this review, the fog has been creeping over the hills where I live. Already I can’t see past the house across the street into the canyon behind it. It’s almost as if Barron’s stories have crept out from between the covers of this book and started infecting my world, so I’m going to finish this up in a hurry by telling you that there isn’t a clunker in this whole bunch of stories, damn it, and they’re all scary as hell, double damn it, and if you’d like to know about the future of horror, you need to read this book. Just keep a tumbler of whiskey by your elbow to deaden the effect, though whether that will really work is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t seem to help Barron’s characters much.

Disclosure: I met Laird Barron at the World Fantasy Convention in October 2009, and had a burger with him and John Langan, another fairly new horror writer who is equally talented in a completely different way. I told Barron how much his stories scared me, and he looked very pleased – which is sort of macabre when you think about it, isn’t it? Isn’t it sort of sadistic to take delight in scaring people? Except that he’s a really nice guy. Anyway, I think this is why Barron named me in his acknowledgments at the front of this book, and I am honored. But if I felt that this would prevent me from being straight with you about my reaction to this book, I would not have reviewed it.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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