Between meals, I'd rustled about in my electronic rucksack for a story or three to read. (The device is already jammed with so many acquisitions that I could open my own lending library. Upside: no dust on these, so less sneezing while looking.) And I returned to one of the annual Best Horror collections that I am always so hopeful about as I crack the cover and so unsatisfied by as I toss the text over in the pile, maybe half-read.
Horror's an odd genre. As a longtime fan, I'm always hoping for that delicious sense of holyshit, or at least an occasional sped-up heart rate or the tickle of a dread from something glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. I ate this stuff up as a kid, and I still get a nostalgic knot in my stomach when I recall my post-fourth grade summer of Salem's Lot
, where I spent many nights sweating under the covers, anxious that I not make eye contact with the vampire kid at my window. I lost five pounds, I think. Or maybe that night I rushed through The Exorcist
while home alone, hoping my grandparents wouldn't return 'til I was done, and hoping my grandparents would hurry the fuck home, so I could calm down. I don't want here to rehash previous, tedious thoughts
on why horror mattered to me (although I think most explanations are far too pat and comforting). I simply want you to know how deeply stories of shock and dread embedded themselves in me, made me a reader in many ways. I long for a return, but here's the odd part: I haven't outgrown the need but so much of what appeased me then (what seemed like a meal) now comes off too often as thin gruel, cheap hamburger, or overcooked. Between the well-received pulp
which bores me a bit and the well-received great stuff
which bores me a lot, there's little nutrition. Every now and again, a Let the Right One In
, or some time in The Ruins
, or a writer like David Nickle, or... a Laird Barron.
Barron could easily go the over-sauced route, as he's deeply influenced by H.P. Lovecraft--whose work is profoundly silly, and yet still occasionally works. Barron prefers the constant shadows out of the corner of the eye, with an occasional strobe of Something Horrific flashing center-stage. He writes in a way that will, sure, pour it on, but he's also got a wicked sense of humor that'll bite through the florid passages. I was blown away by his story "The Broadsword," and so I grabbed this novel--and wow, what fun. Where Barron is most successful is in structuring--scenes, sentences, and particularly the arc of the novel--in such a way that the Horrific scratches in the walls, a sound to the sides of what's happening at center--he's a wizard of Dread. And this appreciation for the oblique keeps the thing(s) out of sight--turning the silly into sublime, in the classic sense.
For instance, the opening section is a rewrite of Rumplestiltskin--told with a contemporary snarky wit, a disinterest in overselling or expositioning the revision to death, and a little bit of narrative magic that becomes ever more startling (and Barron's sneakiness ever more impressive) as the novel moves into its final act.
Silly, right? Who's fucking scared of Rumplestiltskin? Ah, that's the joy of the genre -- when it works, it finds an uncanny dread and otherness everywhere, right under our noses, in our bedtime stories.
I'd have to admit that there are moments where prose is too purpled, metaphors thud to the floor, the meal gets a bit gamy. But it's a helluva first novel, and for a horror fan, it's a find.