Beyond Black

Laird Barron and the evolution of cosmic horror.

Illustration by Dalton Rose.

Illustration by Dalton Rose

Why not just admit it? You’re scared of the dark.

But even at your age, you’re far from alone.

It’s horror fiction’s oldest ally—all the more so to such madmen as write “cosmic horror,” a subgenre of weird fiction that resounds with humankind’s piddling insignificance in the greater scheme of the universe.   And although there are many moments in Laird Barron’s new story collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All where Barron gives readers a glimpse of the void that howls behind his genre’s ethos, one stands out in particular for both its bald statement of purpose and its playful reference to the genre’s history. In the story “More Dark,” a suicidal horror writer attends the reading of a colleague with a Salinger-esque pall of mystery about him. At the reading, Tom L’s assistant, a “vulpine” blonde, sidles up to the narrator, while Tom L himself puts the reading audience into a trance.

That Tom L and his entourage are actually creatures from another dimension bent on the subjugation of humankind won’t come as a surprise if you’ve read even one of Barron’s past books. “I can see that you’ve seen,” the woman whispers in the narrator’s ear. “Infinite dark, infinite cold, infinite sleep…All you have to do is let go… Don’t linger like HP and die of a tumor, last days spent wasting away on tins of cat food and the indifference of the universe. Don’t end it foaming and raving in a ditch as dear Edgar did. Who’d come to your grave with a flower and a glass of brandy every winter to mark your sad demise? You don’t rate, I’m afraid.”

That “indifference of the universe,” hastened along by the appetites of creatures like Tom L and his assistant, is the essence of the “cosmic horror” genre. In “More Dark,” Barron cleverly recontextualizes it in the world of contemporary horror literature itself, complete with references to Readercon, World Horror Convention, and the two skinny weirdos who started it all. It’s an impish little metafiction that ends, with a wink, Barron’s wild new collection. There, there, it consoles, we’ll get eaten together. I am in it with you, too.

In its original conception, the cosmic horror genre is as primal and ungimmicky as our fear of the dark beyond cracked closet doors. It’s most often credited to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though traces of its operatic pessimism appear well before him, most notably in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, and Guy de Maupassant. Post-Lovecraft, the genre has undergone custom mutations in the work of Stephen King (The Tommyknockers and It), Dan Simmons, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and many others.

What finally emerges from cosmic horror’s miasmic evolution over the course of the 20th century is a literary concept that is equal parts genre and philosophy, cerebral and primordial. On the one hand, it entails deep contemplation of humanity’s non-optimal place in the pecking order of the universe; on the other, its greatest tool is nothing more complicated than our fear of what’s hidden—the dark of the closet, or The Dark of the stars.

And that’s the trick of cosmic horror. It’s horror without precedent, where anything can happen. In the ghost story mythos, whole centuries older, the spirit wants something—redemption, revenge—and the mortal players in the story must find out a way to provide it with this. The Ones Who Lurk in cosmic horror want only to dine on or squelch humankind; not if but when, and by what means, become the genre’s chief pleasures. The prognosis, at last, is a grim and a cold one. With just one of Us and so many of Them, the odds are stacked in no one’s favor.

Enter the Alaskan-born Laird Barron, author of two novels and two previous story collections, who is equally concerned with mucusy gross-out and cosmic doom as he is with language, formal experimentation, and, above all, character. Relentlessly readable, highly atmospheric, sharply and often arrestingly written—Barron’s prose style resembles, by turns, a high-flown Jim Thompson mixed with a pulp Barry Hannah—and situated in a dizzying assortment of precision-built worlds, Barron’s productions (30 pages on average) more nearly resemble novellas than tales. 

Take, for example, the new collection’s high-octane opener, “Blackwood’s Baby,” in which big-game hunter Luke Honey travels from a languishing outpost in Africa to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington to join up with a band of debauched imperialists and blue bloods hunting the “Baby” of the story’s title, aka “the black stag of the woods,” aka … you’ll have to read to find out what. But whatever the hunters are hunting out there is not, altogether, the point of the story, so much as the sad evolution of Honey, who suffers from nightmares unnamable here, and the historically pithy and sharp-tongued dynamic that Barron enacts among the hunters.

Author Laird Barron.
Author Laird Barron

Courtesy of Laird Barron

“Blackwood’s Baby” finds good company in two of the collection’s other standout historical narratives— “Hand of Glory,” in which a jive-talking 1920s thug-for-hire goes to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of a dark wizard. And then there’s “The Men from Porlock,” a flesh-ripper of a Western set in that same gap between the wars, in which Miller, a World War I veteran with stoic, invulnerable shades of Cormac McCarthy’s Kid from Blood Meridian, goes on another hunting expedition that takes him and his company through a half-abandoned town under the sway of unspeakable entities.  

But all of this does sound parodically macho. And the men in these stories drink, and swear, and smoke, and shoot off their guns with abandon, the steady accretion of which might wear thin were it not for the existence of a different kind of story in The Beautiful Thing that pointedly parts ways with these.

Both “The Redfield Girls” and “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” revolve vertiginously around a cast of all-female principals—in the former, “a close-knit sorority of veteran teachers from Redfield Memorial Middle School in Olympia” who rent a cabin on the edge of a lake that bears a spectral curse; and in the latter, Lorna and Miranda, two lesbian lovers on the lam from Lorna’s abusive husband, Bruce, who shack up on a similarly benighted property in the upper woods of Washington (Barron’s own Yoknapatawpha County). And where a lesbian relationship in the hands of a male horror writer might’ve devolved into hot-oil rubdowns, Barron explores Lorna and Miranda’s—yes, even their sexual relationship—with tenderness, and the mark of someone who wishes to write compassionately about all things. Not to mention the fact that, midway through, it turns into a werewolf story.

Both stories throw into sharp relief what is most remarkable about Barron’s innovation in the heretofore Lovecraft-dominated pool of “cosmic horror” fiction, much of which is by and about men. And, if it’s not overtly racist in the way Lovecraft’s work was—he describes the earthly lieges of bat-winged cephalopod Cthulhu as “low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant”—is unconcerned with race entirely.* But Barron’s work signals the arrival of something warmer and altogether more human in a genre that, by its very nature, locates itself outside the scope of human experience.

Barron tries on people’s skins in the same way his creatures don mortal disguises, and in that act he does the work of championing human difference. It turns out that he’s in the empathy business. He brings us dispatches not from the Beyond but juxtaposed with it, the here and the human.

In 2009’s “Strappado,” my favorite of Barron’s previous stories, a pair of estranged, mixed-race gay lovers meet up in India, where they fall afoul of the sadistic machinations of a sinister artists collective. In “The Broadsword,” septuagenarian bachelor Pershing Dennard is drawn inexorably into the web of hideous, extraterrestrial shape-shifters who take their gourmet in the form of we mortals.

The creatures start to feel like foils for how we behave at our worst toward each other—how when we see difference, it’s never just that, but proboscises, bat wings, squid arms, teeth. And being confronted with what we are not, we must face up to who we are—a spectrum of beings that’s almost as vast as the cosmos around us is teeming with terrors.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron. Night Shade Books.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.

*Correction, Sept. 6, 2013: This review initially misspelled the name of the dread Cthulhu, which has risen from its sunken city of R’lyeh and devoured the author in retaliation. The Slate Book Review humbly apologizes. (Return to the corrected sentence.)