Occultation by Laird Barron
Words are strange and imprecise ways of conveying meaning, more often than not, being slippery friends. What you think you know and understand, may be subverted by cultural changes and shifts. What you hope is non-controversial suddenly appears to generate controversy. Life is not so bad for those who inhabit the mainstream of life. They can continuously assimilate novelty, matching it to what they know and modify their expectations as to how they should behave in future. As one on the fringes of retirement, I no longer swim with the flocks, but am now thrust out on to the periphery to observe from a distance. Perhaps, in epicurean terms, I have moved from gourmand to gourmet. Whereas I used to bolt down vast amounts of cultural content, I am now a slower eater who looks for savouriness and extra flavour to enhance the experience. This pickiness means I now miss more and learn less.
Occultation, a new collection from Laird Barron comes to me courtesy of Ellen Datlow — it’s always safer to have someone to blame at times like this. Three of the stories in this collection were picked by Datlow for inclusion in Lovecraft Unbound, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One and The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two. They were all interesting which stimulated the decision to buy this new collection from Night Shade Books. It contains nine stories, three original.
Writing horror fiction is fraught with difficulty. This may sound odd given that most of what is sold as “horror” is relatively unrealistic but, for the author, it’s all about striking a balance between the real and the unreal in a way that has some credibility. As readers, we will only suspend disbelief if there’s something we recognise as real in the narrative or the characters that inhabit it. The mistake so often made by writers in this genre is to believe the content is more important than the characters or that style can mask all shortcomings. This leads to a morass of badly conceived narratives, often written in a florid and melodramatic, if not cosmically hyperbolic, style. As an adjective, Lovercraftian is used by many in a pejorative sense of someone who uses language allusively to hint at or, worse, to describe the ineffable (the smart way of saying the unnameable and indescribable). Except, of course, even that is a con. There’s nothing one cannot describe if one wishes to. Even though language is inherently imprecise, we can approximate. There may be no word to precisely describe the colour, or as a simile to say exactly how the tentacles move. But being less than vague would spoil the game. The convention is not to describe something from “beyond” because that allows readers to use their own imaginations to fill in the blanks. Whether on the page or in the cinemas, our own worst fears are far more frightening than the slippery words on a page or the CGI images on a screen.
In much of this collection, Barron is flirting with Lovecraftianism and, on balance, emerges with great credit. His more modern sensibilities avoid some of the crass sensationalism of many who play in this sandbox, while preserving the spirit of the Lovecraft mythos. In this respect, the standout story is “Mysterium Tremendum”, one of the originals. This more than any of the other more “conventionally” otherworldly efforts, sets believable characters out on a journey, cleverly ratcheting up the tension as they follow the trail of breadcrumbs. More importantly, it demonstrates the old truism about jokes. It’s not necessary to be original, but success lies in the way you tell them. So, there’s literally nothing about the story that is original. Every single plot element, including the ending, have been done to death over the decades. But Barron remakes them all in the exuberance of his telling. For me, this is one of the best Lovercraftian stories I have read in years and, Datlow please note, deserves to be in the next “Best of” she puts together.
What a joy to come back to “The Lagerstätte”, taking the time to savour this powerful story about grief. Again, this is elevated from the norm by the strength of its characterisation. The notion that memory works in the same way as geology to trap a complete record of the past like fossils is one of the truly slippery. No matter how rich the sample of fossils one can excavate from a given piece of sedimentary deposit, it’s nothing more than a random snapshot of what happened to die in that place over an uncountable number of years. Similarly, just because you find one memory next to another does not mean they are truly connected. It could be just an accident both happen to be associated in your mind. So, when we think about people who have died, what is it we remember about them and why? Is everything always accurate? Or do our emotions distort perceptions and recollections? One of the more scientific approaches to the exploration of memory is through the idea of the engram. Animal experiments suggest memories may be distributed throughout the brain rather than located in any one part — a finding that would deny the practicality of an archaeological approach to psychological excavation. How or why we “know” what we remember is real rather than imagined or refashioned to suit our emotional needs has not be explained and, as this story suggests, probably will never be explained.
The other stories maintain interest and impress through the elegance of language. Except that “–30–”, for all its promise, somehow fails to define itself with sufficient precision to be truly satisfying. When you are writing in this genre, one of the givens is that, while you can hover over a number of possible tropes, letting the reader guess where you will finally alight, at some point you should signal with some precision what the story is actually about. This has two people isolated in a wilderness experiencing a kind of cafard in which their moods become increasingly focused on the possibility they are not alone. Yet, perhaps, we all want the security of being in the dark with those we have loved.
Overall, Occultation is genuinely impressive and deserves to be on the shelves of everyone who is interested in a new synthesis between classical Lovecraftian ideas and a slightly more literary (but no less visceral) modern sensibility. For a review of Laird Barron’s first novels, see The Croning and The Light is the Darkness. His third collection is The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.
Occultation was shortlisted for the 2010 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Collection.
I’ve also interviewed him here.