The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron
I need to begin this review of The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron (Infernal House, 2011) by clarifying my thoughts on the relationship between the work of Laird Barron and what we may properly call pulp fiction — the stories I used to read when young rather than the film bearing that name. I suppose this form of writing got started in the penny dreadful/dime novel style of the late Victorian era and then really took off as the reading opiate of the masses when cheap wood pulp paper became available for use on efficient printing presses. During their heyday in the 1920s and 30s, it was not unusual for each magazine issue to sell one-million copies. Once austerity kicked in because of WWII, the pulp magazine era was in decline and more seriously began to peter out some time in the 1950s. Of course pulp-style novels in volume persisted into the 1960s but, then, for better or worse, the era of modern publishing was upon us. I start with this brief history because pulp represents a vast legacy of ideas and writing talent. No matter what we may choose to think of the bulk of the output, some authors produced work that deserves to be remembered. Relevant to this particular book, we have H P Lovecraft and those who have sustained the Mythos over the generations, and the hard-boiled or noir approach to crime fiction.
Putting the supernatural to one side for a moment, the essence of pulp has always been the struggles of the laconic tough guy. Whether we’re dealing with a PI or just someone with an axe to grind, there’s usually a quest of some kind. Our hero is sent off to find the girl or recover lost property. On the way, he encounters various dangers which he survives with stoic resolution. When the dust has settled, there’s not always a “happy ending”. Our hero usually avoids being locked up for the mayhem and death that have attended his progress towards whatever grail he was seeking. Sometimes he buys his freedom by giving enough information to the police to arrest some of the criminals who deserve punishment. Whatever the outcome, there’s a rough kind of justice in operation which, perhaps surprisingly when the future of the human race is at stake, does not involve the hero getting the girl. Romance and procreation were never an element in those rather more cynical days. The upshot of this approach to plot creation is to give readers an introduction to a lifestyle which has danger built in. At every point, our hero is likely to find himself in a fight — if he’s unlucky, the first he knows is a blow to the head with a sap. As compared to the lives of ordinary citizens, nothing matches their normal expectations, e.g. the people he meets are somehow more exotic. Often they come with wealth oozing out of every pore, but that’s just a symptom of a malaise hanging over each family. There are always black sheep who leave the patriarchs helpless. These kin groups may think the money has bought them happiness, but that nearly always proves an illusion.
So in The Light is the Darkness, we have a young man who, from an early age, has been trained as a kind of modern day gladiator by an unusually rich man. His parents died in unusual circumstances. His mother committed suicide. His father died in a mental hospital. When we first encounter him, he’s trying to find his sister. She’s actually on a quest of her own and has gone missing. Her trail is confusing and, were it not for her habit of leaving him small caches of information to find, he would have given up the search a long time ago. Now he has new information, he’s more confident of making progress. All he needs is the money to fund his pursuit. This means another high stakes fight. Up to this point, this could all be a modern recreation of some standard pulp tropes. Substitute a boxer who’s worried about his missing sister and you have a hundred magazine stories to compare this with. Except, of course, that’s a fundamentally unfair thing to do. Most pulp is unreadable by modern standards. Laird Barron writes rather beautiful prose which delivers nicely complex puzzles for us to solve. In this novel, we want to know more clearly what his parents were doing, how and why his older brother died, what gives our hero his rather curious physical abilities, and why his sister is so obsessed by tracking down the doctor who treated their brother.
The answer to these and other questions means we cross over into supernatural territory. The world inhabited by our hero was never safe. It’s just he never quite realised how unsafe it was nor what the source of the danger actually would prove to be. All such noirish heroes can ever do is push ahead and hope for the best. When hope is wearing thin, he still keeps going because that’s what loyal brothers do when searching for their lost sisters. This answers when they come sidestep the more obvious Lovecraftian tropes but still retain a cosmic element. This proves to be a very elegant riff on an old theme but it’s so cunningly reconstructed, it comes across as pleasingly original. To paraphrase the old idiom, it never occurred to me revenge could be a dish taking quite so long to cool. Taken all together, this is Laird Barron at the top of his game with a delightfully constructed noir supernatural tale of a sometimes punchy hero struggling against the odds to find his lost sister.
I’ve also interviewed him here.