An interview with Laird Barron
This is a short interview with Laird Barron in celebration of the publication of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (Amazon) which has been delayed by the financial troubles of Night Shade Books and its subsequent acquisition by Skyhorse Publishing. Obviously with small armies of lawyers still talking about how to resolve all the contractual problems, the broader picture remains obscure. Suffice it to say, it’s good to see at least one book emerging from the mire. For those of you not familiar with his work, Laird Barron writes what may be classified as “cosmic horror”. Not following directly in the Lovecraft tradition, but on an adjacent path, he’s been very successful, winning Shirley Jackson Awards in 2007 and 2010 for the collections The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Occultation and Other Stories, and for his novella “Mysterium Tremendum”. He’s also been shortlisted for the Crawford Award, International Horror Guild Award, Locus Award, Sturgeon Award, and World Fantasy Award.
Being an old guy, I first met H. P. Lovecraft and the Mythos in the 1950s when stories like “The Dunwich Horror”, “Rats in the Wall” and “Shadow Over Innsmouth” were anthologised. I became a fan and discovered August Derleth and Arkham House. It’s been steadily downhill ever since. Can you remember your first exposure?
We had trunks full of books lying around the homestead. When we moved from the suburbs into the Alaskan wilderness, those books were among the few treasures from our old life that got packed onto the wooden riverboat. I don’t recall the specific story, but I encountered Lovecraft among moldering volumes of anthologized fiction. I was ten or so. A few years later, after reading Fritz Leiber and Michael Shea, I returned to Lovecraft with more intention. That’s when I came across stories such as “The Shadow out of Time” and “The Picture in the House.” The latter remains my favorite of Lovecraft’s, although it’s a close thing.
It’s one thing to enjoy reading an author or works in that universe, and another to start writing your own stories. What persuaded you to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)?
I’ve written stories of science fiction and fantasy since age five; wrote my first novel between ages nine and eleven or twelve, followed that with two more before I hit seventeen. All lost to time and misfortune. I didn’t turn to horror until my early thirties when I published “Shiva, Open Your Eye” with the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’ve always loved horror. I’ve always possessed a keen interest in the weird and the occult, and I’d spooked family and friends since childhood with sinister tales and anecdotes. Why it took so long for me to submit to dharma and accept that I was born to write horror is a mystery. It simply clicked and the rest is on the page. Lately it’s changing. I feel the floodgates are slipping. Time will tell.
S.T. Joshi invites us to see past the tentacles to find the philosophical and literary substance of Lovecraft’s work (excluding the racism, of course). As an author with some years track record writing in this universe, albeit not necessarily writing explicit Mythos stories, do you now find yourself expanding the substance of the Mythos and seeking to give it philosophical heft? For my own writing, I imagine myself talking to a reader. I try to listen to myself and judge whether I’m making any sense. When you write a Lovecraftian story, is your imaginary reader an existing fan of the Mythos or do you aim for a more general readership?
I’ve tipped my hat to Lovecraft on several occasions, but with the exception of “Hour of the Cyclops” have not written in the old gent’s universe. When I write cosmic horror, or so-called Lovecraftian horror, I go further than Joshi’s prescription. I attempt to look past Lovecraft completely and gaze upon the ineffable dread, the awesome and the numinous visions that inspired his own. His work did not materialize from a vacuum and it’s that provenance that compels me. Obviously, his personality molded what was to come, but I do have access to the canon as he did. It is the tradition of the weird that incites me to creation, and it’s a tradition that goes back to Poe, Shelley, and Bierce, back to the Bible and the Mahabharata, back to petroglyphs and monoliths.
My sights are square upon the uninitiated. I’m not interested in pastiche, nor tie-in novels, nor updating the Mythos. I want to sink into the primary source and, by osmosis, produce something that is reflective of what currently exists, yet entirely my own. Otherwise, I have failed miserably, ignominiously.
One of the features of your work is the strong sense of place. Do you think the realism of the setting helps to make the incredible events seem more credible?
Setting is integral to how I conceive of my work. I rank the particulars of location with characterization and plot. These are primary aspects, or layers, of any given story I create. The desire to make setting a character, if not an antagonist, is probably connected to living off the land in Alaska, and traveling through the wilderness with a team of dogs. Thousands of hours, tens of thousands of miles, with those dogs, a rifle, and a magnesium flint to make fire. In a recent story, one of my characters gazes upon an ancient prairie and remarks that it’s the kind of landscape to deform one’s mind in the fashion of a kid playing with a Slinky. All that vast, primordial space crushes in upon a man, and it leaves its fingerprints.
The other half of the equation is that I was weaned on classic horror, pulp and westerns. Blackwood and Machen possessed a marvelous sense of place as their most famous stories testify. Jack London and Robert E. Howard painted a hell of a canvas of the North and Hyperborea respectively. The core westerns were nothing without their badlands and deserts.
It’s pleasing to see you turn to “straight” crime. Do you have a publisher lined up?
No, as I’m still in the process of completing the manuscript. However, there’s been significant interest in the novel already. I’ll hand it off to my agent in due course and see what happens.
That’s something to look forward to! Many thanks for taking the time to talk with me.