Book Review : Laird Barron - Occultation and Other Stories (2010)
If I'd review every short story collection submitted to Dead End Follies, I could go an entire years without featuring a novel on the site. That's how many I get. They're quicker to write and relatively easy to put together in this day and age. So, what would make me go out of my way, buy a short story collection to feature on the site? Or rather who? Laird Barron. The best horror author working today, * from who I believe I've never anything over a hundred pages long. The man is a grandmaster at inspiring terror with a few words and I would've have let a month of October pass without reviewing a collection from his. So, today I'll be discussing Occultation and Other Stories, the successor to his debut collection The Imago Sequence.
The stories in Occultation have a slightly different tone than what Laird Barron got me used to. They're slower, more cerebral (what I don't dislike) and, slightly closer to being conventionally Lovecraftian. There a physically or mentally alienated protagonists, sprawling estates lost in the wilderness, dark secrets buried in the heart of nature, etc. These themes aren't unfamiliar to Barron, but there's a definite emphasis on them here. Occultation and Other Stories is a great introduction to whoever is trying to bridge the gap between Lovecraft and other voices in cosmic horror. It's a collection about the predatory relationship between men and nature, the invisible and the visible, the infinitely big and the infinitely small. Occultation is also a great tool to understand cosmic horror, as we're about to see.
My favorite story in Occulation was the cold and gloomy The Lagerstätte, where a grieving woman's attempt to reunite with her husband and son triggers something she can't control or even understand. It's perhaps the most typical Laird Barron story in the collection and the least connected to the others from a thematic standpoint. The Lagerstätte is about the explainable and the inexplicable. The boundaries of human knowledge in a domestic, intimate setting. What makes it powerful is that what happens to protagonist Danni could happen to anyone of us. This is something Barron has always been great at. Taking cosmic horror from the hands of alienated and misanthropic intellectual protagonists and putting it in context for the every man. The Lagerstätte is perhaps one of the ten best stories I've read from him and I've read many.
Other stories I really liked from Occultation were the loosely related The Forest and --30--, which deconstructed conventional cosmic horror somewhat. In the Lovecraftian sense of the word, cosmic horror is about accessing a greater understanding. A greedy quest for absolute knowledge if you will. This has never really been Laird Barron's thing, but what makes these two stories special is that it offers a considerably scarier alternative: casting doubt on everything you think you know. While classic Lovecraftian narratives are about accessing secret, forbidden knowledge, The Forest and --30-- are about everything you think you know being wrong. That is fucking terrifying to me. It's one thing to make you afraid of the cold and desolated cosmic void, but you'll never look at an ant the same way after reading The Forest.
I still have so many things to say about Occultation and Other Stories, but I have to stop myself before getting embarrassingly nerdy about it. Other stories I deeply enjoyed in the collection are: The Broadsword, Mysterium Tremendum and the closer Six Six Six, three stories with clever and nuanced religious undertones. Occultation and Other Stories is another amazing short story collection by Laird Barron. It perhaps wasn't as elating as his latest collection Swift to Chase, but it was published six years before and Barron ages like fine wine. He gets better and better with every book. Read Occultation and Other Stories for Halloween and get creeped out. Then pre-order his upcoming novel Blood Standard and be one of the cool kids once it comes out in 2018.
* It's like, my opinion man. Fans of Stephen King, get off your high horses.