Book Review : Laird Barron - The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007)
If Stephen King is the Hulk Hogan of horror fiction, the household name who fills stadiums and sells pay-per-view broadcasts, Laird Barron is more akin to Ric Flair. When you REALLY get into horror, he's the guy you're turning to for entertainment. I wouldn't even dare to close horroctober without reviewing something of his because he probably is the most talented genre writer working today AND I'm just...looking for excuses to read his work, really. So, given that I've previously reviewed his last three releases, I went into my time machine for you, beautiful people (and a little for me, too) and picked up The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, Barron's debut short story collection and came to a shocking realization: the guy was always THIS freakin' good.
The reason why Laird Barron's stories are so consistently great is somewhat clearer in The Imago Sequence because his writing here is slightly more methodical. Not exactly surprising since it's a debut collection and everything, but it doesn't mean the stories are less enjoyable. For example, the characters featured are always independent from their narrative. They always have a profession or interest which had a robust layer of exposition and creative direction to Barron's stories. There is a soldier, a spy, a freakin' Pinkerton (how cool is that?), artists, etc. Laird Barron's protagonists aren't willingly pursuing the occult. It is something that blindsides them. So, it establishes a playful relationship with the audience: readers KNOW a terrifying confrontation is coming, they just don't know WHEN and FROM WHERE. Barron's storytelling technique might be a bit more apparent in The Imago Sequence, yet it is as ruthlessly efficient as ever.
The protagonists of Laird Barron's stories not willingly pursuing the occult and being confronted by the limits of human knowledge rather than confronting it themselves is a key theme in The Imago Sequence. Captain Garland, in Old Virginia, thinks he's being hounded by communists until the catastrophic truth is being presented to him. Hawthorne, in Procession of the Black Sloth, is aware of warning signals around him yet interprets them erroneously. The stories of Laird Barron are fatalistic without being melodramatic the way H.P Lovecraft himself sometimes is. His characters are on collision course with the Greater Unknown through their actions yet remain unaware of it until it's too late, like the tragedian heroes of ancient Greece. The dark secrets of the universe are something you are subjected to in The Imago Sequence. It is an unavoidable fate rather than ambitions gone wrong. Neither the audience or the protagonist have control over it.
The title story in The Imago Sequence is about art. Photography, to be precise. This is interesting because art is a recurrent theme in Laird Barron's work, which is also present in his latest (and probably best) collection Swift to Chase. Art, in Barron's fiction, creates objects of worship which are themselves a gateway to the Greater Unknown. I like the idea to put both science and art in the same basket, because it echoes conservative fears, which are always key to create great horror. Whether the writer believes it or not (in this case, I don't believe Laird Barron is conservative. He's been outspoken enough about Donald Trump's presidential campaign on social media), in horror stories the people doing new things and thinking outside the established boundaries are always asking for trouble. The protagonist of another personal favorite in the collection Parallax is also an artist, by the way. I love that Laird Barron thinks about cosmic horror outside of the religion/science paradigm. It feels fresh and dangerous.
There you have it. I loved The Imago Sequence as much as I loved anything from Laird Barron really. The narrative strings are a little bit more apparent in this collection, but it doesn't matter. It didn't affect my enjoyment at all. In fact, it might've enhanced it because it gave me a better understanding of Barron's masterful narrative technique. Standout stories to me were Old Virginia, Procession of the Black Sloth, Bulldozer, Parallax and The Imago Sequence, but stories here range from very good to knee-slappingly great. I'm probably not breaking the news to you but: Laird Barron's always been great. His narrative technique just became more nuanced and graceful with time. Whether you're into horror stories or not, Barron is just a flat out great storyteller and his stories are, I believe, universally enjoyable for as long as you don't scare easy.
Stay gold, Laird Barron. Stay gold.
The world needs storytellers like you.