On H.P Lovecraft's Heritage, the Genesis of Swift to Chase and the Importance of Not Judging your Characters, a Conversation with Laird Barron
Photo Credit: Henry Stampfel
Here is one last surprise for the end of horroctober. Laird Barron himself, one of the best genre authors working today, stopped by the site to have a chat with me. He was kind, patient and utterly fascinating in his answers. I'm a huge fan of his work, so take a moment to read my reviews of his books if you've enjoyed this interview. Mr. Barron truly is one of my favorite writers working today.
Ben: Thank you for taking the time to chat, sir! So, I've dedicated this month to cosmic horror and weird fiction. These genres are VERY indebted to H.P Lovecraft and his influence can still be felt in many stories/movies today still. Not so much in your work, your vision is original and well-defined and therefore quite successful with readers. Were you introduced to cosmic horror through Lovecraft? If so, what was the process in distancing your writing from such a domineering influence on the genre?
Laird: Good to speak with you, Ben. My mother’s fascination with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is the foundation of my own interest in cosmic horror. That pre-Christian God is a many-formed brute who exists beyond time and space. Indeed, He created time and space for the sake of mortal fleas. He is the beginning and the end, He is the wellspring of all that exists, He is the face of good and evil, and He demands sacrifice of blood and flesh. He destroyed the world once and might again if not for the intercession of his only begotten son. Suffice to say, Mom’s depiction of God via selective readings around the old hearth, tripped me out.
Later, I discovered Michael Shea. Michael’s Lovecraftian work caused me to circle back to the old man himself. I’d previously encountered Lovecraft, but sort of bounced off him. Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny…even Jorge Luis Borges (whom I became infatuated with in my mid-twenties) referenced Lovecraft and gave me different lenses to view his writing. These guys also demonstrated there are plenty of different angles to approaching cosmic horror. Writers in dialogue with everyone who has come before them. I don’t resist Lovecraft—I embrace his literary influence. I also embrace a spectrum of authors from Borges to Martin Cruz Smith. The trick isn’t to distance one’s art from one’s influences; the trick is to incorporate these influences and create an alloy that is unique.
Ben: I always saw your writing as being on the margins of the Lovecraftian tradition and judging from your influences it's now clearer to me how it became to rich and dynamic. What do you think of Lovecraft's domineering influence on contemporary horror? I don't know any writers who have such a strong following, conferences and festivals are organized to celebrate his memory yearly. Do you think it's a good thing? How does it affect contemporary horror and weird in your opinion?
Laird: That aforementioned alloy is stronger and more dynamic as a result of multiple influences. The best riffs on Lovecraft tend to be the ones that strike off into undiscovered country.
I sense the industry has reached a saturation point with Lovecraft-themed anthologies. Many authors are experimenting with the genre and a few have discovered that cosmic horror is broader and deeper than we might assume. These authors are abandoning pastiche and mimetic exercises; they’re experimenting with form and substance.
Some of the bigger publishers are enticing authors with little overt connection to Lovecraft to write novellas that subvert the old Mythos standbys. It will be interesting to observe whether the fascination with Mythos-derivative horror persists, it rises and falls in cycles of popularity a la zombie and vampire fiction, or if it recedes to the general obscurity it enjoyed prior to the Aughts.
As to whether this obsession with all things Lovecraft is desirable…Good, bad, HPL is the guy with the gun.
Ben: You've built an entire Mythos from scratch in your latest book Swift to Chase using the short story format, which is something you are known and appreciated for. People stampede over whenever you have a new short story out. I've never read a short story collection using the form like Swift to Chase before, though. What was it that lead you to choose short stories to build this mythos? What do you like in particular about this narrative format.
Laird: Stephen King made an impression on me all those years ago when he described short stories as “like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” It’s a testament to King’s influence that even when I disagree with his assessments, it’s grist. Short fiction can be more than a trivial amusement, or short, sharp shock, or a quick kiss in the dark. Short fiction can and often does aspire to true greatness. Ambition is permitted. Short fiction opens a keyhole into the universe. If you’re lucky, short stories dilate and become discrete universes.
I wrote a novel called The Croning and that played with a mosaic format—the narrative was fractured into a handful of long chapters. Essentially, self-contained stories that fed into an overarching narrative. Swift to Chase follows a similar gambit. I’ve always tied my collections together thematically; each disparate piece may appear in some far-flung magazine or anthology, but there’s always a calculation regarding how these pieces will slot into a future collection.
This time I took the process a step further—it wasn’t enough for the twelve stories to align thematically or to feature recurring characters. I went for more of a coherent narrative structure; a unifying effect. This allowed more explicit compartmentalization than would feel comfortable in a novel. The result is that Swift to Chase operates as a collection, a mosaic novel, and a single author anthology, depending how you approach it.
Ben: Termination Dust, which is a key story in Swift to Chase, was originally published in 2013 in Tales of Jack the Ripper. Was the collection born from that story? This is something I noticed you often do: take a realistic occurrence (in this case a serial killer) and extrapolate it into unknown, often supernatural territory. What was the creative process of going from Termination Dust to Swift to Chase? What lead you to see more than just a (great) supernatural killer story to it?
Laird: Basically, yes. Termination Dust is the genesis of the collection. My earlier collections form a cosmic horror trilogy; hardboiled and Lovecraftian. I decided to theme the next cycle around Alaska. It is my good fortune to be invited to many anthologies; those anthologies are often themed. I usually come at the theme (and it’s often a cosmic horror or Lovecraftian anthology) from an oblique angle. That was the case with Termination Dust. TD needed to fulfill the anthology guidelines and also fit into the gestating Alaska collection. The story investigates the idea of persistent, possibly viral evil. It also features a large ensemble cast—and this big cast generated a few questions that lingered after I’d moved on to other works.
One character, a secondary figure, took on a life of her own—professional final girl, Jessica Mace. During the course of Termination Dust we get hints and glimpses regarding Mace’s ultimate fate. However, my literary continuum spans at least two parallel universes (three, counting a fantasy realm), and this leaves decades of her life (lives) ripe for development. I wanted to know more about her further adventures. I wanted to know more about her early years. I wanted to know more about her enemies, such as Julie Vellum. This led to development of even more characters—Steely J, Zane Tooms, Mr. Speck, Lucius Lochinvar, et cetera. Swift to Chase goes off on a tangent or two. However, if you follow the spine in order from beginning to end, you’ll meet Jessica Mace’s parents, and an earlier generation of relatives, friends and enemies, and realize this cozy little Alaska-centric universe is vaster and colder than you might have imagined.
Ben: Your short stories always veered in and out of Alaska and in Swift to Chase you dedicate yourself to it. I know you lived in that State for a long time, but personally I can't write about Montreal to save my life. What is it about your home State that fascinates you?
Laird: I was born in Alaska and lived there for about a quarter century. Some of that time was spent in the woods and another thirty-to forty thousand miles on the runners of a dog sled. Those experiences informed my writing prior to the current collection, but the subject rarely emerged in full form. I knew it had to happen, sooner or later. However, the prospect of physically confronting old, evil ghosts has required me to steel myself. After wrapping The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All I took a deep breath and plunged into the Alaska stories.
I’ve said enough about Alaska in the past, so I’ll keep it simple. Alaska is a scar that has never really healed. It’s part of me. I didn’t ask for it, but now I’m ready to engage.
Ben: I've read The Imago Sequence for horroctober and I find the way you've embedded social commentary in your stories interesting. It usually is a pet peeve of mine when the author's desire to convince me of something I already accept (i.e. rapists are evil or it's OK to be different), but the way you do it, it works. For example, in Procession of the Black Sloth, you could blink and miss the part where it is told that Brendan Coyne is homosexual and yet it casts an entire new light on the story. Same in Parallax where the stereotypical trope of the missing daughter becomes a missing wife, which comes with a world of doubts and accusations. It is really subtle and yet engages the reader's moral compass. What do you think is the responsibility of authors to engage social issues? Do you consciously try to tackle an issue per story? Where do you draw the line?
Laird: The surest way to hell is to pass judgment on your characters. I don’t know everything about them, nor do I presume to. Rather, I’m afforded a brief window into their lives and from that glimpse I tell the best story I am able.
The main responsibility of an author is to write with honesty. As a matter of course, I don’t consciously tackle social issues in my fiction; I observe faithfully and report with poetic license. All manner of good and evil derives from that process.
Ben: Your writing would be best qualified as horror, but it mixes elements of different genres, mostly hardboiled mysteries and mid-century pulp fiction. What is it that your like about writing horror? Is there a special satisfaction that comes with writing the genre? Also, what is it you like about writing hardboiled protagonists? Everybody seems to enjoy them, yet cannot put their finger on to why. I imagine you do have a why, so I'm curious!
Laird: A little bit nature, a whole lot of nurture. I had a fucked-up childhood that carried over into a slightly less fucked-up young adulthood. It’s not so much that I’ve always gravitated toward horror, but more that I’m good at it. Writers speak of catharsis; I seldom experience release in any meaningful sense. Treading water, perhaps. Dog paddling against a current. When I studied martial arts, our instructor drilled us on the concept of channeling overwhelming fear of an unexpected physical confrontation into positive action. Run or fight, just don’t freeze. My relationship with horror is analogous to that—it’s a struggle to avoid dwelling on old wounds and a struggle to avoid paralyzing fear about the world we inhabit and where it’s going. Best to put these fears to use in service of art.
Many of my characters fulfili hardboiled or noir archetypes. Although, I’ve come to realize that once you’re viewed as operating with certain parameters, the label/perception sticks. I’ve written plenty of non-Lovecraftian stories and plenty of stories that don’t feature explicitly Lovecraftian or hardboiled characters, but reviewers don’t always make the distinction. I think part of the disconnect is a matter of life experience—I’ve known lots of people who carry guns and knives, hunt frequently, and will punch you in the mouth at the drop of a hat. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify them as “tough” or hardboiled in the context of their environment. That simply qualified them as Alaskans. I tend to write about people on the noir end of the spectrum because maladjusted characters are more interesting to me than Mr. and Mrs. Everyman.
Ben: That is a good point, especially in Swift to Chase. Are there other aspects of your work you feel are misinterpreted by audiences and critics alike?
Laird: On the whole, it has been a great ride. Readers constantly unearth small details that connect my stories and honor me by re-reading them to look for further clues/nuances. I do chuckle when critics complain about drinking in my stories. I’ve lived with and around hard drinkers and full-blown alcoholics. Yes, Virginia, people really do know how to put away booze. If anything, when writing about damaged, noir-ish characters, I tend to downplay the reality. Reality is too damned far a stretch for many.
That said, these things come with the territory. We bring our own baggage along for the ride and we interpret art through the prism of our own unique experiences. I don’t write in order to reach everyone; I write in order to reach those I can.
Ben: Cosmic horror traditionally deals with religion or science as a gateway to forbidden knowledge. I noticed that in some of your stories you use art. Noticeably photography in The Imago Sequence and cinema in Swift to Chase. What lead you to this artistic decision? Did you have any transcendent experiences with art? I know I had a couple.
Laird: This circles back, in part, to my non-judgmental philosophy toward most characters. Horror in the US is hidebound and derives from the Judeo-Christian axis. A writer has a choice—drift with the tide, or kick against it. Religion, specifically, my youthful indoctrination into Christian fundamentalism, was my gateway.
I deprogrammed myself over the years and became involved in the underground art scene in Seattle. Observing the process of painters and sculptors (and to some degree, musicians) informs my own more than anything I’ve gleaned from authors. Jackson Pollock’s abstract art, especially his drip paintings, staggered me. A couple were on display at the Seattle Museum during the mid- ‘90s and I’ve not forgotten the strange connection I made with them. I have zero talent as a painter, but the concept of abstract or freeform expression continues to inform my own artistic choices.
Ben: Thank you for doing this! Really appreciate you taking the time. Anyone you want to thank or anything you want to plug?
Laird: Thanks for the conversation, Ben; and thank you to my readers. It can be difficult to keep up with the volume of exemplary weird and horror fiction coming down the pike these days. I highly recommend a handful of titles: After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones; Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay; The Fisherman by John Langan; Cassilda's Song, edited by Joseph Pulver; The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett; Furnace by Livia Llewellyn; and Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie.
There is so much more out there this year, but start with these. You can’t miss.