Monday, 18 March 2013

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

I asked for an advanced e-version of this book from Netgalley because I really liked the name and cover and also because it's about time I read some good horror stories. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is not only the first of Laird Barron's works I've read but also the first time I read a horror anthology. I haven't even read H.P. Lovecraft I'm afraid. So take this as a beginner's review, someone who didn't really have specific expectations or previous works in the genre to compare to. The book will be made available on April the 2nd.

This book collects nine stories and I'll start by talking a bit about each of them.

The first tale is Blackwood's Baby, a nice introduction into the theme and the author's apparent intent. We follow a hunter who gets invited to a special hunt, in a forest known to be haunted or else associated to some supernatural infernal being and those who cut deals with him. We are given all the campfire chills we would expect from such a typical setting, but at a pace and with such a surprising build up and development that puts it miles away from most of the plots we see in horror films. Barron even has space to explore some issues of social hierarchy but the two things that stand out in Blackwood's Baby are the main character, a complex and mysterious Luke Honey who really drives the story, and the ending which keeps nagging you at the back of your mind long after you've read it. I noticed that while at first, just after finishing the story, I was rather confused, probably because I am not used to this kind of theme and storytelling, after delving more into the book I came to like it much more. The fact that the author doesn't put all the evil in the supernatural beings and allows the humans to have the worst intentions and actions gave me hope that this would be something more than a bunch of scary stories. 

After all the weirdness of the first one, The Redfield Girls starts off as a very simple story. Some women who travel on vacations together, this time forced to take a new element, Bernice's niece who appeared without warning at her door the day before the trip. Of course they had to go to a a place with a lake which here represents the unknown and scary and also the place where Bernice's aunt died years ago. The characters are very believable and their actions seem genuine but the plot, apart from one or two good moments, is somewhat predictable and the spookiness didn't work as well as in other cases. I liked The Redfield Girls, mostly for the "girls" themselves and for the play the facts versus its interpretation and people's imagination of lack thereof, but it's far from the best story here.

Hand of Glory on the other hand is my favourite story of the collection and the only one I felt I'd keep on reading if there was more written on those characters and setting. Johnny Cope - the main character - is a hit-man who was attacked and sets out to investigate and get some good old revenge, something that turns out to be much more complicated that he thought. The whole investigation, the weird people he meets, the dark magic abounding and the overall uncertainty are really well played but the strong point is the development of the character and the insight into who he is, who he thinks he is or even who he wishes he could be. This becomes even better because at the same time he questions himself, his motives or purpose, he also feels he is surrounded by people of unknown or ever shifting allegiances and unreliable information. Laird Barron brings us a truly character driven story with a horror and suspense setting which works just right. Add up references to real people and history with a twist and some unique villains about whom we are never sure of anything and you know why Hand of Glory became one of best short stories I've read.

The next in line is The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven, where we follow an abused wife hiding from her former husband with her girlfriend in an old cabin in the woods. Everybody knows one shouldn't go to such a place if one is a character in a horror story, but if you think it's a bunch of film clichés, think again, the danger might not come from the forest or a haunted shack or whatever. Sometimes it's our own curiosity that dooms us as much as it saves us. This is an original tale based on a known myth of transformation into an animal. I wasn't really hooked by the plot or the characters but I liked the uncertain ending.

In The Siphon we return to what Laird Barron does best, a plot that gives the story a structure while allowing the reader to have some insights into the mind of the weird characters he creates. The main character is a psychopath but so are some others he meets in a tale where the greed of humans is paralleled with the hunger of some supernatural beings whose revelation, description and actions will make you squirm until the very end.

The Jaws of Saturn take us back to the setting of Hand of Glory, though even the very same Phil Wary manipulating and using people to his dark intent isn't enough to make it as interesting a story as the previous one. There is something more predictable and less scary about this plot and its main character. In spite of that, I liked the reference and the feeling I was slowly getting to know Phil, here portrayed as a dark magician in the open, all resistant to bullets, super strength and mind-control.

What to say about Vastation? I think the author had to try an array of psychoactive drugs in order to come up with this kind of storytelling. It's a surreal look into the mind and "life" of a godlike being, someone who is immortal, capable of time-travel and of all sorts of other superhuman things. In spite of all this lack of clarity, Vastation ends up being the best story at evoking a feeling of life (and death) as a circle and of how boring it all would become if one had to exist outside of it. Though it is true for all other, this was the story that most suffered from interrupted reading. If you can, read it all at once or at least during the same day. I believe the experience will end up much better than if you do otherwise.

The Men from Porlock is another very good horror tale that uses a forest to place the characters in a context where everything can happen, where the unknown is full of possibilities, where finding an isolated community who sacrifice people is both believable and terrifying. The name should tell most of the veteran readers that these men are as unwelcome interruption and by now one already knows what Laird allows his characters to do or suffer but it's the way things are revealed that makes this one of the best stories in the collection. And to think they only wanted to hunt for some food.

The last tale, More Dark, gives a weird ending to the book and was, unfortunately, the only one I didn't enjoy reading. This is due not only to the rather confusing text but also and mostly because it is a reference to real people, mostly horror authors I suppose, of whom I know nothing. This, added to the lack of explanation or insight into who the people in More Dark are made me feel uninterested and even bored at times, in spite of the looming darkness the author was still able to transmit. Some kind of metafiction in a genre I know little about couldn't work for me.

As a whole, this was a good collection, with a very good but versatile prose and a pervasive unsettling feeling - which probably comes from the fact that Laird Barron tends to describe the scariest moments and revelations as if the characters were in fact hallucinating. Connecting the stories is not only this hallucination but also that sensation that there is always something lurking in the shadows, on the corner of the character's eye (or is it on the corner of my eye?) that we never really grasp. The references to myth and culture and the characters or ideas that appear in more than one story add to the excitement and make the anthology work as a whole. The different ways the author explored death are still with me, making me think about ends, beginnings, transitions and even considering the possibility that most of the moments we see as endings, destructions or disappearances, are thought of as such because of our own lack of knowledge and self-confidence. Most of those moments end up as being little transitions into "more of the same". Might death be, in spite of all the awe and terror most cultures and religions associate with it, just another one of those, a way into something quite like the life we had until then?
As a final note, I must say that even though I'm not really into reading horror - by itself, as entertainment, I prefer epic fantasy or science fiction - Laird Barron convinced me with the main characters he creates, some of the best, most complex and fleshed out I've seen in short fiction. My favourite stories were Hand of Glory, The Siphon and The Men from Porlock, previously published in The Book of Cthulhu IIBlood and Other Cravings and The Book of Cthulhu, respectively.
If you like horror, read The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. If want to try it out and feel like you need some strong characters and thought-provoking stories to enjoy it, then Hand of Glory is definitely for you. If you don't like horror stories, undefined mythologies and unexplained mysteries, stay away from this. In my case, if I ever return to horror anthologies, I'll be sure to look for Laird Barron in the participant authors list.

The thing that awaits us all, according to Laird Barron, beautiful is not.

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