Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Laird Barron clearly knows how to unsettle his readers. If there was a universal theme of the various stories in this book, it would be that every single story was unsettling, albeit in different ways.
Mr. Barron evokes memories of reading Caitlín R. Kiernan, HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and even Algernon Blackwood in his tales in this volume. He finds the fearsome in such diverse subjects as the entities from beyond, the power of guilt, the overwhelming and uncomprehensible enormity of the natural world, and lets not forget, the darkness of the human heart. He even has shades of black magic and the diabolical in his stories. I would hesitate to compare him to the comparatively gentle horror stylings of M.R. James, other than the subtle nod to MR James in the antiquarian/bookish leanings of some of his characters. He's a bit more overt in his horror methodology than Mr. James. For all that, he never steps over the line into 'gruesome' and 'debauched.' Indeed, there are moments when sex and violence intertwine closely until they are hard to separate. Fortunately, this is done adeptly and with a subtlety that one such as I (who is admittedly quite squeamish of the combination of the two) didn't feel that she'd stepped into a no-woman's land where she felt she could no longer keep her feet traversing on the path into the dark world of horror that he creates in his stories.
This is a volume best not attempted at night. Even in the cloudless, startlingly bright, azure-skied and sun-washed landscape in which I read, I still felt those stirrings of unease that a good horror work should birth in its reader. This book is equally successful as weird fiction. I had that feeling that I didn't quite get what was going on--that there were questions unanswered, and the 'fearful unknown' was hinted at, and maybe I didn't want to go through that door that Barron leaves barely cracked.
Occultation and Other Stories exists in that gray area between modern-styled horror and the old-fashioned gothic horror that I prefer. And this was successful. I was not alienated in that I found the subject matter too extreme, too shocking, too overtly unpalatable for my tastes. Instead, this caused that shuddery feeling that I can appreciate, although some of the stories made me feel like I needed a sponge bath to remove the miasma of the dark, unfriendly organic, and somewhat visceral arena I had ventured into. But that is horror, my friends. Admittedly, I prefer my horror with an emphasis on the atmosphere, the shivers, and less on the repellent. But horror does have to take us out of our comfort zones, to make us feel unsafe, and Mr. Barron knows how to do that.
Recommended to readers who want to go to that dark, uncertain place for a few hours.
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