Take, for example, the new collection’s high-octane opener, “Blackwood’s Baby,” in which big-game hunter Luke Honey travels from a languishing outpost in Africa to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington to join up with a band of debauched imperialists and blue bloods hunting the “Baby” of the story’s title, aka “the black stag of the woods,” aka ... you’ll have to read to find out what. But whatever the hunters are hunting out there is not, altogether, the point of the story, so much as the sad evolution of Honey, who suffers from nightmares unnamable here, and the historically pithy and sharp-tongued dynamic that Barron enacts among the hunters.
“Blackwood’s Baby” finds good company in two of the collection’s other standout historical narratives— “Hand of Glory,” in which a jive-talking 1920s thug-for-hire goes to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of a dark wizard. And then there’s “The Men from Porlock,” a flesh-ripper of a Western set in that same gap between the wars, in which Miller, a World War I veteran with stoic, invulnerable shades of Cormac McCarthy’s Kid from Blood Meridian, goes on another hunting expedition that takes him and his company through a half-abandoned town under the sway of unspeakable entities.
But all of this does sound parodically macho. And the men in these stories drink, and swear, and smoke, and shoot off their guns with abandon, the steady accretion of which might wear thin were it not for the existence of a different kind of story in The Beautiful Thing that pointedly parts ways with these.
Both “The Redfield Girls” and “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” revolve vertiginously around a cast of all-female principals—in the former, “a close-knit sorority of veteran teachers from Redfield Memorial Middle School in Olympia” who rent a cabin on the edge of a lake that bears a spectral curse; and in the latter, Lorna and Miranda, two lesbian lovers on the lam from Lorna’s abusive husband, Bruce, who shack up on a similarly benighted property in the upper woods of Washington (Barron’s own Yoknapatawpha County). And where a lesbian relationship in the hands of a male horror writer might’ve devolved into hot-oil rubdowns, Barron explores Lorna and Miranda’s—yes, even their sexual relationship—with tenderness, and the mark of someone who wishes to write compassionately about all things. Not to mention the fact that, midway through, it turns into a werewolf story.
Both stories throw into sharp relief what is most remarkable about Barron’s innovation in the heretofore Lovecraft-dominated pool of “cosmic horror” fiction, much of which is by and about men. And, if it’s not overtly racist in the way Lovecraft’s work was—he describes the earthly lieges of bat-winged cephalopod Cthulhu as “low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant”—is unconcerned with race entirely.* But Barron’s work signals the arrival of something warmer and altogether more human in a genre that, by its very nature, locates itself outside the scope of human experience.
Barron tries on people’s skins in the same way his creatures don mortal disguises, and in that act he does the work of championing human difference. It turns out that he’s in the empathy business. He brings us dispatches not from the Beyond but juxtaposed with it, the here and the human.
In 2009’s “Strappado,” my favorite of Barron’s previous stories, a pair of estranged, mixed-race gay lovers meet up in India, where they fall afoul of the sadistic machinations of a sinister artists collective. In “The Broadsword,” septuagenarian bachelor Pershing Dennard is drawn inexorably into the web of hideous, extraterrestrial shape-shifters who take their gourmet in the form of we mortals.
The creatures start to feel like foils for how we behave at our worst toward each other—how when we see difference, it’s never just that, but proboscises, bat wings, squid arms, teeth. And being confronted with what we are not, we must face up to who we are—a spectrum of beings that’s almost as vast as the cosmos around us is teeming with terrors.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron. Night Shade Books.
*Correction, Sept. 6, 2013: This review initially misspelled the name of the dread Cthulhu, which has risen from its sunken city of R'lyeh and devoured the author in retaliation. The Slate Book Review humbly apologizes. (Return to the corrected sentence.)