This Horror Collection Will Remind You Why You’re Afraid of the Dark

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 6 2013 10:20 AM

Beyond Black

Laird Barron and the evolution of cosmic horror.

Illustration by Dalton Rose.

Illustration by Dalton Rose

Why not just admit it? You’re scared of the dark.

But even at your age, you’re far from alone.

It’s horror fiction’s oldest ally—all the more so to such madmen as write “cosmic horror,” a subgenre of weird fiction that resounds with humankind’s piddling insignificance in the greater scheme of the universe.   And although there are many moments in Laird Barron’s new story collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All where Barron gives readers a glimpse of the void that howls behind his genre’s ethos, one stands out in particular for both its bald statement of purpose and its playful reference to the genre’s history. In the story “More Dark,” a suicidal horror writer attends the reading of a colleague with a Salinger-esque pall of mystery about him. At the reading, Tom L’s assistant, a “vulpine” blonde, sidles up to the narrator, while Tom L himself puts the reading audience into a trance.

That Tom L and his entourage are actually creatures from another dimension bent on the subjugation of humankind won’t come as a surprise if you’ve read even one of Barron’s past books. “I can see that you’ve seen,” the woman whispers in the narrator’s ear. “Infinite dark, infinite cold, infinite sleep…All you have to do is let go… Don’t linger like HP and die of a tumor, last days spent wasting away on tins of cat food and the indifference of the universe. Don’t end it foaming and raving in a ditch as dear Edgar did. Who’d come to your grave with a flower and a glass of brandy every winter to mark your sad demise? You don’t rate, I’m afraid.”

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That “indifference of the universe,” hastened along by the appetites of creatures like Tom L and his assistant, is the essence of the “cosmic horror” genre. In “More Dark,” Barron cleverly recontextualizes it in the world of contemporary horror literature itself, complete with references to Readercon, World Horror Convention, and the two skinny weirdos who started it all. It’s an impish little metafiction that ends, with a wink, Barron’s wild new collection. There, there, it consoles, we’ll get eaten together. I am in it with you, too.

In its original conception, the cosmic horror genre is as primal and ungimmicky as our fear of the dark beyond cracked closet doors. It’s most often credited to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though traces of its operatic pessimism appear well before him, most notably in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, and Guy de Maupassant. Post-Lovecraft, the genre has undergone custom mutations in the work of Stephen King (The Tommyknockers and It), Dan Simmons, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and many others.

What finally emerges from cosmic horror’s miasmic evolution over the course of the 20th century is a literary concept that is equal parts genre and philosophy, cerebral and primordial. On the one hand, it entails deep contemplation of humanity’s non-optimal place in the pecking order of the universe; on the other, its greatest tool is nothing more complicated than our fear of what’s hidden—the dark of the closet, or The Dark of the stars.

And that’s the trick of cosmic horror. It’s horror without precedent, where anything can happen. In the ghost story mythos, whole centuries older, the spirit wants something—redemption, revenge—and the mortal players in the story must find out a way to provide it with this. The Ones Who Lurk in cosmic horror want only to dine on or squelch humankind; not if but when, and by what means, become the genre’s chief pleasures. The prognosis, at last, is a grim and a cold one. With just one of Us and so many of Them, the odds are stacked in no one’s favor.

Enter the Alaskan-born Laird Barron, author of two novels and two previous story collections, who is equally concerned with mucusy gross-out and cosmic doom as he is with language, formal experimentation, and, above all, character. Relentlessly readable, highly atmospheric, sharply and often arrestingly written—Barron’s prose style resembles, by turns, a high-flown Jim Thompson mixed with a pulp Barry Hannah—and situated in a dizzying assortment of precision-built worlds, Barron’s productions (30 pages on average) more nearly resemble novellas than tales. 

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