I don’t think anyone was ever really worried that Laird Barron would suffer the so-called “sophomore curse.” With his new collection, “Occultation,” Barron lays any concerns to rest and further establishes himself as one of the best authors of the modern weird tale.
I’ve been looking forward to this book since I finished his first collection, “The Imago Sequence.” “Occultation” features more tales of forgotten cults and mystical intelligences, but Barron explores plenty of new, frightening ground. There’s a theme running throughout some of the stories that explore the potentially cataclysmic divide between humankind’s roots in nature and its dependence on order, whether in the form of a guide book or a high-tech dome-lab.
My favourite horror stories/weird tales are the ones in which seemingly normal occurrences are tweaked, twisted, or pushed aside to reveal the darkness beneath. It’s a concept that many authors have explored, but few have done it with the skill and creativity of Laird Barron.
The first story in the book, “The Forest,” provided me with an image I still have been unable to shake from my mind:
three satellite dishes pointed not at the sky but at the ground. Why are they pointed at the ground? Let’s just say there are other intelligences out there, and not all of them are from beyond the stars.
In the title story, a man and woman engage in some post-coital conversation that starts off innocent enough (sort of), but quickly turns ominous when they realize they might not be alone in their hotel room.
In “The Lagerstätte,” Barron manages to create what may be his most powerful protagonist in a young woman who tries to cope with the loss of her husband and son in a plane crash. Her feelings of guilt and loneliness are so effectively drawn that I actually found this one hard to read at times.
“Mysterium Tremendum” tells the story of four men who embark on a terrifying camping trip with the help of an arcane guidebook. I love scary stories set in the woods, and this one is definitely in my top five of all time.
Barron’s ability to couple humanity’s atavistic fear of nature with its reliance on technology may be best expressed in “–30–“. A disturbing tale about a man and a woman, former lovers, working together in a dome-shaped lab in a wilderness contaminated by the supernatural equivalent of radioactive fallout. At parts I was reminded of the horror movies, “The Thing” and “Phase IV.” Another excellent woodsy weird tale.
In “Six, Six, Six,” a couple settling in to their new home undergoes a horrific experience before they’ve even had the chance to finish unpacking. I read this one in bed late one night. Big mistake.
I can’t say enough good things about “Occultation,” and I’ve tried hard not to give away too much about the stories I did discuss. This is a book you really should go into with as little knowledge as possible. “Occultation” is easily one of my favourite collections, not just of the year, but of all time. Highly recommended.
“Occultation” was published by Night Shade Books.