This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Laird Barron (1970 – ) is an American writer, much of whose critically acclaimed work falls within the horror, noir, and dark fantasy genres. In his fiction, the influence of Lovecraft and Lucius Shepard has been subsumed by his own themes and concerns, creating such potent and original modern takes on the weird tale as “The Forest” (2006), reprinted as part of The Weird. Barron spent his early years in Alaska, which has been an influence on his fiction. He moved to Washington in 1994 where he became a certified strength trainer and earned a third degree brown belt in Professor Bradley J. Steiner’s Jen Do Tao system. He has won multiple Shirley Jackson awards for his fiction. His latest collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, was published earlier this month by Night Shade Books. 101 Weird Writers is delighted to present this appreciation of Barron and “The Forest,” written by our newest contributor, Timothy Jarvis.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
I used to write as an escape. There’s no escape. There’s just me sending my voice into the dark, waiting for an echo.
— Laird Barron
Ingoings are a commonplace of literary criticism: essayists will talk of their seeking a point of entry into their subject, of how the purpose of their analyses is to offer readers ways in. In Laird Barron’s work, we, with the characters, are always looking for outgoings, lines of flight from the nightmares that grip us, safe passage from ‘The Forest that Eats Men’, from ‘the watery hell of man-eating tigers and killer bees,’ and from far worse things. But the horrors of his tales do not loose their hold, there is no escape save forgetting, and forgetting in his work is never oblivion, but only partial, a not-quite-knowing that always intensifies, and never diminishes, dread. So here, though I offer five openings into the dense thickets of Barron’s tale, ‘The Forest’, I do so with a warning: it mightn’t be easy to find a way out again. And there is another warning; while not a ‘twist story’, ‘The Forest’ does turn on a shocking revelation, which this piece gives away, so: ‘Here be spoilers’.
One defining feature of weird fiction is a focus on occulted knowledge, especially on science as occulted knowledge. It could be said weird fiction emerges when it does because of a shift in the alignment of the natural and the supernatural. The epistemology of the Medieval period can loosely be seen as one in which the border between scientific and hermetic knowledge was indistinct, in which alchemical praxis combined magical and scientific approaches, and both types of knowledge were equally visible. The Enlightenment sought to divide science and the esoteric under the names ‘reason’ and ‘superstition’, make them into oppositional categories, and hide hermetic knowledge, occult it. This process is reflected in some 18th century literature, in particular in those early Gothic texts which resolve with a rational explanation of a supernatural phenomenon. But the opposition proved untenable as the 19th century advanced: abstract scientific and mathematical theories were proposed, which had the destabilizing effect of unsettling the distinction between science and the occult. However, the prevailing models remained, and remain, rational, and the irrationalities of the new sciences are banished; crypto-discourses, they are hidden from plain sight, the implications of Riemannian geometry, relativity, and so on, excluded from the daily round.
Much weird writing can be conceived of as, in part, reacting to this shift. In the work of HP Lovecraft, who Laird Barron has described as a key influence, the collapse of the opposition between reason and superstition is a cause for fear, and there is a terror of the way the new scientific and mathematical discourses destabilise Enlightenment orders.[i]
In ‘The Forest’, the nebulousness of the division between vanguardist science and the supernatural, and the occultation of both, is a key theme. The tale tells of the reunion of the protagonist, Richard Jefferson Partridge, a filmmaker, with some former associates, the zoologist Toshi Ryoko and his crew, and, in particular, one of their number, Nadine Thompson, a sometimes lover of Partridge’s, at an old New England estate, and its weird element arises from the world of science: Toshi’s most recent studies having lead to his communing with a hyperintelligent chthonic insect colony. As a figure, Toshi blurs the boundaries between science and the occult: he hopscotches ‘from discipline to discipline with a breezy facility that unnerved even the mavericks among his colleagues,’ and these disciplines do not exclude those traditionally considered hermetic: ‘astrobiology, crypto zoology, the occulted world.’ As in much weird fiction, this challenge to the strict categories of the enlightenment (and the distinct areas of expertise of modern technocracy) elicits horror. When Partridge first encounters some artefacts based on designs passed to Toshi by the insects, his response is visceral disgust:
Then, as they ambled along a fence holding back the wasteland beyond the barn, he spotted a cluster of three satellite dishes […] These objects gleamed the yellow-gray gleam of rotting teeth. His skin crawled as he studied them.
And these devices are not just repellent, their purpose is obscure, satellite dishes pointed not at the sky, but at the ground. Traditional scientific focus has been inverted, no longer out, into the universe, but in, on the occulted world.
In Barron’s work, like Lovecraft’s, science has become sinister, occulted, and opens onto horror. In the story ‘–30–’, a pair of researchers, former lovers whose relationship has soured, are studying animal behaviour and environmental changes in the badlands, and their possible link to a cult who once lived and murdered there. Despite the incredible high-tech of the module that is the researchers’ observation station, things swiftly get primeval following their discovery of an eerie petrified horn. In Barron’s writing, scientific advancement is no prophylactic against the brutal essence of things, against a reversion to savagery and violence, is, in fact, a caustic that exacerbates, provokes: the grisly climax of ‘–30–’ involves a tin cup filled with muriatic acid.
But while Barron reacts against weird science, it is not, as Lovecraft does, by mourning the loss of the strict orders of Enlightenment taxonomy: the archivalist insects of ‘The Forest’ are every bit as monstrous as the baleful and randomly cruel entities from a dead planet on the universe’s farthest rim of which the stories of his loose Pacific Northwestern Mythos tell. His reaction is a reaction for the messy contingency of human life, for the broken love affair of the couple in ‘–30–’ and of that of Partridge and Nadine.
‘The Forest’, like so many horror tales, begins with a dream. But the complexity of the imagery gives the rote trope a jolt of energy. Partridge is on a bus, on his way to the estate where he is to meet with Toshi and the others, and bored and tired, falls asleep, and has a vision of a crone, in a ‘cold white mask’, taking a tarantula from a wooden box, proffering it. The mask is associated with ‘the mask Bengali woodcutters donned when they ventured into the mangrove forests along the coast,’ a mask the woodcutters wear on the backs of the heads to fool, and ward against the attacks of, the tigers of the forest, who, hating to be watched, prefer to ‘sneak up on prey from behind.’ But, in Partridge’s night terror, the woman wears the mask to cover her face. She combines, in one figure, both the occultation of the true aspect of the cosmos and its essentially predatory nature; in Barron’s fiction the world of appearances is a mask worn by the universe to hide its voracity, and his stories are often tales of those who see the mask slip. Or see the mask let slip; the dread aliens of the Pacific Northwestern Mythos, who kill men and women, flay them, and wear their skins to walk abroad, sometimes allow their grisly mantles to gape, or the zippers to show, revealing something of their true form.
In his lexicon of horror, The Darkening Garden, John Clute argues that an ‘experience [of] the malice of the made or revealed cosmos,’ is central to the genre. He terms this revelation: ‘Vastation’. Clute argues that the moment of Vastation is always the ultimate moment of the horror tales in which it occurs, a fatal impediment to further narration: ‘after Vastation, the utterands of Story, and Story itself, falls into dead silence: for there is no way to proceed.’ Barron’s technique in ‘The Forest’ is to allow narration to continue by allowing Partridge, and with him, the reader, to experience Vastation, the vision of a future earth inimical to all but insect life and a few human puppets, but to experience it in a drunken stupor, possibly drugged, and to forget it: ‘His memory was a smooth and frictionless void.’ Or to almost forget: ‘Moths fluttered near his face, battered at the windows and Partridge wondered why that panicked him, why his heart surged and his fingernails dug into the arm rests.’ Clute notes that, in horror, such a loss of identity is ‘normally terminal,’ a prelude to ‘the evacuation of the protagonist’s self into nothingness or death.’ But in Barron’s work identity loss doesn’t mark release, however fatal. In ‘The Forest’, having nearly obliterated the revelation of Vastation in fugue, Partridge, and the reader, can be made to experience it again. It’s a masterful cruelty, a stratagem that allows Barron to heap horror upon horror. In his novel, The Croning, it becomes unbearable, stifling, as the protagonist, amiable dupe, Donald Miller, is subjected again and again to horrifying encounters with Barron’s malefic alien race, tormented for entertainment, for the hell of it, but has, each time, all knowledge of the trauma wiped from his mind. In ‘The Forest’, Partridge, having forgotten his terrible vision, must then suffer his lover, Nadine, being devoured alive by insects, while they are fucking.
Clute argues that, in Vastation, horror offers a sight of the world as it truly is, riven, damaged by man’s rapaciousness and misuse. Eugene Thacker, in his In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Volume 1, makes a similar claim. Thacker posits that, between the human experience of the world and the unthinkable non-human world (which lies under human experience, and, though unthinkable, is intimated by natural disasters and the threat of ecological catastrophe) there is the idea of the world without humankind, which is just thinkable, because in it humankind is quasi-present in its absence. This ‘world-without-us’ offers a means of approaching the unthinkable non-human world, an important project as we continue to depredate the earth. According to Thacker, ‘it is in the genres of supernatural horror and science fiction that we most frequently find attempts to think about, and to confront the difficult thought of, the world-without-us.’
‘The Forest’ offers premonitions of the world-without-us. At one point, Toshi prophesies that, even if humankind can rein in its appetite for self destruction, and avoid a natural catastrophe, the cooling of the sun will finish us:
Assuming we don’t obliterate ourselves, or that a meteorite doesn’t smack us back to the Cambrian, if not the Cryptozoic, this planet will succumb to the exhaustion of Sol. First the mammals, then the reptiles, right down the line until all that’s left of any complexity are the arthropods: beetles and cockroaches and their oceanic cousins, practically speaking. Evolution is a circle—we’re sliding back to that endless sea of protoplasmic goop.
At another, Nadine describes how: ‘The grass will come and eat everything we ever made. The waters will swallow it.’ And Partridge’s vision is a sighting of the world-without-us to come.
Thacker argues that, when faced with ‘the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups,’ most adopt a philosophical position of acceptance, a ‘cosmic pessimism’. Thacker identifies it in the work of a number of thinkers, and also the fiction of Lovecraft and his acolytes. It is, Thacker argues, pervaded by an ethics of futility. Barron’s outlook is quite different. He seems to use the ‘difficult thought’ of the unhuman world, approached through the world-without-us, in a similar way to the way Nietzsche uses the thought of the eternal return, ‘the greatest weight’: as a kind of affirmation. Barron’s position is a kind of cosmic optimism. Faced with the horror of the cosmos, we should seek to cling to those things, and those people, that make life worth living. Though, in Barron’s work, as there can be no escape, this attempt is always doomed, it is still an effort worth making.
One aspect of Barron’s writing which overturns conventional weird horror tropes is his use of language. A characteristic feature of much weird writing is prose just short of turgid, which occurs particularly at moments of heightened intensity. Clute terms the style ‘Fustian’ and argues it is a ‘ceremental language’ whose function is to drape ‘subject matters fatal to approach.’ It occurs regularly in Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft’s prose, with its flailing descriptions and its senseless agglomeration of adjectival phrases, can be thought to constitute a claim that, though there is a ‘real’, its representation is impossible, that language is a wreck: indeed his narrators continually bemoan the inefficacy of words.
Barron’s work also questions whether representation is possible, but the lack is located not in signs, but things themselves. The description of Partridge’s vision exemplifies this:
Men and women emerged from the broken skyscrapers and collapsed bunkers. They were naked and pallid and smiling. In the distance the sun heaved up, slow and red. Its deathly light cascaded upon the lines and curves of cyclopean structures. These were colossal, inhuman edifices of fossil bone and obsidian and anthracite that glittered not unlike behemoth carapaces. He thrashed and fell and fell and drowned.
Here things are not hazed by a scrim of descriptive clutter. Instead, things piling up, odd conjunctions of nouns, modified by adjectives only in order to intensify an inherent strangeness, create a weird sublime. In Barron there is no ‘real’ to attempt and fail to represent in language. Instead language creates a figmentary ‘real’ which points to the absence of any ‘real’. Barron creates compressed negative epiphanies, which challenge and transform the conventions of weird horror. Barron’s writing is weird literature as mantic tremor, which, rather than cloaking the real, lays the reader open to an experience of the void, the abyssal sea.
Another persistent feature of weird writing, that Barron develops, is its response to the Gothic return. In Gothic writing, the horrors of the past trouble the present, are relived in order that they might be relieved. In the weird, this easy abreaction is unsettled, and we cannot simply ‘get over’ history. Barron’s writing grotesquely distorts the Gothic return and intensifies the weird’s disruption of it: there are bizarre medieval towers and Neolithic dolmen in places they have no right to be, Jurassic giants in motel parking lots. In ‘The Forest’ there is an ironic gesture to the traditional Gothic in the description of the Moorehead house as ‘a full three stories of spires, gables, spinning iron weathercocks and acres of slate tiles […] brooding and squat and low as a brick and timber mausoleum.’ But there are no spirits to be laid to rest here. The past cannot be overcome, and those most primeval of creatures, the insects, will come, once more, to rule the earth. This irruption of the deep past into the present and the future is troped through imagery of uterine return. We are told the insects come ‘from the moist abyssal womb that opens beneath everything, everywhere.’ And the node that allows Partridge a vision of the dark future world they preside over is a kind of horn, or shell, with ‘an opening, as the external os of a cervix, large enough to accommodate him in all his lanky height,’ which, inside, is ‘moist and muffled and black.’ As we’ve seen, in Barron’s bleak cosmology, evolution is in retrograde; we are sliding back toward the primordial muck. It confronts us with the abject, with that legion of being that, in the development of an individual, precedes the formation of (the illusion of) a single unified consciousness, all the selves rejected in order that we might take on the one self we become in order to fit in with the social order. It is a regression to the womb that threatens self, identity; the past, the insect hordes, cannot simply be cast aside. They will return to master us.
Another key feature of weird writing is that it ruptures the membrane between the mundane and numinous, allowing the awe-ful to flow back into the everyday, generating, in China Miéville’s formulation, ‘a radicalized sublime backwash.’ While horror tales generally end in finality of a kind, a falling away of the scales from the eyes of protagonists as the cosmos is revealed to them in all its malice, a defeat or triumph of a malevolent Other that is in utter opposition to the mundane world, in weird fiction demarcation is endlessly put off and the tainted sublime remains commingled with the quotidian.
Barron’s work, despite superficial generic markers of horror, is, under this definition, weird. The technique of obliterating the vision of Vastation in fugue allows for the deferral of narrative resolution; the malicious Other is more often glimpsed askance than seen directly; and all is ambiguous, obscure, and destabilizing. And yet, for all the vatic power of his descriptions of the weird sublime, a certain downcast horror remains in the stance towards it.
‘The Forest’, in Partridge’s vision of a future earth of where ‘cyclopean structures’ dwarf the dead husks of human cities and in the insects’ desire to preserve certain aspects of human culture, recalls Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ (though in that novella, the cyclopean city of museum-curator entities is to be found not in the future of the earth, but its very distant past). But the nature of the sublime incursion is very different. Though Lovecraft’s narrator, Peaslee, describes his vision as ‘terrible, soul-shattering,’ the story is told with a kind of delirious vertiginous bliss or glee. Indeed, in Lovecraft generally, despite narrators’ continual protestations of the horrifying nature of their experiences, the weird sublime elicits an affect more akin to awe than terror. This is perhaps because, as Lovecraft sets out in ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’, fear is a kind of side effect of, or device for producing the affect that really interests him, that of wonder:
[O]ne of my strongest and most persistent wishes [is] to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprisons and frustrates our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyong the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequenty emphasise the element of horror because […] it is hard to create a convincing picture of shatered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.
‘The Forest’, though, evidences an ironic, cynical, or enervated attitude to the numinous, horror besting the awe. When Toshi and Campbell are getting Partridge drunk, and perhaps drugging him, before his first ordeal, the vision that is all but forgotten, they mock him with sarcastic cries of ‘Sic itur ad astra!’ as they ply him with drinks. The hostile force directing the cosmos is not a pantheon of quasi-gods, but a colony of insects.[ii] And, after Nadine has been devoured, in Partridge’s arms, by the horde, the tale ends with a bleak anticlimax. Toshi explains Nadine’s fate to Partridge. She was dying, of cancer, but now her consciousness, assimilated by the colony will outlive the fall of humankind as the world becomes uninhabitable, the sun clinkered. It is, he is told, an honour.
“Oh!” Toshi said and his mouth was invisible, but his eyes were bright and wet in the gathering light. “Can you imagine gazing upon constellations a hundred million years from this dawn? Can you imagine the wonder of gazing upon those constellations from a hundred million eyes? Oh, imagine it, my boy…”
But even as Toshi imparts his lurid vision of Nadine’s future, more repugnant than it is wonderful, he is consumed with sorrow. And Partridge’s drained response is to pull down the windowshade and block out the ‘bloody radiance’ of the dying sun and to make all dark. And perhaps this is the truth of ‘The Forest’, and of Barron’s fiction in general: a recognition that the sublime riddles our sphere, but that it offers, not transcendent epiphany, but untrammelled horror, which all who experience seek to obliterate. We should be careful what we wish for.
There is another way of looking at Nadine’s transmigration: as part of an extra-human cycle of existence. Nadine is subject to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari term a process of becoming, a becoming-insect, or indeed, becoming-molecular, which, in Delueze’s and Guattari’s thought corresponds to a ‘deteritorializing line of flight’, a delirious escape from political, social, and symbolic segmentations. In ‘The Forest’, Nadine’s line of flight is an escape from stratification, from her fraught love affair with Partridge, from the cancer that would kill her, from death, from the grief of Partridge, Toshi, and the others, from the fall of human civilization itself. But in Barron, there can be no true escape, and Nadine’s flight is aggressively shut down, in Deleuze’s and Guttari’s formulation, ‘re-territorialized’, as she is assimilated by ‘the citizens of the Great Kingdom,’ becoming merely an archive, an ‘undying repositor[y]’ in the insect colony’s museum of culture. Barron is cynical about the possibility of transmutation. But his work is not reactionary in the way some weird horror fiction, and the work of Lovecraft in particular, is; it is not order and stasis that is opposed to transformation in Barron’s work, but human life. Barron’s tales ask: What if friendships and fucking and drinking beer and getting fucked are the best things there are? You want to spoil all of that for a taste of occulted knowledge, for a vision of the void, by screwing around with mysteries before which all things tremble?[iii] And, though suspicious of transmutation, this reaction generates novelty, for it gives rise to a new kind of weird horror, and transforms readers’ relationships to the world.
Barron, L., 2010 (2008). ‘Occultation’, in Occultation. San Francisco: Night Shade Books.
Barron, L., 2010. ‘–30–’, in Occultation. San Francisco: Night Shade Books.
Barron, L., 2010. ‘Why I Write: Laird Barron’, in Publishers Weekly.
Online at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/43795-why-i-write-laird-barron.html [accessed 08/11/2012]
Barron, L., 2011 (2007). ‘The Forest’, in A. and J. VanderMeer (eds), The Weird. London: Corvus, pp.1044-1061.
Barron, L., 2012. The Croning. San Francisco: Night Shade Books.
Clute, John, 2006. The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. Cauheegan, Wisonsin: Payseur & Schmidt.
Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari, 2004 (1980). A Thousand Plateaus, trans. B. Massumi. London: Continuum.
Lovecraft, H., 1933. ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’
Online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.asp [accessed 08/11/2012]
Lovecraft, H., 2005 (1936). ‘The Shadow out of Time’, in S. Joshi (ed., introduction, and notes), The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. London; Penguin, pp.335-395.
Miéville, C., 2009. ‘Weird Fiction’, in M. Bould et al (eds), The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Oxford: Routledge, pp.510-515.
Nietzsche, F., 1974 (1882). The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), trans. with commentary by W. Kaufmann. New York: Random House.
Thacker, E., 2011. In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1. Winchester: Zero Books.
Thacker, E., 2012. ‘Cosmic Pessimism’, in Continent 2.2, pp.66-75.
[i] This response can be seen as cognate with the modernist reaction against rapid social and technological change, and its estranging effect on the individual, and weird tales, just as modernist texts, even at their most regressive, possess a vigour, a reactionary novelty; in the weird this takes the form of a revelling in language and the possibility of story which revitalises the Gothic, orients it away from the past and towards the future.
[ii] And, in the stories of the Pacific Northwestern Mythos, it is vermiform aliens, powerful, not through individual might, but collective malice, who are the masters of fate.
[iii] In fact, these are precisely the questions the short story ‘Occultation’ seems to ask.