My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There is no doubt that Laird Barron is a fabulous author name.
This collection of long short stories is populated by Barron’s tough guy protagonists who plow through Lovecraftian landscapes with their fists out, often telling their stories in the first person as they battle demons both personal and perhaps real. But no matter how tough these guys are, they all demonstrate an equally dense vocabulary and gift for imagery and metaphor that would leave the everyman with his jaw hanging, a “What did you just say?” look etched on his face.
And that is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of this collection. At times it almost feels like Barron is simply taking the same macho-but-well-spoken bruiser and working him through different variations of a surreal (and typically present day) world. Most of the stories take place in the Pacific Northwest, around Olympia and Seattle but the cities are left largely as sketches, more background to the mood, which is forefront. The mood is invariably dark, the only humor bitter and cynical, as these men get caught up in cults, the gaps between worlds best left unexplored and more horrific things.
Barron luxuriously works the description of things both ordinary and uncanny, taking his time to draw the reader in, letting the strangeness of his settings settle around like a big cozy blanket. A blanket with teeth and soaked in something that smells not quite alive, not quite dead.
The major issue I had with the stories is I found the protagonists, for all their bravado and quips, strangely unaffecting. I didn’t care what happened to them. Worse, Barron cheats with the first person perspective, using its intimacy to full effect while ending several tales with no real way for the protagonist to have been left in a state to actually tell them. It’s not quite “and they turned out to already be dead!” but it’s in the same territory.
I can’t deny the care Barron gives to each piece, though. The stories are like lovingly handcrafted carvings, the maker working carefully to get every facet just right. The highlight is probably the title piece, in which a brutish (but literate) small-time collector/muscleman gets a look at a photograph that literally changes him. Barron does a lovely job of drawing out the horror, revealing it though obscure photographs and nightmares. “Parallax” uses a gimmick (see the title) but is an effective and unsettling take on one half of a couple disappearing and the other being fingered for possible murder. “Hallucigenia” has a similar feel to “The Imago Sequence” but does just as well in creating its surreal environments.
Although I am left with mixed feelings on the collection as a whole, I can say without reservation that if you like any of this collection you will invariably like all of it. Barron’s writing is very strong and consistent. I’m just not totally sold on all of his characters and the writerly tricks he employs.