The last couple of books by Laird Barron have been expanding his range beyond cosmic horror. There was the novella Man With No Name, a gore- encrusted Yakuza story which blended Miike’s and Kitano’s sensibilities with splashes of unnerving weirdness (this publication was paired with Blood and Sawdust, a brief but hugely enjoyable mad scientist adventure). Then there was the supercharged pulp insanity of X’s For Eyes, the plot of which resembled a Johny Quest episode on DMT. Now with Swift For Chase, Barron returns to Alaska, the place where he was born and raised and the results are haunting and horrifying.
My introduction to Barron’s work came through his first two collections, The Imago Sequence and Occultation and for a time I was intrigued but occasionally frustrated by its’ elliptical nature. Like Moorcock’s Von Bek stories though, the act of reading more reveals recurring patterns. Events from previous narratives are invoked, characters (or their relatives) show up repeatedly and, gradually, the reader is initiated to a hostile, carnivorous world. Swift To Chase is a collection of interconnected short stories that touch on a number of his previously established personal mythologies and, as such, it is arguably his most satisfying collection. I would call it a mosaic novel, but it’s more akin to an FBI profiler’s map, complete with handwritten footnotes, little flags and multicolored pieces of string to connect the various locations, timelines and universes. It’s a long game and it must have taken him about a decade to set it up. I am impressed.
The stories are split into three thematic sections, with Alaska hanging over the proceedings as the setting or a general state of mind. It’s difficult to address the stories individually, as they tend to weave around and blend with each other, giving us glimpses of the overall picture. Out of a sprawling cast, the main protagonist is self- described professional final girl Jessica Mace. Tough, resourceful and prone to trouble, Mace is great fun. Her taciturn, bleary- eyed narration sets the tone, as we are exposed to non- chronological flashes of her life and try to piece together her bloody destiny. Many of the stories possess the mood and feel of the slasher film (a Stephen Graham Jones influence perhaps?); the result of this being that I tend to imagine The Fog– era Jamie Lee Curtis playing Jessica and Carpenter synths throbbing in the background while I was reading (but that’s just me). The language is fiery and confident, leaning towards the hardboiled tradition (and when I say hardboiled, I mean even his cheerleader protagonists could punch my lights out). It’s an aquired taste, but then so is fine booze. This time round, Barron makes more use of the first person narration, resulting in a more immediate, conversational style. There are wonderfully specific pop cultural signifiers, tropes and imagery that ground the action to the 70s and 80s (a snatch of Blue Öyster Cult here, a flash of a serrated blade there) and Barron injects proceedings with heavy doses of hardboiled pessimism, occult grooviness, and cosmic dread.
Jessica falls in with a disreputable carnival crew in Screaming Elk, MT, a campfire tale that doubles as a cool riff on the Universal werewolf movies. DT was a weird, dissorientating experience when read on its’ own, a slasher without any of the obvious tropes, but it makes a lot more sense in context. Black Dog is too personal to fully connect with me and Ardor offers a delicious explanation of vampirism but is too oblique for my tastes. Personal favourites? Frontier Death Song is metal as fuck and Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees starts out as an absurd joke, makes connections with Barron’s Old Leech mythology and ends in gruesome body horror. Elsewhere there are shapeshifters, mad scientists, bad trips, sinister government ops, ancient rites, revenants and a cyborg dog that would make Zelazny proud. Some of the stories are self- contained little thrillers and some keep their secrets close to the chest. But they have a cumulative effect, ratcheting up the dread levels and revealing more and more of the end game. And then, there are the stories that anchor the collection, providing answers and invariably complicating things with tantalising hints for the future. Termination Dust (previously collected in the Tales of Jack the Ripper collection, edited by Ross E. Lockhart) and Tomahawk Park Survivors Raffle are clearly key narratives. They tell the story of two generations of Alaskan highschool kids, their awful fates, an all- encompassing conspiracy and a sentient darkness that can barely be contained for a while, before rushing in to eat everything. The latter story ends the book in an image of nihilistic terror and keeps you wanting more.
Needless to say, this shit is perfectly in tune with my sensibilities, but your mileage may vary. Then again, if you like Kard Edward Wagner, Cormac McCarthy, True Detective (Barron is an acknowledged influence on the first season), James Ellroy, Jack London, T.E.D. Klein, etc., then you owe me one. The converted would have gotten the book already, but I would argue that those new to his work might want to start with his earlier books. In any case, I envy you folks. It’s quite a trip.
Totally Subjective Reading Soundtrack: Blue Öyster Cult – Spectres, John Carpenter – Lost Themes, Black Mountain – Black Mountain, Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage, Kris Kristofferson – Jesus Was a Capricorn, Danzig – Danzig II: Lucifuge, Tom Waits – Bone Machine