There Is Always Something Worse — A conversation with Laird Barron

Last year Laird Barron agreed to have a chat with me about his work and sundry other things. The interview appeared in Shock Totem and can still be found in issue #7 of their great journal. Since they’ve had it in their pages for a while, I’m finally sharing it here. A few bits might be a little dated (obviously The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All has been out for months now), but there can’t be enough Barron interviews out in the wild. If you’re stumbling across this and haven’t read his stuff, then start with The Imago Sequence and work your way forward. You won’t regret it.

I’d like to thank Laird again for the interview.


There Is Always Something Worse

A conversation with Laird Barron

by Michael Wehunt

Horror is easy. It’s everywhere: on your own street or in grainy images of unrest half the world away. There is little need to seek it out. Reading fictional horror can seem like overkill when the actual world is dripping with it. Sure, horror provides an escape from life just as fantasy and science fiction do. But perhaps unique among fiction genres, horror involves facing those terrible realities, processing them into monsters that can bring deep eddies of understanding…all while never quite looking away from the mirror.

Horror is easy, but truly scaring a reader with fiction, instilling dread that almost comes off the page: That is not easy. If you’ve been drawn to Shock Totem, chances are you’re looking to be creeped out, even in a world that feels like it’s seen it all. And if you’ve read the work of Laird Barron, chances are you’ve already seen something shift in the mirror just as you turn away.

Barron is a genuine rarity in the world of horror fiction: His words are powerful and they do exactly what he asks of them. For more than a decade, he’s asked them to scare you. To a truly admirable degree, they have in the most inventive ways. He has mastered cosmic horror, to the extent that I’ll blaspheme and make the claim that in many ways he has surpassed the godfather Lovecraft himself. His first two collections, The Imago Sequence and Occultation, are simply brilliant and brimming with some of the most wonderful and effective stories I’ve ever read, regardless of literary reach or genre. The novel The Croning is one of the scariest books you’ll ever read. They all prove his formidable talents.

But I’ve been intrigued by the facets of the author that go beyond that special gift. Explorations that have recently branched out and become more apparent in his work. Laird was kind enough to answer my burning questions, and he’s provided good reason to be excited by where his work will take us in the future. He also succeeded in reassuring that part of me that always wants something creepy crawling on it.

Wehunt: A lot of ink and pixels have gone toward discussing your Lovecraftian roots, so one can assume you were influenced heavily by H.P. Lovecraft, as well as T.E.D. Klein, Karl Edward Wagner, and the likes. But I’ve always felt your work goes deeper than that, rather than skimming the fat off the Lovecraftian universe. There’s a good bit of hard-boiled noir in your work, as well as a gritty residue of Cormac McCarthy. The latter shares your essence of gorgeous words, bleak words, and the devastating use of geography and natural scenery. Could you give us a bit of insight as to your less-known influences, perhaps outside the strictly horror genre?

Barron: Michael, thanks. You have cited three major horror influences, and yes, McCarthy is another whom I greatly admire. Crime, noir, thrillers, westerns…these genres are ingrained in my style and influence the thematic elements of my core work. This is the stuff I devoured as a kid. I’ve mentioned Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, Martin Cruz Smith and John LeCarre. But William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Control figure in there, as does Falling Angel by Hjortsberg and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Høeg. During my teens and early twenties it was John D MacDonald, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block. The Horse Latitudes by Ferrigno is another favorite, and one that taught me how noir can swerve into horror and science fiction territory. These days I’m blown away by Gillian Flynn. She melds crime and psychological horror like nobody’s business.

Wehunt: And speaking of other genres, I find that your work has recently embraced more fully those shades of noir, hard-boiled protagonists, crime, etc. The horror is still there, but it doesn’t seem quite as much the driving force; that is to say, creeping the reader out isn’t, perhaps, your main priority these days. What are your thoughts on the horror genre today, and your place in it? What has drawn you away from both the pure, unspeakable terror of cosmic horror and scaring people in general? Do you think you’ll ever leave it behind entirely?

Barron: It’s not appropriate for me to speculate upon my place in the field. I love the genre. Horror traditions inform my technique. The field is vital at the moment. The old masters such as King, Straub, and Barker continue to produce at a high level. Joe Hill, Sarah Langan, and Stephen Graham Jones, and a dozen others, are ready to take the torch. There is more quality dark literature coming out than I can reasonably keep up with. This might be a golden age of darkness.

I won’t abandon the literature of horror or the fans I’ve gained in writing horror. I’m a morose, morbid guy and the macabre is my friend. There will be more horror novels, more collections.

Crime fiction attracts me, as do thrillers and noir. I also love the weird à la  Aickman, Cisco, and Jackson. These elements have always been present in my stories. Arguably, many of my tales are three quarters crime/noir and the remainder is where the black fantastic seeps in. Regardless, there’s a razor thin line separating the darkest noir and full-blown horror. It’s only natural that I’d want to stretch myself as a writer, and to expand my audience. I love the Spenser series, and Smith’s immortal Arkady Renko. One-offs such as McDonald’s The Damned, and Flynn’s Gone Girl, or McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men energize me. I want to try my hand at that. I will.

Wehunt: What are some upcoming works that best represent your new direction (if “new direction” is what you consider it)?

Barron: I think of this as an expansion, a process occurring in addition to what I’ve concentrated on in the past. My latest collection was written just prior to my current foray into crime and suspense territory: The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is directly in the wheelhouse of my readership and it’s a synthesis of the two earlier collections. A rogues’ gallery of hard-bitten men and women beleaguered by forces alien and occult. Those stories reprise and crescendo what I’ve done these past twelve or so years. As for the really new stuff…first up is an Alaska-themed collection, working title of Ardor that I’m putting the finishing touches on. Everything references the 49th state in some way. You’ll encounter a bit of cosmic horror, crime, a couple of suspense/thrillers, a slasher. The whole thing is saturated with weirdness. It’s a stark collection of stories. The prose is leaner and harder than what I’ve used in the past. There are a lot of dogs.

The other major project is a crime novel. I can’t reveal much about it at the moment except that I’ll be handing it in late this summer, or early fall. It’s dark and violent. Men who are forces of nature collide. I’m hoping it’s the beginning of a series.

Wehunt: Pretty early in your career you seemed to be developing your own mythos in Washington State. The Black Ram Lodge, the dolmen and caves in “Mysterium Tremendum” and “The Men from Porlock,” just to name a few, were revisited with different characters and even different historical periods. That dolmen even seeped into your novel, The Croning. I think fans appreciate that woven world-building. Do you still plan to set stories/novels in this mythos? Just your cosmic horror efforts? The “not so much horror” stuff?

Barron: In the past I’ve said something to the effect that I’m veering away from the explicitly Lovecraftian mode. However, that doesn’t mean I intend to abandon the genre. Some of this will be set in the same universe I’ve created over the years. If not the Children of Old Leech or terrors from the Black Guide, then something worse. There is always something worse.

Wehunt: Creepy! Speaking of which, above I mentioned that one could gather that you’ve grown slightly less concerned with “creeping the reader out.” When I tell people about your work, the one thing I invariably mention is that of every author I’ve ever read, you’re the one who consistently, truly writes horror well at a visceral level. I’m talking skin-crawling, dread-inducing, disturbing, feel-something-in-the-dark-behind-me type of writing. While it would be exciting to read a novel by you that, hypothetically, doesn’t have a shred of horror in it, I would miss that quality in your work. I’m talking not so much about the overall blanket of horror here (as I did above) but that specific quality of creepiness. We trust your literary talents to take you where you want to go, however. How do you feel about that brilliant creepiness and the possibility of lessening it as you explore other avenues? What creeps you out? And what about other genres, so to speak, draws you in the same way?

Barron: Crime and suspense do it for me. Pulp westerns and noir do it for me. I enjoy mysteries and procedurals. Perhaps this new material of mine will serve as a contrast for current readers who’ve journeyed with me to the dark reaches of reality. Ultimately, the exploration of other genres allows me to expand my audience.  That’s not to say the new work will entirely lose touch with the disturbing or the unnerving. I’m working on some pieces concerning a protagonist named Jessica Mace. One of those, “LD50,” flirts with the horror genre and if you check it out, you’ll get a glimpse of my approach to injecting the macabre into crime/thriller narratives. Mace’s ongoing saga sees her pitted against the ineffable and the monstrous. In its own way, her tale is as spooky as anything I’ve done.

What frightens me? Madness. Deep water. The immensity of space whirling above my head on an icy night. The inconstancy of friends and lovers.

Wehunt: Another thing you do exceptionally well is folklore, incorporating it into your work, whether through the occult or through simply nailing authentic period pieces. How does the past factor into your worldview?

Barron: Folklore, fairy tales, and mythology were staples in my house during childhood. I believe in the fundamentals. I believe in tradition. I believe in learning the rules in order to bend them, break them, remake them.

Wehunt: If you had to choose one Barron short story as a favorite, which would it be and why?

Barron: “Parallax” from my first collection. It’s a science fiction story, a weird tale, which I wrote in response to the infamous Scott Peterson trial. My take on the mutability of reality, the paradox of time and existence. Took about nine months to complete that novelette and it consumed me, burned me up. It has never received much attention, but from a technical perspective it’s probably the most technically ambitious piece I’ve attempted.

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