The Laird Barron Sequence: Defining the Undefinable
Every few years a writer appears who re-invigorates or re-establishes the tradition of weird fiction in a way appropriate for the times but with an eye toward the past as well. Laird Barron, with his first collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, has put his own imprint on horror fiction. His enjoyably dense style is mixed with a keen recognition of the macabre and a wider sense of the enormity of the universe. As with writers like Thomas Ligotti, Barron has quickly gained a cult following despite having written very few stories. Currently, he is a multiple nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award. I interviewed him via email recently to get more of a sense of Barron both as a person and as a writer.
Can you describe for readers your surroundings as you answer these questions?
I work at a huge, elaborate rolltop desk. The desk was built in the late 1890s and my wife’s family shipped it to the U.S. not long after WWII. My printer anchors one end of the hutch; a small reading lamp shaped like a rampant bronze elephant brackets the other. A few books are lined up between—The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, The Medieval Reader, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and so forth. On my right, floor to ceiling bookcases dominate. These were made by my wife. The shelves are of varnished pine. They form an L that abuts my desk and fills the opposing wall. The shelves are freighted with historical treatises, all sorts of poetry, and reference books ranging from the mundane to the rather arcane and esoteric. Along the wall behind me are wooden filing cabinets, a world atlas globe, and hanging plants. To my left, an ancient couch where my two dogs and cat sleep while I work. My office overlooks the garage. It’s a nice, quiet neighborhood—lots of shade trees, a baffling array of bird species; deer graze in the ditch beneath the branches of the big maple in the yard. It’s a good space, this office. I laughingly call it the inner sanctum and it’s where I skulk off to whenever possible. I’ve composed the majority of my stories here.
How long have you been writing, and when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I taught myself to read at five. Ironically, the Reading is Fundamental commercials scared the hell out of me. Those spots regarding an epidemic of illiteracy among kids much older than myself made enough of an impression that I started decrypting cereal boxes at breakfast, labels on canned goods, you name it. Fear is one of the great motivators. After a bit, I began to scribble rudimentary stories that were more akin to a series of captions adorning vivid crayon drawings of monsters, burning buildings, and corpse-strewn battlefields. My parents were largely disinterested in the whole affair; they seemed to shrug it off as a phase, so I can only surmise my need to write is deep-rooted and independent of learned behavior. This was confirmed some years down the road when I discovered that my paternal grandfather was a failed novelist, something he and I’d never discussed. He maintained correspondence with several professional authors, received many letters and manuscript critiques from them. An amazing revelation.
My second grade class was given an assignment to compose a paragraph length narrative—mine bloated into a twelve hundred word epic; a cross between Star Trek and Forbidden Planet. In other words, a blatant rip off; or, as some authors are wont to say, a mimetic piece of fiction. My teacher took it home and typed it out, and that was that. Between the ages of nine and sixteen I wore my fingers to the nubs—working with pencils in longhand, I conservatively put three quarters of a million words on paper. This included two doorstop novels and a stack of novelettes, novellas, and enough unfinished pieces to jam one of those large wooden toy boxes. We were dirt poor, so I used every square inch of a page—people needed a magnifying glass to read my handiwork. Reams of paper were stuffed into cartons, bookshelves, in piles under the bed and underfoot In retrospect, it was a rather spectacular mess.
I got around to submitting a handful of stories in my late teens. No joy there; untutored, I didn’t possess the chops to publish by any stretch of the imagination. Chris Lacher of the long defunct New Blood is a saint for bothering to write some wonderfully encouraging rejections after putting up with 5k manuscripts single spaced in ten point font. David Silva of Horror Show once jotted notes on a rejection form; ’Unique Voice’ he said. Of course, at the time I didn’t know how generous these editors were. I’m grateful to both gentlemen.
I drifted away from writing for over a decade. I raced huskies in the Iditarod; later, I moved from the Alaskan wilderness to Seattle and studied martial arts quite assiduously, and toiled at a dreary string of jobs while sorting out my life. I met my future wife in 1998. She supported my long abandoned dream of becoming a published author, petitioned me quite relentlessly, in fact. I picked up a pen and in 2001 Gordon Van Gelder fished my Lovecraftian homage “Shiva, Open Your Eye” from the slush pile at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. That was my first big break. The next came in 2004 when Ellen Datlow reprinted my second pro sale, “Old Virginia”, in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror After that, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and this eventually led to Night Shade Books taking a chance on my debut collection The Imago Sequence & Other Stories.
You have a unique prose style. Who are some of your influences?
My mom owned a couple of enormous trunks of books. Everything from gothic romance to space opera was crammed into them. Unfortunately, they suffered water damage from a flood and about half the books exploded like cooked rice and we had to pry the cracked and yellowed pages apart. Reading a novel was often quite the adventure. Early on, I was hooked by Louis L’Amour, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard; that crowd. Later, I gravitated toward the likes of Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and the great Roger Zelazny. I also got a pretty steady dose of noir: Robert Parker, Donald Westlake, and John D. MacDonald, especially. Their particular brand of darkness has always resonated. The grit and grime, my fascination with antiheroes and losers, the underbelly of society, is directly attributable to the noir authors.
Over the last fifteen to twenty years, I’ve been profoundly influenced by Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Stephen King, Peter Straub, T.E.D. Klein and Michael Shea on the horror side. Martin Cruz Smith and William Goldman and Cormac McCarthy continue to fascinate me, as well. To this day, I keep Ghost Story , Dark Gods, and Blood Meridian at hand. I dissect them at paragraph level, sentence level, and I’m still unpacking what I discover.
How much revision do you typically do for a short story, and when do you know a story is finished?
Revision constitutes most of my writing effort; it’s an obsession. I’ve written and sold fourteen stories over a seven year span, which doubtless says something about how much time I invest in a given project. Generally speaking, getting a story from the initial concept to final draft is a battle. The novella “The Imago Sequence” came in at roughly 20k. To get the 20k I wrote approximately sixty thousand words, and that’s typical of my experience. I tend to write non-sequentially and revise sentence by sentence as I go. It’s a fairly tortuous process, and certainly inefficient compared to the methodology of many pros. Fortunately, I’m in a position to eschew maximum efficiency in favor of indulging an aesthetic ideal.
In my case, the creative process is significantly external; it’s analogous to adjusting a radio dial to apprehend whatever frequency carries the transmission, the particular narrative that I’ve latched onto. Once begun, a great percentage of time involves sifting through the static, searching for that original signal among a hundred other ghost broadcasts. As for when it’s done, I’ll keep adjusting and tweaking details until the story is pried from my fingers by an editor, until it’s published and safely out of my reach.
How has having a collection published changed your impressions of your own fiction?
Having lived for so long among these stories, I can’t say my impressions are dramatically altered. However, I can say a few things regarding the impressions I’d hoped to convey.
A few years into marriage, my mother had an epiphany and became a devout Christian. My father remained an equally devout agnostic. There developed, as one might expect, a whale of a schism in our household. I reconciled my personal issues of faith ages ago, but my parents’ fierce and highly intelligent arguments spurred a line of inquiry that I yet turn over in my mind. Over time, Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, Dunsany, and the like, inspired me to synthesize their varying interpretations of the nature of the universe and of reality with worldwide creation mythology of all kinds. The horrors encountered in The Imago Sequence draw as much upon the more fearsome depictions of a Christian God, Buddhist hells, and Moabite deities as they do Lovecraft’s ineffable Old Ones. I don’t shrink from the Lovecraftian label. Nonetheless, my interpretation of the Lovecraftian mythos merely serves as a convenient mode to explore the idea that the universe represents the macroscopic version of a microscopic cellular structure. I find brane theory of particular interest. I’ve undertaken the task of naturalizing cosmic horror, rendering it and the extra dimensional organic rather than strictly supernatural insomuch as “supernatural” equates the magical or metaphysical.
While putting together The Imago Sequence, I envisioned a mosaic of loosely related, yet thematically reinforcing, stories that would explore humankind’s insignificance when contrasted with the immensity of the cosmos. I chose as protagonists a gallery of hard-nosed men, eminently capable men, to confront unimaginable forces. A fondness for the conventions of noir aside, I chose spies and gunfighters, enforcers and soldiers because few things are more dreadful, more horrifying, than watching a supremely confident individual succumb to circumstances beyond their control, beyond their very comprehension. Indeed, the loss of control, the disintegration of competence, of self, is a thematic cornerstone. It has always been my intention to provoke disquiet, if not fear, to raise questions, to entertain. To what degree I’ve been successful is an open question.
Ultimately, the only impression that counts is that of the audience. I’ve had my say and it’s time to move on to the next story, the next collection.
What are some of the important qualities of the fiction you most love?
I could make a list of qualities that compel me to pick up a book and turn pages, but it comes down to poetry in all its glorious manifestations. I didn’t really begin to find my way as a writer until I learned to appreciate poetry. I’m a fan of Charles Simic, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, to name a handful. For exactly one year of my life I attempted a poem a day, and when I wasn’t writing poetry I devoured it, did my level best to absorb it by osmosis.
Noir is famous for this affiliation, but all of my favorite writing sings with poetry. Much of my admiration for Michael Shea, for example, stems from his lyricism, his ability to wield language in a manner that engages and enthralls—sometimes reckless and coarse, other times utterly mellifluous, but always layered, always multifaceted and as ornamental as it is functional. He’s not satisfied to employ language as a necessity. Shea demonstrates that it’s insufficient for prose to function as a utilitarian device when it can so readily transform literature, imbue narrative with a force capable of transcending the medium, of devastating the audience with a gesture.
What are you currently working on?
I’m in the midst of completing several stories for anthology invitations. I’ve two novellas in the works. Recently, I pitched a novel proposal to my agent. He was amenable, so after I clear the decks I’ll get cracking on that.
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning writer with books published in over 20 countries. He has collaborated on short films with rock groups like The Church, has had his fiction adapted for promotional purposes by Playstation Europe (by filmmaker Joel Veitch), and writes for the Amazon book blog, io9, New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post, among others.
Jeff's novel Finch and writing book, Booklife, are forthcoming this fall.