Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Light is The Darkness

Over the past ten years or so, Laird Barron has emerged as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of horror and dark fantasy. His stories, which might loosely be called Lovecraftian but blend cosmic supernaturalism with the grittiness of pulp and noir in ways only Barron himself could come up with, have been reprinted in more than a dozen annual best-of volumes and nominated for just about every genre award there is.  Now, after two Shirley Jackson Award-winning collections, Barron's first piece of novel-length fiction has appeared. Published in a gorgeous limited edition by Infernal House, with interior art from David Ho, The Light is the Darkness is hallucinatory weird fiction with a harsh edge in which the cold, vast strangeness of the universe, the seething power of the natural world, and the quiet self-sufficiency of driven human beings create a powerful atmosphere of frantic desolation.

The protagonist, Conrad Navarro, is drawn away from-- well, it's not what you'd call a career-- as a fighter in the Pageant, a secret, bloody, and fatal gladiatorial combat, by the disappearance of his sister Imogene, an FBI agent who was hunting the mysterious Dr. Drake, the scientist whose unorthodox treatments she suspects were response for the death of their third sibling, Ezra. In chasing Imogene and Dr. Drake, the forceful yet unflappable Conrad enters a world even darker and more baffling than that of the Pageant, in which family secrets, government experiments, and rumors of godlike entities with untold power are all in a day's work.

Yet the plot is, in many ways, not the point, but simply a matter of tone, the outline around which the novel's themes and images are placed. The key is in the title: the light is the darkness, ugliness has a beauty all its own, and good and evil aren't even relevant terms. Whether the characters are hardened fighters, stern FBI agents, or decadent billionaires, they're all in it for themselves, survivors who have seen or done terrible things, and the world through which they move, though superficially our own, takes on other qualities in Barron's stark yet poetic prose. A rundown apartment building can have a terrible grandeur:
The foyer was damp and papered by dead leaves. A wheezing, shuddering elevator with brassy wall plates raised them to the third floor, deposited them in a claustrophobically narrow corridor that went on and on under a series of dim globes, many of which were broken out, or blank as glass eyes. Flies shrilled in the dark globes; tiny, damned souls searching for the light. Rough plaster walls were scarred by fissures, brown water stains and occasional jags of graffiti that almost made sense to Conrad if he regarded them from the corner of his eye. Voices seeped through the plaster, mingled with the complaints of the flies. Pipes groaned.
And even more effective than the ordinary rendered bizarre is the exotic rendered unworldly, as when Conrad's dying mentor arranges a last party:
Attendants wheeled the great man into the hall aboard a mahogany chair oversized as a throne and carved in the likeness of a dragon. Kosokian had dispensed with the oxygen mask and donned resplendent silk robes of crimson trimmed in gold, and jeweled rings on every finger. He laid an obsidian rod across his knees. A golden pendant set with an obscenely large ruby reinforced his image as the moribund potentate, a sorcerer-king who'd stepped from a tarot card to hold a final debauched court.

Servants in crimson livery arrived with platters and decanters while a sextet of troubadours decked in medieval garb mounted a dais and started in with their flutes, harps, and recorders. Incense bubbled and spat within strategically-placed braziers, cloying odors of lotus and dragons'-blood overwhelming the rot of Kosokian's bandages, the reek of his decayed flesh.
The laconic, psychologically opaque nature of Barron's prose heightens the force of the images by keeping the novel's pace taut.  In less than 200 pages it covers a dizzying range of alienating landscapes and menacing characters, moving from one situation to the next with the grim determination of its protagonist. The effect of all this is to create an altered state of consciousness, as if the book itself were a drug, a gateway to the unimaginable vistas at which it hints.

That impression is only enhanced by the elaborate production of the present edition. Limited to 174 copies and priced at $175 (a 26 copy lettered edition at the princely sum of $1250 is also available), the book is bound in leather with a ribbon marker and golden endpapers and comes in a sturdy ribboned traycase. Photographs (some are available here and a couple more here) can capture the visual beauty of the presentation but not the extraordinary tactile experience of the supple leather binding, which makes the book feel like an authentic ancient tome full of unpleasant secrets. The carefully-reproduced interior art adds another dimension of weirdness to the experience. A trade paperback reprint will be made available eventually, but for fans of Barron's work or collectors of fine editions of supernatural fiction, scraping together the money or credit for this one is a must.  (It can be purchased from the publisher's shop at Miskatonic Books, or from dealers such as Camelot Books and Realms of Fantasy Books.)

Like all great horror fiction, The Light is the Darkness is disturbing and entertaining at the same time, the fear and cruelty of its milieu balanced by the intensity of its action and by the sharpness of its dialogue, which is compact and drily sarcastic.
"The fellow wasn't fond of sharing his secrets. Too many dark secrets. Too many enemies from his service with your government. Imogene was to be his weapon against them. That's why he made certain she was groomed for law enforcement. She served him well. You, he wished to protect from his foes. Believe it or not, he loved you, Conrad. That is why he sent you to me, why you were cloistered here in my demesne." Kosokian sucked a tall glass of Tiger's Milk and breathed heavily. "Your father had other plans for you. Alas, his breakdown and untimely demise derailed everything he'd worked to accomplish. He would not approve of your Quixotic pursuit of Imogene. She became embroiled in his vendetta with the forces of darkness, as it were. No sense following her into oblivion."

Conrad said, "You talk a lot for a guy on oxygen."
Laird Barron's shorter fiction had made obvious his gift for crafting impossible yet frighteningly real cosmic and landscapes, and this novel demonstrates that his imagination becomes only more potent in work at greater length. His next novel, The Croning, is currently in progress; if it's anywhere near as oddly wonderful as The Light is the Darkness, it'll be a real treat.

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