Review: Occultation

By Lyndsey Holder

occultationLaird Barron, Occultation. Night Shade Books (May 15, 2010), 300 pp. USD $24.95. ISBN-13: 978-1597801928.

Occultation contains nine short stories of the type of horror generally referred to as ‘Lovecraftian’ – clever protagonists who live mostly in their own heads find themselves face to face with an evil that is so far beyond our spectrum of understanding that it makes us feel small and isolated in a world which, despite our best efforts, is not as much under our control as we would like to think.

Laird Barron is a master of this genre, and though “Lovecraftian” is a title I mostly use with an inner cringe, as so-often those who attempt this style fall short, I can honestly say that I use it in this case with only the deepest respect. If I learn necromancy, H.P. Lovecraft will be among the first I reanimate, and I will show him this book and tell him proudly that this is what people have done with his art. I’ll hide the Cthulhu sock monkey, though, and if he finds it, I’ll plead ignorance.

One thing I noticed about the characters in Occultation, however, is that they are all the same. Certainly, Barron may write about them differently, but he writes them the same. Often, what he writes about a character will be vastly different from how that character behaves. In “Mysterium Tremendum”, for example, Glen, the boyfriend of the protagonist, is described as being jealous of Victor, one of the couple’s houseguests. It is stated that Glen tries to have sex with the protagonist every night when Victor and his husband, Dane, stay with them. Except that there’s no real mention of this happening aside from the protagonist’s statement. Glen even goes off with Dane, causing Victor and the protagonist to wind up alone together, which, as anyone who has had a jealous boyfriend is acutely aware, would never happen even in the roundabout way in which it happens in the story. In each story, all of the characters are the same, no matter how they are dressed up. It isn’t such a bad thing, though. In a romance novel, it probably wouldn’t work. In this genre, however, it makes the characters seem slightly off in a way that isn’t always immediately perceptible. It undermines the protagonist’s experience, underlining the idea that he or she is alone in this horror.

Every couple speaks to each other in the exact same manner. They are all bitter, each one of them, and converse with undertones of an overly-familiar contempt. They know each other so well that they are acutely aware of which buttons to press and often take a perverse joy in doing so, in taking each other right to the brink and then smoothing things out again, often only to push another button. Although the couples in Occultation‘s stories all come from varied backgrounds and situations, the dynamic of every single one of them is exactly this. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem – it doesn’t ever get to the point where you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why they can’t just get along – and the way that the characters peck apart their loved ones certainly adds to the uncomfortable tone of the stories.

Perhaps one of the other reasons that Barron is so-easily compared to Lovecraft is his poetic style. It is beautiful to read – his writing honestly is a sensory feast, as delightful for the eyes as it is for the mind. He is truly an artist with language, forging letters into words into intense, visceral sequences. And like Lovecraft, this style often becomes cumbersome and unbelievable when it is used in dialogue, degenerating into clumsy exchanges where one is left wondering if even the Queen is this formal when it’s just her and her friends.

Reading the stories in Occultation is like riding a horse that you have no control over. You start out in the countryside. There are fields everywhere and the story meanders through all kinds of things that have no relevance whatsoever, chewing on things here and there. Sometimes, the horse is really hungry and forgets about the story entirely, trotting off to go eat some apples when all you’d like to do is figure out what’s going on with the plot. Eventually, though, the horse is sated and it finds the thread of story and gallops off at breakneck speed, so fast that you can barely hold on. Barron’s stories sweep you up with all of the momentum of a freight train and it suddenly doesn’t matter that you had to plod around all over the countryside to get there. Although the stories are all fairly slow to start, and some spend a lot of time going over things that are not related to the plot in any way at all, once Barron gets going, he goes, and the kind of exhilaration you get when his tales hit terminal velocity is intense and amazing.This is definitely a book I’ll read again. It is not without its problems, but I do not feel that any of its flaws are so great that they take away from the underlying power and strength of the stories within.

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