Some horror stories are character driven — the interpersonal drama is as important and interesting as the creepshow. Others rely heavily on mechanics of the horrorstuff — the characters are just vehicles to drive us from one slavering monster to the next abandoned mountain cabin. The stories of Occultation try to do both, but they are at their best when they are embracing the latter.
While there are occasional echoes of Stephen King (the title story), Barron is primarily a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft. Weird, unknowable horror. Unfathomable, ancient entities breaking our protagonists minds. Terrible, ominous wilderness. It works, sometimes; there is occasional piercing, stomach dropping visuals, like a woman opening her closet and seeing saggy skin corpses hanging amongst her clothes. Or the creepy whispering one protagonist hears, late at night, floating up from the vents in his apartment:
Ohh, either is delectable.
And sweetbreads. As long as they’re from a young one.
Ganglia for me. Or brain. Scoop it our quivering.
Enough! Let’s start tonight. We’ll take one from—
Other times it’s a little too campy. Anyone not named Lovecraft using the word ‘cyclopean’ in a horror short comes off as a bit of a poser. And sometimes the darkness comes off as a murky adjective soup that is barely comprehensible, let alone scary:
(group of hikers finds a mysterious cave with a pool of water in the center, described in the quote below)
The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark. A thumbnail-sized alabaster planetoid blazed beneath the ruptured skein of leaves and algae, a membranous cloud rising.The cloud seethed and darkened, became black as a thunderhead. It keened–chains dragging against iron, a theremin dialed to eleven, a hypersonic shriek that somehow originated and emanated from inside my brain rather than an external source. Whispers drifted from the abyss, unsynchronized, unintelligible, yet conveying malevolent and obscene lust that radiated across the vast wastes of deep space. The cloud peeled, bloomed, and a hundred-thousand-miles-long tendril uncoiled, a proboscis telescoping from the central mass, and the whispers amplified in a burst of static.
This is only an excerpt; it goes on. Slothful splay indeed.
These stories occasionally have way too much backstory or don’t know when to end. A great example is my favorite story of the collection, Strappado, about a group of people going to investigate some edgy, modern performance art. It unfolds rapidly, chills, and leaves a disturbing impression in its wake. The people involved absolutely don’t matter. So the 3-4 page leadup introducing the main character and his relationship with his on and off boyfriend is a totally cutt-able bore. It probably could have ended a page or two earlier too — an image of a man trying to slice his wrists with a cut-up credit card, failing, and calling the cleaners was all it needed.
These stories were written individually and arranged in a collection later — this causes an issue that would never have occurred if I was reading them as one-offs. Namely, they start to feel a bit samey. The characters fall into a few (wealthy) types. Everyone smokes*. The wilderness of Washington state is thoroughly plumbed. I found myself saying, satanists, occultists, again? And after the Nth time it happened, I wanted to alert Laird Barron that not all stories need to end with the protag succumbing to madness or ripping off the zipper on his human suit. Sometimes watching our mangled hero scrabble to escape is the far scarier experience, whether he/she makes it or not.
The sum is lesser than its parts, though. I feel this review is too negative for the generally positive outlook I have of this book. 7 of 9 of these stories are solid, good reads.
*This book feels really old. I have a beat up used copy with a cheesy 90s cover. Everyone smokes cigarettes or has dusty old cars. Satanism is an earnest, not laughable, fear. So I always felt sort of confused when the book mentioned recent events like the recession or prop 8. The book was published in 2010 and this edition in 2014!