Conrad Navarro, modern gladiator with a genius IQ, is the apotheosis of all Laird Barron’s previous tough guy protagonists. He is their perfection – t...moreConrad Navarro, modern gladiator with a genius IQ, is the apotheosis of all Laird Barron’s previous tough guy protagonists. He is their perfection – the imago, if you will – a poetic image which Barron invokes repeatedly in his body of work. The story of Conrad's transformative journey is violent, hallucinogenic, and terribly sad by turns; it's also surprisingly challenging in its execution.
Known simply as “the American,” Conrad makes his living fighting in ludi (after the games held in conjunction with Roman religious festivals): secret and meticulously orchestrated blood sports in which combatants fight to the death for the pleasure of the wealthy and powerful. Between bouts, Conrad obsessively searches for his missing sister Imogene, an FBI agent gone off the reservation on her own dark odyssey: she’s hunting the ancient, elusive and sinister Dr. Drake, a radical experimental physician who may have killed their cancer-stricken brother Ezra in a botched treatment . . . or was it a ritual? Following her trail, Conrad finds the cryptic messages she has left for him, parlaying each into another step closer to his beloved “Genie,” and his own fate.
However, nothing in Conrad’s surreal world is as it seems. What really happened to Ezra and the others under Dr. Drake’s care? Why did his mother drive herself off a cliff, and what drove his father – less literally – around the bend? Why does Conrad, “a special case,” according to dear old Dad, seem impervious to death, and get stronger, heal faster by the day? And where has Imogene really gone?
What Conrad fails to grasp until it’s far too late, is the extent of the conspiracy that enfolds his family, or the cruel cosmic game in which they are merely pieces on a board. In his blundering search for the truth, he has caught the attention of the darkness, and he will have to pay.
Short, fast and unapologetically brutal, The Light is the Darkness is a gut-punch that shares more stylistically with Barron’s first anthology The Imago Sequence than it does with his most recent (and more subtle) novel, The Croning. . . though one does get the feeling that all of Barron’s stories are taking place in the same savage world, that the cosmic horrors we meet are related, and that human beings almost always exist primarily as “provender” for their obscene needs.
At first I was mildly disappointed with LitD; so much happens so fast . . . it's like like bright strobes illuminate various setpieces, and then, before you can make the necessary connections, it’s over. But it had crept into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone, so I went back to it. Fortunately just novella-length, its fairly experimental style requires a closer look in order to fully appreciate the layers of imagery and sometimes nonlinear trajectory. Upon a second reading, symbolic patterns and foreshadowing emerge, and cryptic hallucinogenic stream-of-consciousness passages that seemed intrusions on (or excursions from) the main storyline click into place and make Conrad's story richer and ultimately more horrific. For me, real enjoyment of this incredibly weird book demanded study. The Light is the Darkness may not be anybody’s idea of light summer reading, but once again Laird Barron challenges the prevailing assumption that so-called "genre fiction" can't also be intellectually challenging. (less)
The Croning is a perfectly horrible book, and I mean that in high compliment.
It's rare that a horror story actually scares me these days (and more's...moreThe Croning is a perfectly horrible book, and I mean that in high compliment.
It's rare that a horror story actually scares me these days (and more's the pity), but Barron's first novel is wrong in all the right ways, leaving behind a caul of unease, and a wicked dose of the cosmic heebie-jeebies. (I'm thrilled to admit that when I finished it last night, I left the lights on.) Also? Un-put-downable. The Croning sustains the poisonous adrenaline level of one of Barron's short stories over almost 250 pages; once you open the cover you are done for. But the faint-of-heart be warned: this is a seriously dark and unpleasant ride, with a sucking black hole where some might prefer redemptive resolution.
With each tautly descriptive and hallucinogenic page, the dread level ratchets up another notch, for both the reader and our "hero" Don Miller. Don, a former geologist and cave-expert now in his early 80s, has recently come to suspect that his notoriously unreliable memory is finally going for good. As Don settles into uneasy retirement in his wife's ancestral family home in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, he reviews his apparently charmed life: moderate wealth, adventurous travel, family and a 50-plus-year marriage with love of his life, the still-vivacious -- and still-successful -- archaeologist Michelle Mock.
But there is something wrong. Don feels a creeping dread about the house and the Mock family's mysterious history, as well as Michelle's long absences, unreliable itineraries, and violent mood swings. Now, Don's fears begin to coalesce into a pattern of nagging inconsistencies and memory-repression so terrifying as to indeed resemble dementia. This challenging timeline structure leaps back and forth across more than half a century of Don's life, methodically revealing the horrors that have been conspiratorially hidden from him until now, and unveiling the truly nightmarish source of Don's dis-ease -- his brushes with a cthonic cult that has flourished from before the dawn of time, and demands unimaginable sacrifice from its chosen acolytes.
In The Croning, Barron has fleshed out the rumors of "Old Leech" and his minions, who have appeared in certain of his short stories, creating an ancient and bloodthirsty mythology of Lovecraftian scale, but with a stench of cosmic horror that is entirely his own. It's sick, but I want more.
Wow. Hardboiled noir meets the Memphis blues and eldritch Lovecraftian horror. If any of those words ring your bell, read Southern Gods right now. Wit...moreWow. Hardboiled noir meets the Memphis blues and eldritch Lovecraftian horror. If any of those words ring your bell, read Southern Gods right now. With tight, literate prose and a great deal of ooky splatter, John Horner Jacobs' debut novel adds an original -- and swampy-foetid -- breath of air to the Lovecraft-inspired new weird. Get ready to welcome the Old Ones to the bayou! And admit it: who among us doesn't want a peek at the illustrated Necronomicon? I know, right?
Needless to say, if that first paragraph is gibberish to you, or if appalling violence and obscene ancient rituals put you off your feed, please don't read this book. There's also a smattering of sex, and lots of smoking, drinking and playing the blues, which you probably won't like either. You have been warned. (less)