The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron
This is a collection of short stories, or more accurately, weird tales. Laird Barron is touted as being one of the leading lights of the New Weird. The New Weird is the resurgent genre of the old weird tale, which was practised by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries. They were often published in the 1930s American pulp magazine Weird Tales. Lovecraft invented cosmic horror, stories where humans are a speck in a vast, terrifying, unknowable universe, liable to go mad at the merest hint of the true nature of reality, which is usually incredibly hostile. Other writers like Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Peter Straub and Thomas Ligotti have continued in the same vein.
I read The Imago Sequence in April, but I'm a bit thick, and I didn't understand what I'd just read. It was too clever and too obscure for me. Laird Barron has said he deliberately makes his stories elliptical. So I set about re-reading it, and now I've understood it a bit more (with a bit of help from some online research/cheating).
There are nine stories. Here's what I think I thought of them.
In the 1950s, an old, distinguished military man leads a group of soldiers who have been assigned to protect some scientists and Subject X in a remote cabin in the woods. There is obviously something very strange going on with Subject X, but what concerns Garland, the main character, are the signs that people are up to mischief in the woods, slashing their trucks' tyres and smashing the engine. Russians. Commies. It's obvious who's doing it, according to Garland, so there must be something pretty important about Subject X.
Indeed there is. Needless to say, neither the experienced soldiers or science boffins are up to much when Subject X decides to have a go at them.
'Old Virginia' has the first example of a recurring theme running through the stories - the protagonist sees someone who reminds him (it's always a 'him' by the way, in all nine tales, and nearly always some kind of tough guy) of an old friend or family member - could actually be them, even though they died years ago. Other motifs that crop up more than once include being caught in amber, scotch broom, unnaturally tall and brutish villains, and the Mima mounds, which are naturally-occurring mounds of top soil. This is on top of the usual cosmic horror elements of completely alien entities (possibly gods, maybe insanely weird organisms), and the crazed humans who consort with them.
Anyway, this story ends in a suitably weird way.
Shiva, Open Your Eye
A toughnut PI visits a frail old man on a remote farm. People have been disappearing round those parts. The PI wants to ask the frail old man some questions, have a look around, if that's all right. Of course it is, says the frail old man.
This is told from the frail old man's point of view. You start to feel sorry for the PI, because you just know something bad is going to happen. This first part, around the farm, is the best bit, but what comes after that is very different in tone. It's a long tract of purple prose, interesting, but less effective, and I didn't enjoy it as much.
Procession of the Black Sloth
This is the first novella-length story in the collection, and also the first original one, all the others having appeared in other publications.
An industrial espionage investigator called Royce is sent to Hong Kong to look into some funny goings-on in the company. He gets a tip that the employee to look into is Brendan Coyne. Royce stays in the same compound as Coyne in order to keep tabs on him, the compound being a set of apartments for western businessmen and their families. It's the kind of place where the power is unreliable, and vermin scuttles about, heard but not seen. A group of creepy old women also reside there (one being Coyne's mum), and a hot businesswoman who Royce is attracted to, Shelley Jackson.
Royce watches the old women as they congregate round the pool in the centre of the compound. He watches Shelley Jackson's window. He gets local lads to follow and secretly film the old women as they potter about Hong Kong. He gets into the debauched partying scene of western businessmen who hop from club to club, drinking and shagging as much as possible. Royce becomes a bit unhinged from all the excess. Strange, inexplicable things start happening. Noises at his apartment door. Weird shapes in the corridor. Surveillance tapes he never knew he'd made, showing frightening things.
I didn't get this story at first. It's bleak, claustrophobic and has disturbing elements, but what was actually going on was unclear. I've since read online what someone else thinks it's about, and apparently it's spelt out for you at the end. I don't think it's as clear cut as this online bloke thinks, because although things are eventually 'explained' by some of the characters, there is such a sense of disorientation and doubt, I couldn't take what was said at face value. I've read the story twice now, and although it feels a bit clearer, there are still ambiguities.
Nonetheless, I have decided that I like it. It's just one of those tales you have to work at!
This was one of my favourite stories in the collection. It's a bit of light relief after 'Black Sloth'. A detective from the Pinkerton agency, Koenig, hunts down an escaped murderer in the Wild West. It's so beautifully written, like Raymond Chandler. The hard-boiled detective is tough, world-weary, violent, but has a noble heart (e.g. he's kind to select whores, wants to kill murderers, and contributes to the cost of coffins for the people who get in his way).
It starts with such brilliant lines:
' - Then He bites off my shooting hand.
Christ on a pony, here's a new dimension in pain.'
'"Much obliged, Mr, K. Whole lotta widows and orphans in these parts."
"More every day," I said.'
And one more:
'So I shot him twice... His hat tumbled away. He had a thick mane of blond hair with a perfect pink circle at the crown. That's what you got for wearing cowboy hats all the fucking time.'
I can imagine Clint Eastwood or Humphrey Bogart in the role, Koenig being a kind of combination of gunslinger and cynical PI.
The recurrent character of a very brutish villain comes up again, and the suggestion of unfathomably powerful and strange beings behind the villain's actions.
This one was better the second time around, as I'd had time to digest it. Some modern day bounty hunters arrest a couple of criminals, handing them into the police in Canada and then heading back to the US. One of the criminals is a very savage, violent thug - again.
The main character, Ray, used to be an actor, now making ends meet by collecting the bounty on bringing in wanted men and women. Him and his two bounty hunter friends attend a music festival where a drunk girl says something about 'going right through the meninges'. There's later talk about insects that feed on other insects by camouflaging themselves and ambushing their victims. The characters are inexplicably drawn to the Mima Mounds National Park for some sightseeing, something which feels unusual to do, yet they do it anyway. Ray has a strange experience in a town near the Mima Mounds - he realises the people and the town don't seem real, they're just 'macaroni and glue', and the 'buildings were cardboard'. The criminals they chased, who have since been cut loose by the Canadian authorities for some reason, don't seem human.
It all leads to some supreme weirdness at the Mima Mounds themselves, and some unsettling, cosmically horrible implications. I want to write more about what I think is going on in this story, but, y' know... #spoilers.
This is the second novella-length story. Not sure if it couldn't have been shorter. A millionaire businessman and his young wife find something weird in an isolated barn, some kind of gigantic wasp nest. There's a freak accident. He ends up with a broken leg and she ends up with a nasty head wound, rendering her a vegetable.
Wallace Smith, the millionaire, gets nurses in to look after his invalid wife. There is a dent in her forehead - the wound she sustained - and a wet, crusty crack running from the dent, closing her right eye, and going down her cheek. The doctors don't understand it and can't stop it getting longer.
He dreams of cracks, and things squirming in them. He doesn't fully recall what happened in the barn. The cracks appear in an earlier story, 'Bulldozer' where the Pinkerton agent notices cracks in the walls. 'Hallucigenia' refers to the Mima Mounds as well. And the villains (a family called the Choates) are very tall, very smelly, and up to weird things, and Wallace has disturbing encounters with one of them.
He employs a detective (one named Lance Pride, not a bad name for a character in a book about how tiny and vulnerable the human race is compared with things in the greater cosmos), to find out about the Choates. There's a lot of detail about them, what people think of them and what they got up to on their farm and in that barn, which I didn't think was needed. I understood they were consorting with things best not consorted with, and gaining strange knowledge in the process, but this could have been told in fewer pages.
Apart from that, this is good stuff, with the requisite creepy and unsettling bits, and detailed characters that make the whole absurd business more believable. And I'm sure there's more subtlety to it than I could fathom.
So there's this bloke, Jack Carson, whose wife, Miranda, has gone missing, and he is a successful artist with connections with a group who dabbled in Satanism and maybe pulled some strings to launch his career. The investigating detectives looking into the artist's background find that on a trip to Europe years ago, several women went missing wherever he went. They're convinced he killed his Mrs and is a serial killing monster. They dog him for six years, unable to secure a conviction.
Jack is confused. His memories of him and Miranda are mixed up. He recalls the time she disappeared, and the weird migraine he had just before it happened. Jack hires Lance Pride of the previous story to try and find the people who kidnapped Miranda, because he sure had nothing to do with it. She was just there in the living room one minute, doing her nails, and the next, poof, the nail polish dripping onto the table with no nails to polish.
This felt like a more straightforward story, with a more definite explanation for what's going on. Still a lot to chew on, mind, with excerpts from interviews with Jack, the detectives, and other characters intercut with the main story, inviting you to look at the clues and work out what's really going on.
The Royal Zoo is Closed
Whoa. This is superdense existence-is-futile stuff. Broken up into the sections (Entr'acte, Imprezio, Coda), this short story shows Sweeney going to work and ruminating on modern life, and finding it to be absurd and crap. It's written brilliantly, with an edgy, wisecracking cynicism, and a vividness that begs to be quoted.
"The bus disgorged in the tunnel. Worker ants poured from the barrel... Sweeney led the surge, chin in his chest, striding past the Korean espresso stand, the all-star a capella singers, and the heavies with their hats out. A radio sputtered static. Jimmy Swaggart shrieking on full automatic... Jesus wasn't dead, just in hiding like Cousin Waldo. Maybe they were shacking with Noriega at a Vatican safehouse."
Then something weird happens, something Lovecraftian, but told in such a way that if you weren't paying attention you wouldn't notice. Things go wrong, the world changes for the worse, as if it's about to end. Maybe the world was never really the world in the first piece, just some sham, or opera, or zoo, for someone else's benefit. Bleak, nihilistic shit, dude. But written so fizzin' well. (I didn't really like this one first time around - it took a careful second reading to get more out of it. You can't skim-read this stuff.)
By the way, I tried to find out what Entr'acte, Imprezio, and Coda mean. The story mentions opera so I assumed they were related to that. The first is an interval between two acts. The closest thing to Imprezio I could find was the Polish 'impreza' meaning a party or get-together. Coda means a confirmation or summary in a piece of music. Make of that what you will.
The Imago Sequence
A PI, Marvin Cortez, who is more of an amateur knee-capper than a proper detective, is hired by his rich friend, Jacob, to look into a series of three photographs known as the Imago Sequence. Cortez sees the first one, Parallax Alpha, and is instantly hooked. It depicts a terrifying beast-man, maybe a hominid, howling in amber, though other people claim they can only see weird rock formations. Anyone who has owned one of the three photos has either gone mad, died or disappeared. They are cursed!
The other two photos are Parallax Beta and Imago. They were taken by a mediocre photographer called Ammon, in an undisclosed location, the subject of the photos deliberately witheld so no one really knows what they show. Beta is in an exhibition in a San Francisco gallery, but no one has ever seen Imago, except for maybe someone called Anselm Thornton, who has seen them all, and probably owns the last picture.
Cortez starts having terrible nightmares. He can't get Alpha out of his head, and he goes and sees Beta, which just makes things worse. He interviews previous owners, who say far-out things and suggest Thornton uses the photos as some kind of bait.
There are some typically cosmically horrifying ideas in this story - notions of the true, frightening nature of reality, which consigns humanity to little more than a snack for something unimaginably awful. Lovecraft would've been proud. There's work to be done by the reader, trying to figure out what it all means - why, for instance, does an over-ripe pear appear in a fruit bowl when it had just been eaten? What happened to the owner of the San Fran gallery showing Beta? Cortez finds some bizarre photos, unrelated to the Imago Sequence - how did they get taken? What will the Imago photo show?
It features the now familiar elements of a very tall villain, and cosmic entities of supreme unpleasantness. It is good.
The Hour of the Cyclops
This is a bonus tenth story, not listed in the contents page. A spy, or government agent, or something like that, is trying to rescue a young woman from the clutches of the Ancient Apothecary, who wants to use her to summon some terrible deity that will drive everyone in the world mad. You know the kind of thing. Sure you do. The stars are right, so it's time to sacrifice a human and call a mad god down from space.
This doesn't feel as mature as the other stories, and it looks to have been written a few years before the others in the collection. It's still good fun though, lighter than the others.
So there we are, that's what I thought of Laird Barron. By the way, I think it's important to point out that Laird Barron wears an eyepatch and used to compete in sled dog racing, and comes from Alaska, three things which I think you'll agree make him an interesting character.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Susie Trinder gets drawn into a nasty plan to cheat a young lady, Maud Lilly, out of her fortune. Her guardian, who brought her up from a baby when her real mother was unable to, is Mrs Sucksby, who presides over a house in The Borough, London, frequented by thieves selling their wares. Gentleman, a devilish rogue, has come up with the scheme to marry Maud Lilly and swindle her out of her inheritance. Susie's role is to become her maid and convince her to marry Gentleman.
It's told from Susie's point of view, and she's never been out of London, so when she goes to Briar, a country house where Maud lives with her cold, cruel uncle, we feel her confusion and misery at her new situation. It's really well told - you can believe you are being told the story by a rough-and-ready lass from the poorer part of 1840s London.
The less said about Fingersmith, the better, apart from to say it's very clever, well-plotted, and vividly conjures up the world of Victorian England. Even though the plot could be considered far-fetched, it feels believable because of the natural, unforced way the characters think and behave - though as I think about it, there's at least one handy coincidence that helps someone get out of a predicament, but that doesn't matter.
It has been adapted into an acclaimed film, The Handmaiden, transplanting the story to 1930s colonial Korea. There's also a two-part BBC drama called Fingersmith.