Jan 18, 2017

Laird Barron's Swift to Chase, Part 1 of 3

The Golden Age of Slashing

I tend to ration new collections by my favourite horror author Laird Barron; for one thing, I'm not always in the mood for horror, and more importantly: When the mood strikes me, It's the greatest thing to have somethin new by Barron at hand. Therefore, and because the author chose to split his collection into three segments, my review of his new collection Swift to Chase comes in three parts, each about one of them.
The first segment is entitled "The Golden Age of Slashing", and the four stories that comprise it are connected by the character of Jessica Mace, which, after reading the first to stories of the collection, I characterized in my head as a hard-bitten sword&sorcery heroine in a modern horror/thriller world.

"Screaming Elk, MT" finds Jessica Mace on the road, downing whiskeys in cheap dumps, screwing with and screwing the unsavory locals. We find out that she has not only survived her throat being cut by a psycho killer, but also popped five bullets in said psycho afterwards, so she's pretty badass ... she hooks up with a guy from a carnivale, and together, they discover a gruesome crime site. It's obvious that the guy knows more about what's going on, and soon after, he asks her to help lift a course on the carnivale. Jessica agrees, not quite out of the kindness of her soul, but because of the substantial financial reward offered to her and also because she is kind of a self-admitted "making the worst choice possible" junkie.
What's really damn cool about this story is that Jessica Mace is so damn cool. But what's better is that she is still a pretty real character - Jessica is a first person narrator who's quite conscious of being kind of a legendary badass, and she gives this status an ironic twist; it's quite believable not only that she prevails, but that she is still terrified by all the gruesome stuff she experiences.
So this story is Barron at his wriest. He still delivers short, effective moments of utter terror, but they are framed by a self-referentiality that has become more and more prevalent in Barron's fiction. I must confess that I'm a little ambivalent about that development. I honestly miss the feeling of dread that earlier stories like "Hallucigenia", "Procession of the Black Sloth" and "Strappado" evoked in me - they really felt like pure existential terror bubbling up from the blackest pits. They were shockingly bleak, certainly laced with a macabre sense of humor, but the bleakness prevailed. A lot of Barron's later stories switch this around, and "Screaming Elk, LT" takes it pretty far.
On the other hand, it is never a good idea to repeat yourself too much, and Barron definitely keeps trying out new stuff - for example, I'm quite happy that he eschews using his Old Leech mythology in this story; while it is my favourite mythology this side of cosmic horror, I'm not quite sure if it would have worked with the character of Jessica Mace. And oh, yes, the story has a showdown that is quite anti-climatic and quite harrowing at the same time; also something that Barron is really good at.
So all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed "Screaming Elk, MT", even though it didn't quite deliver what I was hoping for.

The next story, "LD50" is again narrated by Jessica Mace. I think, though I'm not quite sure, that it is set a little earlier in her life, but the clues are sketchy. For one thing, she seems not quite as hardened yet. "LD50" is kind of a slow burner - Jessica hooks up with a silent cowboy type of guy, goes hunting and hears some rumors about vicious dog-killings, but for a long time, it's all about nothing much happening against a backdrop of mounting dread. Again, Barron shows himself as a master of the shocking anti-climax. You're waiting for something terrible to happen, and then it either doesn't happen or is over much faster than expected, and you are left with the feeling that you have been blindsided, that the actual terror is still lurking somewhere, will always be lurking.
"LD50" is much more meticulously constructed than "Screaming Elk, MT" and stuck with me on a deeper level. It is unexpected in many ways. I think this will end up on my list of favourite Barron stories for quite different reasons than usual.

After reading these two stories, I felt that Jessica is kind of a modern-day Conan in a world of horrors - damaged, badass, getting mixed-up in weird adventures because of money and because she doesn't know better. So I was unprepared for "Termination Dust", which finally tells the story about how Jessica got her terrible scar at the neck and how she popped that serial killer. Jessica is only of several protagonists in this story of a serial killer running amok in an appartment building in Alaska, while outside a blizzard is raging. "Termination Dust" is that precious instance of a formal experiment going totally right. It plays with how slasher movies make you identify with the killer and takes this motive further in ways that I really don't want to spoil ... it's also by far the scariest and most unsettling of the first batch of stories in this collection. Read it carefully. It cast's Jessica Mace in a slightly different light than the previous two stories and also kind of bookends them (going by publication date, "Termination Dust" seems to have been written before them). There's also a vague hint about it tying into Barron's greater mythology, and that aspect is expanded on by the next and last story of the first batch, "Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees". I must confess in advance that I'm unfamiliar with the comedian referenced in the story's title; and now, after reading the story, I'm not at all inclined to change that ...

Here, Jessica Mace disappears even further into the background as the high school nemesis of protagonist Julie Vellum. Kudos to Barron to for making Julie, the cliché of a mean, empty-headed cheerleader girl a somewhat relatable character. You're probably not going to like her, but looking at her parents and the subliminal brutality of high school life that she has to cope with (and that she also quite enthusiastically perpetuates), you'll probably kind of see the dearth of opportunities for her to become a decent human being. As can be expecteed, "Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees" is a black comedy - Julie enlists the help of her schools resident weirdo to surprise her father, an alcoholic who is dying of rectal cancer, with an Andy Kaufman impersonation. Turns out that this weirdo is truly weird ... Again, there's a self-referential element to this story, because not only is it a macabre comedy, its also a story about the inherent violence of comedy. I'd say this is more a "scary story" than a horror story and not remotely as unsettling as something like "Strappado" (which remains my high water mark in that regard). Still, it is a thematically rich, delightfully mean and nevertheless very human little story.

So that's a little more than the first third of Swift to Chase ... more to follow; but for now, it's back to reading Cixin Liu's Death's End.

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