Occultation and Other Stories

Occultation and Other StoriesOccultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron

At one point, I assumed Laird Barron was a peer of Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber because his name came up so often when I researched Lovecraftian writers. Of course, I realized my mistake, but I think that informs you about how esteemed Barron is in Lovecraftian circles. So, it was only a matter of time before I dove into some of his work.

In Occultation and Other Stories, Barron presents an array of macabre tales that manage to avoid easy categorization. The story that spooked me the most in this collection was The Broadsword. It’s a tale where the protagonist is an older gentleman hearing people talk about nefarious doings in his apartment’s vents. Things get freakier from there. I enjoyed a ton about this tale, but what stuck with me the most is the fact that The Broadsword effectively recreated the feelings I got while devouring The Whisperer in Darkness for the first time.

Catch Hell and Mysterium Tremendum worked in similar ways for me. They conjured feelings I associated with classic horror stories, but Barron made them feel fresh in his voice. It was also a lot of fun to see “The Black Guide” used in Mysterium Tremendum after reading about it in Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things and Other Stories last month.

Two stories that felt intensely unique were Strappado and – -30- -. Strappado is essentially a tale about a man seeing a Banksy gone wrong. While – – 30 – – deals with the ecology of an area that has something unknown wrong with it. It reminded me a little of Jeff VanderMeer’s (who is thanked in the acknowledgements section) Annihilation, but this was published four years before that. Barron does some of his most effective work when he writes about nature, and I assume that his time living in Alaska probably gave him a unique perspective on the subject.

Lastly, Barron often challenges traditional Lovecraftian tropes. His protagonists come from different ethnicities and genders and go beyond the typical Lovecraftian type, and he deals with sex and sexuality in every story, something often avoided in Lovecraftian yarns. Besides sex, insects also seemed to show up to some degree in every story in this collection, but I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence or not. Bugs certainly play a huge role in Occultation’s first story, The Forest. In that opening story, Barron also has a character named Toshi, whom I assumed was partially inspired by famed Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi.

Overall, I enjoyed all these stories, and I’d like to revisit them to work through the nuts and bolts of how Barron writes. One of the pains of working forty-hour weeks and listening to everything on audible is that I don’t get to underline and mark up the text in front of me. Perhaps I’ll seek out a physical copy of Laird Barron’s Occultation and Other Stories to do just that.

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To Be Devoured by Sara Tantlinger

To Be Devoured by Sara Tantlinger

In To Be Devoured, Sara Tantlinger presents a unique protagonist named Andi. You spend the majority of the novella aware that Andi is an unreliable narrator, and Tantlinger uses her protagonist’s unstable worldview to great effect throughout the story. Through Andi, the reader gets to ride shotgun on a descent into madness. As a result, neither Andi nor the reader is entirely sure what has transpired at certain times in this macabre tale.

While I don’t want to go into deep spoilers, I found it interesting that the inciting incident of the novel is the rejection of an artistic present made by Andi. The creation is something anyone who doesn’t love bugs would certainly be repulsed by, and that is the case for Luna, Andi’s girlfriend, but despite knowing that Luna’s reaction to Andi’s present was appropriate, I couldn’t help understanding and feeling for Andi at this moment. Anyone who’s ever created anything and seen it rejected can certainly relate to the protagonist, and while much of what Andi does after this is demented, this first hurt serves to orient the reader in her headspace.

When the truly horrifying points in the story occur, they are driven by Andi’s inability to halt her delusions and Tantlinger’s delightfully repulsive descriptions of Andi devouring twisted meals no one should be hankering after. Ultimately, even though Andi is doing horrible things, you feel like the world has failed Andi because you’re locked in her head. You want her to get to join the vultures she idolizes throughout the story. Giving the entire story’s point of view to Andi is an interesting narrative choice, and I think Tantlinger balances it in such a way that you don’t feel Andi’s actions are ever things you want to happen, but you understand why Andi does them. So, perhaps the scariest part of this novella is that by the end you aren’t as repulsed by Andi as the other characters in the novel.

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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2)Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

I rarely get emotional while reading a novel, but Doctor Sleep managed to make me burst into tears in its final pages. It’s a moment in the novel that feels inevitable long before it occurs, but when it arrives, it still manages to pack a punch. Of course, as my mother won’t let me forget, Stephen King was also responsible for another famed tear burst from me when I was eight. That was due to the ending of the film adaptation of The Green Mile. While King is famed for his twisted imagination, I’ve always found his ability to conjure catharsis just as powerful as his macabre touches.

But maybe I just connected more with Danny Torrance on a personal level then I’d ever realized before. I picked up Doctor Sleep immediately after finishing The Shining. I’d bought it years ago knowing I’d get to it one day. I’d put off reading The Shining for years because I didn’t want to ruin the movie on myself (I figured I’d be unable to enjoy Kubrick’s work after seeing the true vision). Thankfully, I was happy to discover that my heart had room for both versions of The Shining.

While I loved The Shining, I came into Doctor Sleep with low expectations. I’d heard a lot of negative buzz surrounding the book a few years back. After reading the novel, I must say I don’t agree with what I’d heard in the past. I thoroughly enjoyed this work. Not only was I rushing through the pages for the majority of the novel (a King tradition), but I was catching tons of great connections to The Shining. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is referenced throughout The Shining, and Stephen King finds fun ways to work in new references to it, without actually mentioning it, in Doctor Sleep. A small plot point is that the villains of the story get the measles, a disease that manifests as red bumps ala the red death. There’s also a climactic moment where Dan Torrance manifests a literal red death, but I don’t want to get too spoiler-y in my review.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I felt the opening pages flew by a little quicker than some of the middle sections, but I think that’s typical of most novels. The transition to the secondary protagonist, Abra, felt a little clunky at first, but King eventually found her voice and made her a joy to read. There’s even a twist in the back half of the novel that managed to surprise me, I’d noticed the heavy foreshadowing to it, but I failed to puzzle out the meaning before the revelation. If you’re a King fan or just a fan of The Shining, you should love this book. Now, I can’t wait to see the film adaptation.

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