Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence

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Summary: Barron's 2007 collection of nine weird tales show his stylistic hallmarks of visual horror, carnivorous universes, disjointed narratives, insectoid digressions, power addicted madmen, and hints of noir. Overall a solid, fairly unique book with enough weird to chew on for a bit.

BLOT: (16 Aug 2011 - 12:27:34 PM)

Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence

The Imago Sequence1 represents about seven years of creative development for Laird Barron, from 2001 to 2007.2 This can be a big swath for an up and coming writer and perhaps the biggest surprise is not that Barron has so quickly grasped his style and so early developed hallmarks to anchor his works, but that his first decade of output has been marked by a certain consistency of key tropes and philosophies. Very mature, hard to handle ones. Imagine trying to sum up the thick, ropey fear that you get upon hearing the slightest whisper in your house at night, when you know everyone else is gone. Combine that with looking up into the night sky and realizing you are looking at dead stars' last echoes of light. Stir in the way that glimpses of things out of place, the visual mask of weirdness hinting at more underneath—like an old woman standing by the interstate in the middle of the night, staring into the woods—hits a generation of horror fans raised on movies. Think of the idea that out there, somewhere, the Allegory of the Cave breaks down, and some chained people have turned and looked to the sun at the mouth of the cave and they have found it horribly amazing and amazingly horrible. Toss in discussions of geological ages, entomology, drug abuse, depression, and the breakdown of relationships and you have a good idea of what you are getting.

Inside of these motifs, there are various takes. "Proboscis," hands down the hardest story to crack despite being one of the shorter ones, focuses heavily on genetic slime, the smell of chlorine bleach, and insect life. "Shiva, Open Your Eye" starts out seeming to be about a psychic (?) farmer (?) investigated in connection to missing people but eventually erupts into full Barronian mode with an outright Dunsanian abandon. In the midst of the outpouring, we get possibly the single most horrible scene in the entire book, a couple of lines about a slight fissure just becoming evident across the night sky as Shiva/God/Azathoth/The Universe starts to finally open its eye to see3. "Bulldozer" references elements of "Shiva" (there is the concept of God's Mouth not in the sense of Metatron, from which God outpours His commands, but in the sense of devouring and chewing up the Creation, punching holes through it, which close up only to open new ones), but is something of a Western/Noir mashup, focusing on a Pinkerton agent with a violent streak coming against something that cannot be solved with guns (and it, too, has a wonderful moment where it dives into Barronian mode, while playing with chronological order).

"Hallucigenia" also looks at an investigation, this time an ex-playboy is trying to find out what happened after an incident in a dilapidated barn ruins his life and severely harms his pretty young wife. This story, by the way, is more Lovecraftian than the others, with a clan of redneck sorts breaking through into vile realms and better, more upper-crust sorts getting pulled into the hell dug up while an investigation into the behind-the-scenes becomes the catalyst for even worst things. In fact, investigation is a strong motif across the collection. In "Old Virginia", the opening story, there is a scientific study going down despite the main character's not knowing everything he should. A similar thing happens in the aforementioned "Proboscis", and the theme is obviously present in "Shiva" and "Bulldozer". "Procession of the Black Sloth", original to this collection, "The Imago Sequence", and "Parallax" also entail detective work, spying, and the like. In fact, the only story in which some sort of research, study, or probing doesn't go down is "The Royal Zoo is Closed", and I may have just missed it there. Time and time again, the moral is, "We are driven to know, and this drive will destroy us."

Going back to "Black Sloth", the story that was original to this collection and, based on one interview, the first to be optioned for film rights, we have an interesting experiment indeed. Much of the horror in that story is accomplished by being the on-the-page rendition of modes and tropes used in cinematic horror, especially Asian cinema. Not only do we get actual scenes on TV screens and movie screens and photographs (the corporate detective at the core naturally uses lots of cameras), but several of the key scenes are presented audio-visually, devoid of smell and taste and touch. As a note, though, if you don't know much about Diyu, the Chinese/Buddhist concept of levels of Hell, then you might be confused by what's going on here or there. The idea of a audiovisual experience being captured by the written word earlier showed up in "The Imago Sequence", where the quest for a strange series of photographs and a missing uncle—and along the way references strange hominids and skies of amber and worlds with wrong bunches of time mashed together—leads largely on a quest to see the truth and to hear it, "Black Sloth" feels more pure in the form.

My favorite in the collection? Probably "Parallax". While "The Imago Sequence" roped me in with its quest and its strong Barronian concepts, and while "Black Sloth" is probably the most haunting to me ("Bulldozer" likely wins for most fun, with "Proboscis" being the one I'll likely reread first); "Parallax" is simple and haunting and unbelievably tragic. Most of the others make you feel like you should hate this person or that one who decided to do bad things and so bad things developed, but "Parallax" is the one that makes you feel that the Universe itself is a bastard. Not because of the rules. Not because of some hungry God that needs a Mouth to feed, but simply because it is. And, well, it definitely can be, now can't it?

Overall, loved the collection. I read Occultation first, because I do everything in reverse, and I have to say that while that is a collection of stronger stories (or, maybe, it is best to say that the stories are more honed in their devices) this feels more like a stronger collection. With a couple of exceptions, these could all be people witnessing the same universe from slightly different times and angles. The mood never quite peaks to the degree it does at the climax of Occultation's "--30--" or "The Broadsword", but it feels more darkly sustained at a lower, ambient beat.

Before I close, I wanted to point out William Mingin's long review at Strange Horizons. While he does go off on tangents, and comes across as skeptical about some of Barron's techniques, while assuming more of a Lovecraft/Machen intent than maybe is useful (Barron is more keen to reference Aickman), it still has some interesting things to say about whether or not Barron's stories are actually complex, or merely made to seem complex.4

Finally, here is The Imago Sequence's publisher product page.

1: The eponymous story references Wallace Steven's "Imago5":

"Who can pick up the weight of Britain,
Who can move the German load
Or say to the French here is France again?
Imago. Imago. Imago."

While the Latin root hinting at images is clear, it is important to remember the other meaning of imago: the final stage of an insect's life. The adult stage where it finally moves from a pupal stage to a sexually mature, winged thing.

2: The original, that is to say the limited, edition had a tenth story, "The Hour of the Cyclops", which was published in the year 2000. That edition is predictably hard to track down, but the story is, as of now, readable online.


I strip my clothes as I go and end up on the cusp of the sea, naked and shriveled. The stars are feral. They shudder—a ripple is spreading across the heavens and the stars are dancing wildly in its pulsating wake. A refulgence that should not be seen begins to seep from the widening fissure. Here is a grand and terrible happening to write of on the wall of a cave . . .God opening His Eye to behold the world and all its little works.

4: To show a little of why I am not completely behind Mingin's article, for an article so devoted to examining and slightly bashing the tools of complexity and the clash between facts-as-impressions and the protagonist's given worldview (where a protag in a horror novel assumes things he is seeing/dreaming/doing cannot be real), he ignores the complex impressions of "Proboscis", giving the story only a tiny and generally praising paragraph, but then craps on the straightforward, though abstract, ending of "Shiva" with, "It's hard to imagine anyone being entertained by this." The story that avoids those two things the most by making the main character the monster, effectively, gets the worst review while the story that embraces those concepts to a point of near distraction is given a thumbs up. Also, Mingin makes a lot of assumptions about Barron's intent with scenes, assuming that drugs/alcohol/etc are introduced to make us doubt the main character's impressions, as opposed to my take, which is that we are given a visceral insight into the impressions they receive, and people who dream/think like this are not going to be all happy-go-lucky. Only in "Black Sloth", does the protagonist actively, for a time, try to compartmentalize what is going on.

5: Interestingly, a Wallace Stevens' quote from "The Domination of Black" [which is also the title of Barron's Livejournal blog] is also used to start "Hallucigenia", a line about remembering the cry of the peacocks. The quote in context of the original poem...

"Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks."

Laird Barron, Horror, Weird Fiction


Written by Doug Bolden

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