(This review first appeared on StaticMulitmedia.com on June 22, 2009)
“Ignorance is all we apes can hope for,” says a character in “Bulldozer,” one of Laird Barron’s stories for the collection The Imago Sequence and Other Stories. Each of these nine stories slices away at that blissful ignorance and gives the reader a glimpse into the hells that exist in the darkest niches of human nature. Curiosity, in Barron’s works, does not always kill the cat, but the answers gained in uncovering the mysteries are never comforting.
The first story, “Old Virginia,” details a secret ops detail guarding an experiment with an elderly woman who turns out to be much older and formidable than expected. “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” told in first person from the not-the-usual suspect’s perspective, tells about a private investigator’s final and most disturbing case. “Procession of the Black Sloth” chronicles the otherworldly encounters of a corporate investigator sent to plug the dike of a Hong Kong factory leaking key personal. In “Bulldozer” a Pinkerton man gets more than he bargained for hunting down a murderous strongman on the lamb who stole some disquieting valuables from P. T. Barnum. Modern day vigilantes find more than they bargained for when they capture a serial rapist and kidnapper in “Proboscis.” A wealthy couple’s existence is forever changed after exploring a not-so-abandoned barn when their car breaks down in “Hallucigenia.” “Parallax” proposes an answer to why not everyone’s reality is the same. “The Royal Zoo Is Closed” shows that all people who have visions of the apocalypse may not be mollified by medication and a few therapy sessions. The title story, “The Imago Sequence,” demonstrates that art may be more than the imitation of life—in this case, it can change it in a very literal, evolutionary way.
A skillful writer, Barron lulls the reader with his often lyrical wording so in contrast the occasional drift to the vulgar vernacular acts as a slap in the face, emphasizing the gut reactions of characters and his savage imagery. His writing spans the stylistic gap between Dean Koontz and Stephen King, alternating between lush poetics to bare bones prose, suiting style to the character and the story as needed. Unlike the work of either of those two opposing icons of horror and suspense, Barron’s short stories lack any trace of optimism whatsoever; while the stories conclude events in the main character’s life, the horror promises to continue ad infinitum. In mood, Barron’s work more in tune with Harlan Ellison’s most memorable pieces; “The Royal Zoo Is Closed” is akin to Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in its promise of unending terror. Like Koontz, Barron shifts the geographic center of horror and the supernatural out of King’s modern gothic New England to the West and Pacific Northwest. The reoccurrence of certain settings, such as the Mima Mounds in Washington state, adds to the new mythology Barron invents in his work.
The collection itself is a well crafted volume. Like the songs of a classic themed album, one story builds upon another like segments of a suspension bridge, each story drawing strength from the one before, creating the tightly woven tension needed to convey the reader to the ultimate destination. The last offering, the title story, caps the collection neatly. In that story, the main character follows the trail of a series of photographs that comprise the triptych “Imago Sequence.” The viewer cannot fully understand the subject of the art work until all the separate pieces have been seen. I this short story collection, each of the preceding eight stories give a glimpse of Barron’s conception of our world’s horrific underpinnings; “The Imago Sequence” connects those pieces into a larger vision. The nine offerings combine timelines, characters, imagery and locations into a Lovecraftian construction that lacks only an introduction from Rod Serling welcoming you to The Night Gallery.