Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
Last week, the winners of the Bram Stoker Awards were announced at a ceremony in Portland, Oregon, and amongst the authors honoured by the HWA was the lord of cosmic horror himself, Laird Barron, for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.
The fiction collection referenced is his third, after Occultation and The Imago Sequence, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deserving of the association’s acclaim. I read it piecemeal around its release in 2013, after being completely creeped out by The Croning, and although I remember it well, it’s a book I found myself tentacularly happy to go back to.
Not all of the stories gathered together in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All are representative of Barron’s best efforts—‘The Siphon’ is sadly senseless, meanwhile ‘More Dark’ is doubly indulgent—but some are simply stunning, not least ‘Blackwood’s Baby,’ with which wickedness the collection commences, and ‘Hand of Glory,’ nominated as it was for a World Fantasy Award. But the best of the bunch, in my book, must be ‘The Men From Porlock.’
Originally published in The Book of Cthulhu in 2011 alongside stories by Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Elizabeth Bear—go forth and grab a copy of this awesome anthology also—the descent ‘The Men From Porlock’ documents starts a hundred years or so ago in Slango Camp, an isolated outpost entrenched in an expanse of forest “in the rugged foothills of Mystery Mountain.”
The camp was a good sixteen miles from the main rail line, and from there another eighteen miles from the landing at Bridgewater Junction. The spur to Slango Camp plunged through a temperate jungle of junk hemlock, poplar and skinny evergreens, peckerwood, so-called, and nearly impassable underbrush—seas of devil’s club, blackberry brambles, and alder. The loggers spanned the many gullies and ravines with hastily chopped junk trees to support rickety track. It seemed improbable anybody, much less a suit, would visit such a Godforsaken place unless they had no other choice.
Improbable, perhaps, but plainly possible, given that a suit sent by the logging company to make sure the operation’s being run right is set to arrive at Slango Camp shortly. To his stay all the more comfortable, and his findings—fingers crossed—kinder, our man Miller and a group of other “dog-faced loggers” are dispatched into the deep forest on a quest for venison.
On their first night in the woodland wilderness they tend, inevitably, to telling tales around the campfire, such as the sinister Rumpelstiltskin story. Having “dwelt among the Christian devout as well as the adherents of mystical traditions,” Miller has his misgivings about this from the first, in that “there were those who believed to speak of a thing was to summon it into the world, to lend it form and substance, to imbue it with power.”
To wit, he’s wary the next day, especially when his party happens upon a tree with a strange symbol carved in its bark:
A blaze mark on the downhill face of the big dead cedar—a stylised ring, broken on the sinister side. […] Someone had daubed it in a thick reddish paint, now bled and mostly absorbed by the wood. It appeared petrified with age. Some inherent quality of the ring caused Miller’s flesh to crawl. The light seemed to dim, the forest to close in.
And when they open the tree, what do they see? Something simply unspeakable, readers.
Hightailing it the hell away from there, and that, the harried hunters head into a rustic village where the barbaric last act of ‘The Men From Porlock’ happens:
Miller had marched similar villages in the European countryside where the foundations might be centuries old, perhaps dated from Medieval times. To encounter such a place here in the wilds of North America was incomprehensible. This town was wrong, utterly wrong, and the valley one of the hidden places of the world. He’d never heard a whisper of the community and only God knew why people would dwell in secret. Perhaps they belonged to a religious sect that had fled persecution and wished to follow their faith in peace. He thought of the dreadful music from the previous night, the ominous drums, the blackening sun, and was not reassured.
Nor should he be. There’s a horror here, you see—an ancient evil—and it means Miller ill. Least, it seems to. A military man who has, in the past, survived any number of terrible engagements unscathed, it’s almost as if something is watching over him… saving him, in its way, for a greater fate.
Brilliantly, Barron doesn’t go so far as to state this. Instead, it’s suggested, as are most of the malignant things in this exquisitely nightmarish narrative. We don’t ever really see the evil, though we certainly get a sense of it: a collection of impressions it falls to us to fill out, if indeed we dare.
Credible fiction of this form is a rare thing, I think. Lesser attempts often come across as ridiculous rather than insidious, ho-hum as opposed to horrifying—but this story slithers. Keens and writhes and cries like a living thing, largely because Barron’s narrative favours restraint where others of its ilk are explicit, appallingly wanton in their depiction of the darker half—a particular problem when this takes the shape of something as innately nonsensical as tentacles.
Few authors can pull off cosmic horror as confidently as Laird Barron can, and this story is a stellar example of his carefully controlled craft. As Norman Partridge notes in his introduction to The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, ‘The Men From Porlock’ “mates Lovecraft with the best of Sam Peckinpah. It’s The Wild Bunch versus the Old ones, and it’s a magnificently brutal tale that would make HPL cry for his momma.”
I don’t know about that—dead men tell no tales, and I dare say it’s about time we left off talking about the historical origins of this form of fiction anyway—but contemporary cosmic horror doesn’t get better, and it pleases me a great deal to hear the HWA say so.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.