We’re proud to cap off our run-up to Schlock’s Halloween issue by interviewing one of the luminaries of contemporary horror fiction. In an illuminating Schlock Talk, the award-winning novelist and short story writer Laird Barron speaks about his long history with horror (specifically, since the age of five), the enduring influence of the Alaskan landscape on his work and his latest collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.
Illustration by Thom Cuschieri
What led you to horror as your genre of choice? Despite a well-established horror tradition and a number of horror writers out there, it’s also a genre replete with potential pitfalls (where a recourse to tackiness and gratuitousness can be all too common). How did you negotiate these potential pitfalls?
I don’t take my cues from the terrible authors. Sticking with the example of good authors—King, Straub, Klein, Jackson, etc — and reading outside the genre — McCarthy, Dickey, Martin Cruz Smith — set me on a clear path and kept me out of the briars, more often than not.
You mention that you’ve written since the age of five. Were they horror novels too? If not, what were they?
I’ve written since age five. The novels were written from age eight or nine on. A couple were horror-oriented. Others were epic fantasy and dystopian science fiction. I read a lot and widely, so much of what I wrote was mimetic. My early heroes were Zelazny, Howard, Burroughs, Michener, Clavell, Heinlein, Robbins, among others…I borrowed the hell out of those guys. Game designers such as Gary Gygax, Bruce Heard, and Lawrence Schick were influential in my adolescence. Not so much in style or theme, but as writers who by necessity boiled storytelling to its core and taught others how to flesh out their ideas for an audience.
How has living in Alaska influenced – or bolstered – your writing? And how would you compare it to other cities you’ve visited or lived in, particularly in the way their textures and flavours may have infiltrated your fiction?
Alaska is an important part of my past. The landscape is often dramatic. The weather, especially in the winter, is often dramatic. The indigenous cultures are rich, molded by the ancient geography. It’s a land that attracts a spectrum of unusual personality types. People travel there to live out their eccentricities.
Alaska resonates on a different psychological/physiological frequency than other places I’ve spent time. The extremes of light and darkness, the profound sense of isolation that exists once you travel beyond the major communities, the sense that the state is fundamentally disconnected from the rest of the USA all contribute to an estranging experience I’ve seldom known in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, the mountains of Montana, or the past three years I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley. Each of these regions has, as you say, infiltrated my fiction. The rawness and desperation are purely Alaskan, however.
Given your participation in the Iditarod, one of our contributors asks: which is scarier, politics or wild dogs? And why?
I’ve never been in politics, however, it seems talking politics these days will get you shredded faster and more thoroughly than strapping a t-bone steak to your head and wandering among a pack of wolves.
An idea of rugged masculinity seems to feature predominantly in a lot of your work, even if it’s often undercut by forces far larger than any of your protagonists are able to contend with. Did you seek to comment directly on the idea of masculinity in your work, particularly as it pertains to a hard-bitten archetype that appears to be distinctly ‘American’ in a lot ways (I’m thinking of not just Clint Eastwood et al, but also the noir tradition)?
Start with some facts: Dad was a combat veteran, a Marine. Mom was psychologically tougher than him in some ways, and certainly she was more cold-blooded with us kids. My brothers and I grew up in a harsh setting. Many a dawn began with the knowledge that if you didn’t go find something to kill, there wouldn’t be dinner in the pot. We kept sled dogs; some were borderline feral. Handle these kinds of dogs long enough, you get bitten. And you clean it up and move on. People who live in rural Alaska are tough. I’m not made of sufficiently stern material to hack it there anymore. I can write characters who typify that mindset, though.
I don’t necessarily seek to make statements. I report what I see and sometimes I extrapolate from what I know. What I know is that toughness, irascibility, and a blue collar aesthetic does not disqualify people from erudition or possessing intellectual curiosity. Plenty of folks who hunt their own game and mend their own clothes, bust heads in taverns, or spend time in the clink, are far often more savvy than what is credited to them. As for icons of the hard-bitten tradition, I’m a fan of Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wayne. My notions of toughness don’t derive from cinema. They derive from the gritty, stern, and tragically complicated people I lived and worked with in the wilderness, on the sea, and in factories.
How do you approach humour in your stories? More widely: what kind of relationship does humour have to horror in your work?
My ancestors are primarily Scot-Irish. We tend to favor the sardonic and gallows humor. That said, Alaskans, wherever they hail from originally, have learned to laugh off hardship. It’s a survival mechanism. That dark humor tends to appear in my writing. It’s reflective of my experience and when done well, a witty aside can deflate tension, or amp it up via contrast.
You’re often associated with the ‘cosmic horror’ sub-genre in particular, and with fellow American writers from the early 20th century milieu like HP Lovecraft. While it certainly appears to be a sub-genre that enjoys a healthy – and arguably ascendant – following, it also seems as though it may be doomed to remain a ‘cult’ sub-genre, for whatever reason. With more and more devotees seemingly emerging from the woodwork, do you see yourself at the vanguard of a revival, or as a member of the old guard?
It’s a fool’s errand to become overly preoccupied with trends or one’s position. My writing and the subjects I approach are in evolution. I don’t waste time fretting over whether I’ll move far enough, fast enough to gain a wider audience, much less keep that audience.
On a similar note, what do you make of the fact that a show like True Detective garnered so much attention for that particular strand of horror fiction? Do you think that the Thomas Ligotti plagiarism controversy would have played out any differently had Ligotti’s work been more popular, or at least more firmly ingrained within a ‘mainstream’ literary/horror tradition?
Flawed heroes are popular. Horror and weird fiction are in an up-cycle. I’ve only seen pieces of the show, but it seems to slot right in between a slew of antihero dramas such as Breaking Bad, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, etc, etc… Opinions regarding the controversy are divided, to say the least. The debate devolved into all kinds of ugliness. Nothing useful seems to have derived from the rancor. I don’t have much else to say about it.
How do the stories in ‘The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All’ build on your previously published collected works? What do you think defines them from your previous work: both in terms of the finished product, and your working methods themselves?
The Beautiful Thing… is a synthesis of the first two collections. Several of the stories circle back to my love of crime and men struggling against nature. Others are concerned with human relationships. The weird figures prominently. I tried to be looser, to write with more of a white heat and avoid excessive revision. I’m at a point where ideas come more easily, where plots and themes interconnect with previous works. My internal worlds continually knit themselves together. They’re growing much larger and much more frightening than I’d imagined.
Laird Barron is the author of three collections: The Imago Sequence, Occultation and most recently The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. His work has appeared inmany magazines and anthologies. An expatriate Alaskan,Barron currently resides in the wilds of Upstate New York. For more, log on to his official website.
Thom Cuschieri is a mathematician who draws comics. He’s sorry about that thing with the cake and the trampoline and promises it’ll never happen again. Find him on Twitter as @thomcuschieri.