The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
Night Shade Books
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 04-02-2013
280 Pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 01-14-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013
We know that while the universe is infinite, our knowledge is limited. There's only so much we can learn, and the certainty of our ignorance should give us pause. Most of the time, we operate as if this does not matter, because most of the time that's true. But on occasion, we might glance at a shadow and mistake it for something more substantial, or hear a voice that proves to be no more than the soughing of the wind. In those moments, if we're lucky, we see more than our workaday world, and are able to return. There is nothing to connect the solid shadow to the voice in the soughing of the wind.
Laird Barron's collection 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' makes those connections for us, in stories that are truly haunting. Barron's rough-and-tumble assembly of hunters, mob-enforcers, lumberjacks, schoolteachers and writers are every bit as limited in their understanding of what is around them as are his readers. Barron lets them see just a little bit more than a shadow, and hear the words in the wind. Their lives are not improved by this knowledge, even as Barron's readers' lives are. Read these stories only if you want the unique experience of feeling a frisson of fear.
The power of 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' is that Barron sets all the stories in a consistent universe, with connections between the tales both obvious and obscure. Most of the stories here unfold in the remote forests of the Olympic peninsula, and alert readers will note returning characters and families. By virtue of the rich background that Barron provides, these stories will reward reading and re-reading with an ever-deepening apprehension of terror.
Barron is particularly effective when he his working with a historical setting, and you'll find a variety of these in this collection. 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' is bookended by two hunting stories; "Blackwood's Baby" and "The Men From Porlock." The latter story fleshes out events mentioned in Barron's novel 'The Croning,' while the former introduces readers to the locale and the unsavory habits of the local aristocracy. Both unfold in the early part of the last century. Barron's ability to evoke the gritty historical details and his facility for taking a men's adventure story and guiding it into much darker territory ensure that these are hunts that will not be forgotten. The mirroring effect and the intimate connections make the stories all the more powerful.
But Barron writes well no matter what his setting or who his characters are. In "The Redfield Girls," schoolteachers on holiday pick the wrong lake, and in "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", a lesbian couple on the run from an abusive husband stay in the wrong house. Barron does well by his women protagonists; he fares far better than they do in his unpleasantly connected world.
In "Hand of Glory," mob enforcer Johnny Cope, seeking to avenge his father's death, falls into a circle of men that includes Eadweard Muybridge, whose inventions were not limited to a means of photographing horses, and Phil Wary, who also makes an appearance in "Jaws of Saturn." Both stories play perfectly well as hard-boiled men of action sagas, even with Barron's whispering shadows.
Not everything here is historical. "Vastastion" and "The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All" depart from the setting even though they are tied into Barron's other works. "Vastation" is tightrope walk across a science fictional void, a madman's rant with enough powerful imagery to unsettle. The title story is a name-dropping bit of meta-fiction featuring a very well-known author of outré horror fiction. Barron's prose gets the nod here, in a really creepy scene where words prove powerful both within the story and in the readers' perceptions.
With 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' Laird Barron continues the world-building efforts that we've seen in all his work, and in particular, 'The Croning,' which is intimately entangled with this book. This is a collection of rich and powerful stories that will receive and reward re-reading. Many of the works here pack the punch and have the density of a novel. Prose, character and pacing are stellar, but never to the point of calling attention to themselves. Barron reveals beauty in the solidifying shadows that surround us. It proves to be his voice in the whispering wind, and we listen, rapt, to the words that threaten to consume our souls.