Friday, September 24, 2010

Laird Barron

I grabbed his book Occultation and Other Stories at the library, in large measure because he won a Shirley Jackson Award (this being mentioned on the cover).

First I read the second story, "Occultation," because it was short and because it was the collection's title (thus suggesting some conviction that the tale can carry one's expectations for the entire book). It was duly creepy, but at the end it felt like all that had been accomplished was a juxtaposition of disturbing imagery and a set of cheap shocks rather than a coherent story. This reminded me of two things: poetry by John Ashberry and the "language" poets (on my mind because of an essay in last month's Poetry); and the short fiction of Kelly Link. Sure enough, the back of the book sported praise by Link, whose work has always seemed to me more like an acrobatic stunt than real storytelling. Also, a story with similar imagery but infinitely superior workmanship and far more satisfying fright appeared decades ago with John B. L. Goodwin's "Cocoon" (1946), reprinted in Bradbury's tremendous anthology, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow. Find it and read it.

Next I tried the collection's first story, "The Forest." The writing didn't exactly sing (and I suppose neither he nor his editor knew the difference between uninterested and disinterested), and the story slogged along through clumsy sentences and cliché characters. Then there came the interesting part that didn't make sense—but was, at least, interesting. This was then left behind for an embarrassing, um, climax. 'Nuff said.

What bothers me most is that this writing is associated with Shirley Jackson (through the award in her name). Jackson is not merely a fantasist or horror writer. Jackson's theme, typically, is what people do in uncomfortable situations, be they mundane or terrifying. And Jackson's prose is always clean, smart and precise. She is, for me, one of the premier stylists of American prose. Work in her name should go to the finest writers. Perhaps Barron has better work. Given that I'm moving on from this book, I doubt I'll come across it.

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