Weird Results! Is The Universe Cold And Meaningless? Laird Barron!

by John Holbo on March 25, 2018

I have survey results to my two ‘weird questions’. Kind of a weak response, I’m sad to say (sub-100 responses.) But enough to establish that I am very much in the minority, in regarding Lovecraft as ‘not SF’. Only 10% of respondents agreed with that. Then again, 25% felt it was only a ‘sort of’ case. Honestly, I could go with ‘sort of’. There was a roughly even split between those who feel ‘weird’ is distinct, generically, from ‘supernatural’ and ‘horror’ and those who do not. That’s unsurprising.

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In other survey news, Eric Schwitzgebel got solider results for his survey concerning the cold, meaningless quality of the universe. Turns out: it’s not so bad.

86% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create” and only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In contrast, only 31% of respondents agreed that “The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death” (49% disagreed). Interestingly, 24% of respondents agreed with both claims.

While I’m at it, I guess I’ll recommend some weird fiction (in case you have already chewed through that whole VanderMeer volume I recommended.) My favorite contemporary weird fiction writer – far and away, hands down, no contest – is Laird Barron. You should read more Laird Barron, if you like weird stuff. I love Laird Barron.

You can find some of it for free online. For example, here’s a good one. You can even enjoy the high-quality audio. “Shiva, Open Your Eye”.

I recommend you start with either of two short story collections: Occultation, and Other Stories; or The Imago Sequence and Other Stories. There are two more collections, the most recent being Swift To Chase. But I feel it’s more obscure. I liked it better for having read earlier stuff earlier and maybe if I’d started there I wouldn’t have gotten into it. There’s also The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, containing the very fine story “The Men of Porlock”. There’s also his novel, The Croning. But start with the early short stuff, I say.

There’s an indigenous, distinctive Barron ‘mythos’. There’s a volume of short fiction – The Children of Old Leech – with other writers reworking Barron’s figures and tropes. (Like Old Leech!) I haven’t read that one, however. (I’m not that fanatical about Barron yet.)

As with Lovecraft, you piece together the black, blank cosmic horror, which has it’s own distinctive flavor of cosmic horrifyingness. A lot of the stories interrelate, interconnect, or at least have a dark thrum of harmony behind or between. It’s not Lovecraft pastiche by any means. If you’ve ever thought to yourself ‘I want to read something like Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but I’ve read, like, all the Lovecraft, and I don’t want pastiche!’ then I suggest Laird Barron. He also does other stuff. Some more noir, crime stuff. And a couple stories that are really skillful, kind of distinctively gonzo cosmic horror intrigue. “X’s For Eyes” would be one of those.

What’s that, you’ve read all of Laird Barron already? Then I suggest John Langan. His short story collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky is hit and miss, but I think “Technicolour” is really, really clever, and worth the price of admission. I also just finished his new novel. The Fisherman, which is really good. He has newer stuff I haven’t gotten to yet.

And if you want a third name I’d say: Joe Hill. Stephen King’s son. He’s a chip off the old block. In a good way. Start with 20th Century Ghosts. “My Father’s Mask” is a great one.



Adam Roberts 03.25.18 at 8:05 am

So, John (just to see if I understand): would you say your liking for this kind of writing is a liking for a particular affect? That, in other words, you enjoy stories that trail tendrils of dread down the tender membrane of your imagination? It’s a public service, providing spooky counterpoint to all that the intricately beautiful but dry Wittgensteinian rationality.


John Holbo 03.25.18 at 8:15 am

“That, in other words, you enjoy stories that trail tendrils of dread down the tender membrane of your imagination?”

Yes, my taste in horror/weird does run to the atmospheric, yes. A good, well-maintained atmosphere/ambience of weird dread and uncanniness. So: set design, extremely important.

I don’t care at all for buckets-of-blood. No gore for gore’s sake (unless it comes with an ‘menghast’.) I don’t especially like horror movies – they’re too scary! Jump cuts? Not so much for me.

I like to listen to horror and weird audiobooks while drawing at night. I find that to very soothing. Often I find that I have kind of a lousy memory for what I’ve been listening to. So, yeah, like creepy mood music.

(It would be funny to write a Wittgenstein Cthulthu mash-up, by the by. File for later reference.)


Bruce Baugh 03.25.18 at 9:18 am

I very strongly agree that starting with Barron’s first and second collections is the way to go. Some writers really reward following their path, and he’s one.

On the side, he’s written interesting stuff on FB about his ongoing disagreements with his friend Thomas Ligotti. Barron is very much not a real-life nihilist, and would strongly agree with that question from Schwitzgebel about meaning. It’s compatible with a whole lot of horror, both real-life and fictional.


bob mcmanus 03.25.18 at 9:37 am

Is this predilection for Dread an expression of your Kierkegaard side? I got an image of a little K cherub sitting on one shoulder and a Wittgenstein imp on the other shoulder, whispering in your ears and staring daggers. Or is it the other way around, both of those guys are scary and a little moe.

Is there dread in Chesterton?

I get my horror from anime. And history and headlines.


EWI 03.25.18 at 10:39 am

I’m not that familiar with Lovecraft, but there’s plenty of ‘horror’ out there which is certainly SF, with the underlying premise being that unfathomably alien terraforming technology is responsible (e.g. The Expanse, The Southern Reach series etc.).

Is it ever revealed that Cthulhu is extra-terrestrial?


AcademicLurker 03.25.18 at 12:53 pm

I’ve very much enjoyed Barron’s stuff. If you haven’t read it already, allow me to put in a plug for the work of Caitlin R. Kiernan; for my money one of the best writers in the “weird” genre of the last 2 decades.


Dave Maier 03.25.18 at 1:29 pm

Glad to see another post in this series of weirdness. I just started Adam’s The Thing Itself and it is indeed weird (although I think one should distinguish between space and time as the forms of intuition, on the one hand, and the pure categories of the understanding, on the other, as both are transcendentally ideal but for different reasons).

I agree with your idea of atmospheric horror. So you should indeed read Annihilation at least (I haven’t read the other two).

I very much enjoyed Joe Hill’s comix series Locke & Key, which you should not overlook. Interestingly, a recent (3/20) short, positive Amazon review of 20th Century Ghosts by “Amazon Customer” begins: “I’m a fan of Joe Hill (and his father). No comparisons are needed, as Joe’s style is different.” How about that.

Also, not only is there horrific SF, as EWI notes (although I’m not so sure about The Expanse, which is mostly space opera), let’s not forget that fantasy can be like this as well. Patricia McKillip, for example, has creeped me out on several occasions (e.g. in The Book of Atrix Wolfe), and of course you know Susanna Clarke already. Maybe someone has further recommendations in this or that vein?


Johann Tor 03.25.18 at 7:46 pm

Well, allow me to recommend some gory Lovecraft pastische: Cory Goodfellow’s Rapture of the Deep. Top-shelf stuff.


Johann Tor 03.25.18 at 7:49 pm

Cody – not Cory – Goodfellow!


John Holbo 03.25.18 at 9:48 pm

““I’m a fan of Joe Hill (and his father). No comparisons are needed, as Joe’s style is different.” How about that.”

I’ve read Locke and Key. It’s fun. There are a lot of similarities between Hill’s style and his dad’s. But Hill is, all the same, a quite original writer.


DDOwen 03.25.18 at 11:26 pm

‘The Redfield Girls’ from ‘The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All’ is probably the best Lovecraft story that Robert Aickman never wrote. Terrifying and haunting.


Henry Farrell 03.26.18 at 2:26 am

My one sentence hit on Laird Barron: who could have known that the uncaring void would turn out to be so chatty. Bulldozer is very good, and he can write well, but I’d very much like a bit more variation. Still, I’d take him any day over the one-note-hammered-again-and-again Ligotti.

Like academiclurker, I greatly prefer Caitlin Kiernan – I can only read a bit of her at a time because her prose is so rich, but she’s cannier, and does the ‘is it really happening’ and deep time super well. Nathan Balingrud too, is very good, but not so much on the cosmic horror stuff.

We’ve talked about The Course of the Heart I think, which is my favorite of all .


John Holbo 03.26.18 at 4:06 am

“who could have known that the uncaring void would turn out to be so chatty.”

Hah! I don’t think that’s fair. But it’s funny. Pretty much all cosmic horror comes close to committing the fallacy of describing the indescribable, true. It’s always a step away from the ridiculous. Which Barron stories, specifically, are you thinking pratfall over the line in the Chatty Cthulhu department, Henry?

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