....Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil, just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It's too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs, and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech's anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry....
-- "Shiva, Open Your Eye"
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2008)
Barron is the laureate of cloacal horror.
Clute defines this mode in his The Darkening Garden as:
....what is defined as Portal in Fantasy does not exist in Horror: so the term Cloaca is applied here to semblances of Portal when such are uncovered. If entering a Portal can be likened to swimming with the tide as upon a quest, then entering a Cloaca can be likened to swimming upstream like a gaffed fish: HOOKED . The Cloaca is a Parody of the Portal: an extremely bad joke (such being common in tales of Horror) about the true nature of the world. The term is visceral, it allows a strong inference of deep unpleasantness ahead. Almost always, Cloacas are lesions in the Thickening of the world towards the moment of truth, when the rind of things is peeled. They are indentations in the rind which hint falsely of egress. then sully. They are indistinguishable from the Bad Place: the house built with cavities beneath the cellar, or the bottomless swamp, or some labyrinth which strangles Ariadne: the omphalos that leads to the blank stone exitless stair to the underworld.
....In the end, the message is clear enough. If the omphalos into the body of the earth is in fact Cloaca, then the world is surely diseased....
Barron's stories are about the discovery of holes, tunnels, and crevices opening into the earth: humid, damp, reeking of offal and the abattoir, they are orifices leading to lairs of the ouroborosian leech surviving on earth from a time when the oceans were still lifeless. Both "Old Virginia" and "Shiva, Open Your Eye" seek to personify this entity. "Procession of the Black Sloth" provides a whole gallery of cloacal rooms and spaces.
"Bulldozer" gives us this, which can perhaps serve as the epitome of the Barronic cloaca:
....I crouched behind some rocks and cooled my heels for a lengthy spell. Nothing and more nothing. When I couldn't justify delaying any longer, I approached cautiously, in case Hicks was lying in ambush, rifle sights trained on the rugged slope. Immediately I noticed bizarre symbols scratched into the occasional boulder. Seasonal erosion had obliterated all save the deepest marks and these meant little to
me, though it wasn't difficult to imagine they held some pagan significance. Also, whole skeletons of small animals—birds and squirrels—hung from low branches. Dozens of them, scattered like broken teeth across the hillside.
According to my pocket watch and the dull slant of sun through the clouds, I had nearly two hours of light. I'd creep close, have a peek and scurry back to the mining camp in time for supper. No way did I intend to navigate these backwoods after dark and risk breaking a leg, or worse. I was a city boy at heart.
I scrambled from boulder to boulder, pausing to see if anyone would emerge to take a pot shot. When I reached the summit I was sweating and my nerves twanged like violin strings.
The stench of spoiled meat, of curdled offal, emanated from the fissure; a slaughterhouse gone to the maggots. The vile odor stung my eyes, scourged deep into my throat. I knotted a balaclava from a handkerchief I'd appropriated from the Bumblebee Ranch, covered my mouth and nose.
A baby? I cocked my ears and didn't breathe until the throb of my pulse filled the universe. No baby. The soft moan of wind sucked through a chimney of granite….
Old Virginia (2003)
A sleek, hard story braiding together the Cold War CIA, MK-Ultra, and the Roanoke Colony mystery.
....If you read the files you know where I was born and who I am. You know who Mother is—a colonist wrote Her name on the palisade, didn't he? A name given by white explorers to certain natives who worshipped Her. Idiots! The English are possibly the stupidest people that ever lived." She tittered. "I was the first Christian birth in the New World. I was special. The rest were meat. Poor mama, poor daddy. Poor everyone else. Mother is quite simple, actually. She has basic needs . . .She birthed me anew, made me better than crude flesh and now I help Her conduct the grand old game...."
Shiva, Open Your Eye • (2001)
Barron's prose here very nearly out-opulents M.P. Shiel in its succulence.
....I see housewives scrambling to pick the kids up from soccer practice, a child on the porch gazing up, and up, to regard the same piece of sky glimmering in my window. He wonders what is up there, he wonders if there is a monster under his bed. No monsters there, instead they lurk at school, at church, in his uncle's squamous brain. Everyone is looking for the answer. They do not want to find the answer, trust me. Unfortunately, the answer will find them.
Procession of the Black Sloth (2007)
An ambitious story about a corporate security operative on a mission in Hong Kong. The apartment building where he stays is beautifully menacing.
....The TV image wavered and shrank and the people were folded into themselves. The lights in the apartment went out. The air conditioner whined to a stop and the room lay as dark and silent as a vacuum. He dopily marveled at the feeling of being cast adrift. Little by little, his eyes adjusted and signs of life penetrated the blackout: disjointed voices echoing from afar, the dim thump of bodies moving in the apartments above his own, the sullen orange glow of the city skyline.
A series of malformed thuds rattled glasses in a cupboard. He lay there, groggily staring into the gloom, trying to shake the lethargy of booze and bone-weariness, the quicksand gravity of his recliner. There came another sound, a low, raspy warble: a frog calling from the dark. The little beasts often hopped in from the surrounding parks, the encroaching marshland, and made their homes in the wet shadows along the pool until housekeeping came along with nets and buckets and carried them away. This vocalization was much deeper, more resonant and suggestive of inordinate size. However, as the sound repeated, its utterance was more a croak than the glottal wheeze and gasp of some other creature; almost a moan.
Thud. Someone struck his door with a fist. He reached over and tried the lamp, but the switch clicked, dead, so he fumbled through the apartment, flipping other useless light switches as he went. The air pressed him, dank and smothering as a foul, wet blanket.
Royce navigated the minefield of his apartment without breaking anything and staggered into the door and almost opened it before he sobered enough to remember where he was and who might be on the other side: corrupt government agents; terrorists; bandits; any of a dozen kinds of riffraff who might mean him bodily harm. He knocked a shade from a lamp, gripped it in his left hand. He located the peephole by touch and screwed his eye against the opening, not expecting to see much, if anything. A trickle of yellow light suffused the hall, its origin probably the threshold of some open apartment door. Someone wept, their faint moans emanating from a hidden source. The sobs were muffled.
He unlocked the door and stuck his head out. One of his neighbors, the German software designer, a couple doors down and across the way, had indeed set a paper lantern on the mat in the hall and Royce guessed the man probably stumbled off to wake the superintendent. The German was a can-do sort, the sort to burn the midnight oil. He'd been around since Hong Kong went back to the Chinese and was a veteran of these all too frequent LRA adventures.
Precisely at the outer ring of lamp light, a big lumpy sack slid and bumped along the floor, disappearing into the dark. Slippers rasped against tile and the sob sounded again, farther away, descending into the depths of the building. A man on another floor shouted foreign curses that echoed down through the grates and vents; these were answered in kind in a groundswell of slamming doors and broom handles rapped against pipes, grievances kindled by the humidity and heat, the ungodliness of the hour.
"Elvira?" Even as Royce invoked the name, chills raced along his arms; he clenched the muscles of his buttocks. He tiptoed a few steps down the hallway, compelled against his better judgment. The passage seemed to expand and contract with his pulse, as if he were being squeezed through an artery. He stooped to retrieve a wig where it had fallen upon the dingy floor. The wig was lush and black in his hands and smelled of rank cologne and cigarettes. The unwholesome intimacy of touching it sent thrills through his already weak stomach.
Bulldozer • (2004)
A Pinkerton in the Old West hunts a circus strongman who has "descended completely into the womb of an abominable mystery and evolved as a new and perfect savage." "Bulldozer" features both historical and rhetorical anachronisms which jolt the reader out of any successful suspension of disbelief. This is the Wild West written by someone who knows only Western films.
Proboscis • (2005)
A superior you-can't-win noir story about a washed-up actor riding along with bounty hunters as they get into something way over their heads. Gone is the stream-of-consciousness smoke and mirrors of "Bulldozer." "Proboscis" is sharp and clear.
The driver studied me with unsettling intensity, his beady eyes obscured by thick, black-rimmed glasses. He beckoned.
My legs were tired already and the back of my neck itched with sunburn. Also, what did it matter anyway? If I were doing anything besides playing out the hand, I would've gone into Olympia and caught a southbound Greyhound. I climbed aboard.
George was a retired civil engineer. Looked the part—crewcut, angular face like a piece of rock, wore a dress shirt with a row of clipped pens and a tie flung over his shoulder, and polyester slacks. He kept NPR on the radio at a mumble. Gripped the wheel with both gnarled hands.
He seemed familiar—a figure dredged from memories of scientists and engineers of my grandfather's generation. He could've been my grandfather.
George asked me where I was headed. I said Los Angeles and he gave me a glance that said LA was in the opposite direction. I told him I wanted to visit the Mima Mounds—since I was in the neighborhood.
There was a heavy silence. A vast and unfathomable pressure built in the cab. At last George said, "Why, they're only a couple miles farther on. Do you know anything about them?"
I admitted that I didn't and he said he figured as much. He told me the mounds were declared a national monument back in the '60s; the subject of scholarly debate and wildly inaccurate hypotheses. He hoped I wouldn't be disappointed—they weren't glamorous compared to real natural wonders such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or the California Redwoods. The preserve was on the order of five hundred acres, but that was nothing. The Mounds had stretched for miles and miles in the old days. The land grabs of the 1890s reduced the phenomenon to a pocket, surrounded it with rundown farms, pastures and cows. The ruins of America's agrarian era.
I said that it would be impossible to disappoint me.
George turned at a wooden marker with a faded white arrow. A nicely paved single lane wound through temperate rain forest for a mile and looped into a parking lot occupied by the Evergreen vans and a few other vehicles. There was a fence with a gate and beyond that, the vague border of a clearing. Official bulletins were posted every six feet, prohibiting dogs, alcohol and firearms.
"Sure you want me to leave you here?"
"I'll be fine."
George rustled, his clothes chitin sloughing. "X marks the spot."
I didn't regard him, my hand frozen on the door handle, more than slightly afraid the door wouldn't open. Time slowed, got stuck in molasses. "I know a secret, George."
"What kind of secret?" George said, too close, as if he'd leaned in tight.
The hairs stiffened on the nape of my neck. I swallowed and closed my eyes. "I saw a picture in a biology textbook. There was this bug, looked exactly like a piece of bark, and it was barely touching a beetle with its nose. The one that resembled bark was what entomologists call an assassin bug and it was draining the beetle dry. Know how? It poked the beetle with a razor-sharp beak thingy—"
"A rostrum, you mean."
"Exactly. A rostrum, or a proboscis, depending on the species. Then the assassin bug injected digestive fluids, think hydrochloric acid, and sucked the beetle's insides out."
"How lovely," George said.
"No struggle, no fuss, just a couple bugs sitting on a branch. So I'm staring at this book and thinking the only reason the beetle got caught was because it fell for the old piece of bark trick, and then I realized that's how lots of predatory bugs operate. They camouflage themselves and sneak up on hapless critters to do their thing."
"Isn't that the way of the universe?"
"And I wondered if that theory only applied to insects."
"What do you suppose?"
"I suspect that theory applies to everything."
Zilch from George. Not even the rasp of his breath.
"Bye, George. Thanks for the ride."
Hallucigenia • (2006)
This perfect runaway cosmic horror train begins with newlyweds having car trouble on a country road. They investigate a nearby derelict barn.
....Was it cooler in here? Sweat dried on Wallace's face, his nipples stiffened magically. He shivered. His eyes traveled up and fixed upon letters chalked above the main doors. Thin and spiky and black, they spelled:
THEY WHO DWELL IN THE CRACKS
"Whoa," Wallace said. There was more, the writing was everywhere. Some blurred by grease and grit, some clear as:
LUCTOR ET EMERGO
And corroded gibberish:
"Honey? Yoo-hoo?" Wallace backed away from the yokel graffiti. He was sweating again. It oozed, stung his lips. His guts sloshed and prickles chased across his body. Kids partying? He thought not. Not kids.
"Wallace, come here!" Helen called from the opposite side of the partition. "You gotta check this out!"
He went, forcing his gaze from the profane and disturbing phrases. Had to watch for boards, some were studded with nails and wouldn't that take the cake, to get tetanus from this madcap adventure. "Helen, it's time to go."
"Okay, but look. I mean, Jesus." Her tone was flat.
He passed through a pool of light thrown down from a gap in the roof. Blue sky filled the hole. A sucker hole, that's what pilots called them. Sucker holes.
The stench thickened.
Three low stone pylons were erected as a triangle that marked the perimeter of a shallow depression. The pylons were rude phalluses carved with lunatic symbols. Within the hollow, a dead horse lay on its side, mired in filthy, stagnant water. The reek of feces was magnificently awful.
Helen touched his shoulder and pointed. Up.
The progenitor of all wasp nests sprawled across the ceiling like a fantastic alien city. An inverse complex of domes and humps and dangling paper streamers. Wallace estimated the hive to be fully twelve feet in diameter. A prodigy of nature, a primordial specimen miraculously preserved in the depths of the barn. The depending strands jiggled from a swirl of air through a broken window. Some were pink as flesh; others a rich scarlet or lusterless purple-black like the bed of a crushed thumbnail.
Oddly, no wasps darted among the convolutions of the nest, nor did flies or beetles make merry among the feculent quagmire or upon the carcass of the horse. Silence ruled this roost surely as it did the field.
Wallace wished for a flashlight, because the longer he squinted the more he became convinced he was not looking at a wasp nest. This was a polyp, as if the very fabric of the wooden ceiling had nurtured a cancer, a tumor swollen on the bloody juices of unspeakable feasts. The texture was translucent in portions, and its membranous girth enfolded a mass of indistinct shapes. Knotty loops of rope, gourds, hanks of kelp.
Helen knelt on the rim of the hollow, aiming her camera at the horse. Her mouth was a slit in a pallid mask. Her exposed eye rolled.
Wallace pivoted slowly, too slowly, as though slogging through wet concrete. She shouldn't be doing that. We really should be going.
The horse trembled. Wallace groaned a warning. The horse kicked Helen in the face. She sat down hard, legs splayed, forehead a dented eggshell. And the horse was thrashing now, heeling over, breaching in its shallow cistern, a blackened whale, legs churning, hooves whipping. It shrieked from a dripping muzzle bound in razor wire. Wallace made an ungainly leap for his wife as she toppled sideways into the threshing chaos. A sledgehammer caught him in the hip and the barn began turning, its many gaps of light spinning like a carousel. He flung a hand out.
Blood and shit and mud, flowing. The sucker holes closed, one by one.
Parallax • (2005)
The husband/wife material that will form the foundation of "Hallucigenia" handled as serial killer affect horror, but ending up as a koan or conundrum out of David Lynch.
The Royal Zoo Is Closed • (2006)
A hallucinatory prose poem reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell's paeans to urban schizophrenia. Its smacks the reader as an assignment for a creative writing class. By a student with real skills.
....What was encrypted in the glyphs of the modern age, what did it mean? Certainly a cipher, as was the ancient Cockney, invented as the argot of the disenfranchised, the disaffected, the cant of thieves who crept into darkened homes and ate the peanut butter and drank the beer and put their greasy mitts on your daughter, if you had one, and pretty soon she'd be following them around, learning how to do loop-de-loops on a skateboard, a bullring in her nose, or wherever, a satellite in a decaying orbit. She might wander off to Hollywood, do a tour in the trenches, wind up on the casting coach hoping to become the next Norma Jean bursting from a cake to serenade the knights of Camelot, another domesticated seal; thoroughly modern though, because her tattoos said as much. A cipher by any other name and I'm sorry Mr. & Mrs. So & So, we found her in a ditch. That's where the smart money was in the whole degenerate crap shoot.
The Imago Sequence • (2005)
A rich man in a big house hires Marvin Cortez to strong-arm his way to two photos in a weird triptych that his collection lacks. Barron's craft is pitch-perfect here.
"Jake—what do you see in that photo?"
"I'm not sure. A tech acquaintance of mine at UW analyzed it. 'Inconclusive,' she said. Something's there."
"Spill the tale."
"Heard of Maurice Ammon?"
I shook my head.
"He's obscure. The fellow was a photographer attached to the Royal University of London back in the '40s and '50s. He served as chief shutterbug for pissant expeditions in the West Indies and Africa. Competent work, though not Sotheby material. The old boy was a craftsman. He didn't pretend to be an artist."
"Except for the Imago series."
"Bingo. Parallax Alpha, for example, transcends journeyman photography, which is why Uncle Teddy was so, dare I say, obsessed." Jacob chortled, pressed the glass to his cheek. His giant, red-rimmed eye leered at me. "Cecil Eaton was the first to recognize what Ammon had accomplished. Eaton was a Texas oil baron and devoted chum of Ammon's. Like a few others, he suspected the photos were of a hominid. He purchased the series in '55. Apparently, misfortune befell him and his estate was auctioned. Since then the series has changed hands several times and gotten scattered from Hades to breakfast. Teddy located this piece last year at an exhibit in Seattle. The owner got committed to Grable and the family was eager to sell. Teddy caught it on the hop."
"Define obsession for me." I must've sounded hurt, being kept in the dark about one of Teddy's eccentric passions, of which he'd possessed legion, because Jacob looked slightly abashed.
"Sorry, Marvo. It wasn't a big deal—I never thought it was important, anyway. But . . .Teddy was on the hunt since 1987. He blew maybe a quarter mil traveling around following rumors and whatnot. The pieces moved way too often. He said it was like trying to grab water."
"Anybody ever try to buy the whole enchilada?"
"The series has been fragmented since Ammon originally sold two to Eaton and kept the last for himself—incidentally, no one knows much about the final photograph, Imago. Ammon never showed it around and it didn't turn up in his effects."
"Where'd they come from?"
"There's the weird part. Ammon kept the photos' origin a secret. He refused to say where he took them, or what they represented."
"Okay. Maybe he was pumping up interest by working the element of mystery." I'd watched enough artists in action to harbor my share of cynicism.
Jacob let it go. "Our man Maurice was an odd duck. Consorted with shady folks, had peculiar habits. There's no telling where his mind was."
"Peculiar habits? Do tell."
"I don't know the details. He was smitten with primitive culture, especially obscure primitive religions—and most especially the holy pharmaceuticals that accompany certain rites." He feigned taking a deep drag from a nonexistent pipe.
"Sounds like a funky dude. He lived happily ever after?"
"Alas, he died in a plane crash in '57. Well, his plane disappeared over Nairobi. Same difference. Bigwigs from the university examined his journals, but the journals didn't shed any light." Jacob knocked back his drink and lowered his voice for dramatic effect. "Indeed, some of those scholars hinted that the journals were extremely cryptic. Gave them the willies, as the campfire tales go. I gather Ammon was doubtful of humanity's long term survival; didn't believe we were equipped to adapt with technological and sociological changes looming on the horizon. He admired reptiles and insects—had a real fixation on them.
"The series went into private-collector limbo before it was subjected to much scrutiny. Experts debunked the hominid notion. Ammon's contemporaries suggested he was a misanthropic kook, that he created the illusion to perpetrate an intricate hoax."
Something in the way Jacob said this last part caused my ears to prick up. "The experts only satisfy four out of five customers," I said.
He studied his drink, smiled his dark smile. "Doubtless. However, several reputable anthropologists gave credence to its possible authenticity. They maintained official silence for fear of being ostracized by their peers, of being labeled crackpots. But if someone proved them correct . . ."
"The photos' value would soar. Their owner would be a celebrity, too, I suppose." Finally, Jacob's motives crystallized.
"Good god, yes! Imagine the scavenger hunt. Every swinging dick with a passport and a shovel would descend upon all the remote sites Ammon ever set foot. And let me say, he got around."
I sat back, calculating the angles through a thickening alcoholic haze. "Are the anthropologists alive; the guys who bought this theory?"
"I can beat that. Ammon kept an assistant, an American grad student. After Ammon died, the student faded into the woodwork. Guess who it turns out to be?—The hermit art collector in California. Anselm Thornton ditched the graduate program, jumped the counterculture wave in Cali—drove his upper-crust, Dixie-loving family nuts, too. If anybody knows the truth about the series I'm betting it's him."
"Thornton's a southern gentleman."
"He's of southern stock, anyhow. Texas Panhandle. His daddy was a cattle rancher."
"Ooh, classy." I crunched ice to distract myself from mounting tension in my back. "Think papa Thornton was thick with that Eaton guy? An oil baron and a cattle baron—real live American royalty. The wildcatter, a pal to the mysterious British photographer; the Duke, with a son as the photographer's protégé. Next we'll discover they're all Masons conspiring to hide the missing link. They aren't Masons, are they?"
"Money loves money. Maybe it's relevant, maybe not. The relevant thing is Thornton Jr. may have information I desire."
I didn't need to ask where he had gathered this data. Chuck Shepherd was the Wilson clan's pet investigator. He worked from an office in Seattle. Sober as a mortician, meticulous and smooth on the phone. I said, "Hermits aren't chatty folk."
"Enter Marvin Cortez, my favorite ambassador." Jacob leaned close enough to club me with his whiskey breath and squeezed my shoulder. "Two things. I want the location of this hominid, if there is a hominid. There probably isn't, but you know what I mean. Then, figure out if Thornton is connected to . . .the business with my uncle."
I raised my brows. "Does Shep think so?"
"I don't know what Shep thinks. I do know Teddy contacted Thornton. They briefly corresponded. A few weeks later, Teddy's gone."
"Damn, Jake, that's a stretch—never mind. How'd they make contact?"
Jacob shrugged. "Teddy mentioned it in passing. I wasn't taking notes."
"Ever call Thornton yourself, do any follow up?"
"We searched Teddy's papers, pulled his phone records. No number for Thornton, no physical address, except for this card—the Weston Gallery, which is the one that has Parallax Beta. The director blew me off—some chump named Renfro. Sounded like a nut job, actually. I wrote Thornton a letter around Thanksgiving, sent it care of the gallery. He hasn't replied. I wanted the police to shake a few answers out of the gallery, but they gave me the runaround. Case closed, let's get some doughnuts, boys!"
"Turn Shep loose. A pro like him will do this a lot faster."
"Faster? I don't give a damn about faster. I want answers. The kind of answers you get by asking questions with a lead pipe. That isn't up Shep's alley."
I envisioned the investigator's soft, pink hands. Banker's hands. My own were broad and heavy, and hard as marble. Butcher's hands.
Jacob said, "I'll cover expenses. And that issue with King . . ."
"It'll dry up and blow away?" Rudolph King was a contractor on the West Side; he moonlighted as a loan shark, ran a pool hall and several neat little rackets from the local hippie college. I occasionally collected for him. A job went sour; he reneged on our arrangement, so I shut his fingers in a filing cabinet—a bit rough, but there were proprietary interests at stake. Jacob crossed certain palms with silver, saved me from making a return appearance at Walla Walla. Previously, I did nine months there on a vehicular assault charge for running over a wise-mouth pimp named Leon Berens. Berens had been muscling in on the wrong territory—a deputy sheriff's, in fact, which was the main reason I only did a short hitch. The kicker was, after he recovered, Berens landed the head bartender gig at the Happy Tiger, a prestigious lounge in the basement of the Sheraton. He was ecstatic because the Happy Tiger was in a prime spot three blocks from the Capitol Dome. Hustling a string of five-hundred-dollars-a-night call girls for the stuffed shirts was definitely a vertical career move. He fixed me up with dinner and drinks whenever I wandered in.
Silence stretched between us. Jacob pretended to stare at his glass and I pretended to consider his proposal. We knew there was no escape clause in our contract. I owed him and the marker was on the table. I said, "I'll make some calls, see if I can track him down. You still want me to visit him . . .well, we'll talk again. All right?"
"Also, I want to look at Teddy's papers myself. I'll swing by in a day or two."
10 April 2020