I am not easily “creeped out.” Grossed out, yes; I’m unable to partake of stories, written or otherwise, that bathe victims in buckets of gore. It takes a lot to unsettle me, though: Stolid, unimaginative, I plod bovine, complacent, unwitting, into and through the weirdest of tales. I was thus astonished and delighted to realize that Laird Barron had successfully spooked me with “Old Virginia,” the first story in The Imago Sequence (2007, Nightshade Books).
The influence of H. P. Lovecraft looms large in The Imago Sequence, the title of which is a reference to one of Lovecraft’s alien races. Barron neatly drops other references to Lovecraft throughout his stories, such as his use of “chthonic” in “Bulldozer.” Of course, the sentiment that there exists something behind the veil of reality, and that that something is not friendly towards humanity, is in line with Lovecraft’s mythos. Barron’s horrors, seen only on the periphery, if at all, take earthly form in the guises reminiscent of fungi (a favorite of authors of “the weird”) and jellyfish. You will see the monsters straightforward only as they unhinge their jaws to consume you.
Barron’s stories, although not formally connected to one another, do indicate a comprehensive vision. There is the notion, quite unsettling, that human history is just a backdrop to the machinations of beings older and greater than ourselves. A refugee from the past lectures an American soldier about her hopes for the outcome of the Cold War in “Old Virginia.” In “Hallucigenia,” practitioners of occult “sciences,” dating from before the Bible, achieve success in the modern age. The title story, located at the end of the collection, refers to a series of arcane photographs that offer viewers an insight into the possible outcome of human evolution.
Nature, viewed through the lens of The Imago Sequence, is at best indifferent, if not hostile, to humanity. The stars are “cold” in the skies. The weather conspires against Barron’s protagonists: If it’s not raining at an inconvenient time, then it’s hot, muggy, foggy, hazy, any set of conditions that might make characters uncomfortable, not at their best. Darkness looms at the edges; when night falls, it’s total.
Barron builds upon his descriptions of nature by evoking the decay of the human environment. “Procession of the Black Sloth” is set in a gated community in Hong Kong built for expat Westerners, but, despite its apparent comfort, is subject to power outages (and other phenomena). Human habitations are either the decadent, “overripe” homes of the wealthy, or the hotel rooms, hovels, and diners that entertain the poor. Old barns appear to be a favorite of Barron’s. As any reader knows, old barns are never good.
Barron’s characters turn to drugs and alcohol to numb themselves to the hostile world they inhabit. Nearly all of Barron’s protagonists are borderline alcoholics, and most indulge in the abuse of narcotics, too, to varying effects: The main character in “Hallucigenia” is poorly served by giving up the pills he began taking after the incident (in an old barn, of course) that left him injured and his wife a vegetable. The chemicals serve only to mask the horror for a time; as the drinks numb the protagonists’ senses to reality, they only contribute to the overall aims of whatever it is that “lurks beyond the threshold.” You might drug yourself into a stupor, but sooner or later you’ll be called upon to face reality.
Readers should be aware that Barron’s protagonists are all men. Female characters are present, but in minor roles; they mostly function to demonstrate aspects of the protagonists’ personalities, few of them laudable. These guys are mostly “rough ‘n’ tumble” sorts, strongmen, henchmen, the agents of someone else’s will. They’re not above hurting people, and they take their share of punishment. Indeed, many of them speak in a curiously anachronistic vernacular. In “The Imago Sequence,” the protagonist refers to a drowning victim as having ended up “in the drink.” Imagine hardboiled detectives coming face-to-face with the eldritch. Still, Barron pulls it off.
The Imago Sequence is not an entire success. Some of the stories are uneven, at least in the context of the whole. It isn’t that all of the stories aren’t good; rather, some are much better than others, and at least one, “The Royal Zoo is Closed,” doesn’t seem to belong. The latter is shorter and, perhaps, more surreal than the other stories in the book. “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” might also be misplaced, narrated as it is not by the detective, but by the subject he’s investigating. Readers will likely find “Procession of the Black Sloth,” “Bulldozer,” “Hallucigenia,” and “The Imago Sequence,” neatly dispersed throughout the collection, to be the most enjoyable.
The Imago Sequence is a worthy contribution to horror and “weird” literature, and demonstrates that Barron is an author of considerable talent. Readers who can’t get past corrupt characters and dark themes are warned away. Recommended for lovers of Lovecraft and the weird.