Swift to Chase: A Collection of Stories by Laird Barron (JournalStone)
Laird Barron’s latest work is everything I ever wanted out of American Horror Story but never got. It is the best season of a horror series you could ever pick up. I admit this was not the book I expected to get. Last year I worked my way through Barron’s three previous collections, saving his novels and novellas so I didn’t lose all his literature in one all you can eat buffet. His work touched on the same themes of cosmic existential horror developed by Lovecraft and Barron was placed in the same cluster of authors working in “weird horror.” His collection Occultation is one of my favorite works of horror literature with “Mysterium Tremendum” and “The Broadsword” being stories that profoundly affected me after years of consuming horror media.
Swift to Chase represents a significant sea change in the mythos that Barron will be exploring for the foreseeable future. The distant tentacled cosmic gods and Carcosa are gone. Barron never really did a Lovecraft pastiche, but there were cultists and cold alien presences that worked to undermine humanity. In this collection, we’re introduced to a brand new mythology that does touch on Lovecraft but brings in 1980s slasher tropes, MKULTRA like conspiracy theories, and a plethora of new concepts. Each story was published at different times in various publications before being collected here, but you would never know because they complement and flow into each other with such precision.
Told in non-chronological order, the stories all revolve around a small town in Alaska that seems to be the focal point of some evil presence. A house party held in 1979 acts as the hub where many of the stories return to, a night when a masked killer rampaged through the house and the survivors are cursed into the rest of their lives. The standard narrative conceits you come to genre lit with are tossed out the window and instead Barron gives us a very postmodern, deconstructed horror novel. It might seem like hyperbole, but I kept thinking back to James Joyce as I read the collection. There is such a mastery of language and particular character voice that reading the collection is less about finding plot threads but discovering the rhythm of the writing and letting its flow carry you through.
Barron refuses to present us with one type of protagonist, a la Lovecraft and makes certain stories are told from multiple perspectives and diverse voices. “Ardor” features a gay man hired to hunt down a missing horror film actor believed to have fled to the Alaskan wilderness. “(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness” features the story of a gay teenager involved in the occult club that the evil spawns out of in Alaska. Barron never plays these characters as “fey” or “limp-wristed.” Their sexuality is just one of many aspects of their character, and it’s not shied away from in the same way a straight character’s sexuality can play a role in their narrative.
The focus of the first third of the collection is Jessica Mace, the survivor of a brutal attack that left her neck with a signature scar. Her voice is that of a hardass, calloused by her experiences back in Alaska and now on the run from an evil that pursues her across the continental United States. Her story is finally told in the mind-blowing fragmented narrative of “Termination Dust.” There’s Julie Vellum, the captain of the cheerleading squad surrounded by hangers-on who ends up having an up close encounter with evil after trying to hire faux lounge singer Tony Clifton to meet her fan father in “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees.”
Upon finishing the collection, my first thought was “I want to read that again,” something I rarely think even when I have loved the book. I usually find myself ready to pick up the next text but this one has such a strong gravity, and it is pulling me back in. I highly recommend Swift to Chase as a magnificent piece of literature. I was reminded of the weight and horror I’ve read in Cormac McCarthy and the language complexity of Faulkner and Joyce. If you look around the internet, you’ll see many similar gushing reviews. These are not hyperbole, and I cannot wait to return to this world and explore the mythology again.