Swift to Chase, Laird Barron’s fourth short story collection, this time from JournalStone, has been sitting on the Publishers Weekly top ten list for most anticipated SF, fantasy and horror releases for fall 2016 for a while now – with reason. The book’s “originally published” list cites some of the key venues and anthologies of the past three to four years. As a result of this, and the looming presence of his whole oeuvre, I’d be surprised if there was any dark/weird fiction fan still unacquainted with Barron’s unique brew of gonzo noir cosmic dread, but if so, Swift to Chase is a great way to get up close and personal with it, and with some of the Barron backstory behind it.
“Swift to Chase is Laird’s Alaska book,” claims Paul Tremblay in his excellent introduction to the volume. “The landscape is as integral, active, and unknowable as any character and as a result these stories are dangerous, raw, primal, and desperate.” In passing, I have to observe that the first story is entitled “Screaming Elk, MT,” and that other locations range from Mexico City to a bizarre probably post-apocalyptic AmeriRoman Empire, but Tremblay does have a point. Which is, that most of the tales are very personal – and in many cases first person (or second person, which pretty much amounts to the same) – in a way that some of Barron’s more brooding panoramas of his carnivorous cosmos aren’t. Most of them aren’t that somberly reflective either – in fact, most proceed at the nitro-boosted white-knuckle pace of the flight from the Wild Hunt in “Frontier Death Song,” complete with disorienting jump-cuts and narrative lurches, and characters who weave and reel between stories, variously ghost-ridden, pathologically deranged, or midway through an adrenalin-fueled slamdance with the Reaper.
As all that psychopathdrama unfolds, you might get a moment to wonder at the scope of Barron’s inspiration. “Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees,” for example, originally published in the Autumn Cthulhu collection, is as subtly yet sickly disturbing as any grim slice of modern cosmicism, yet channels Barron’s own Alaskan upbringing as grittily as you could wish for – if you had any desire to peel off the roofs of Alaskan park model trailers and scrutinize the horrors writhing within, that is. Oh, and quite an addition to the literature of Tony Clifton conspiracy theories, for those who deal in such things. I can’t think of any other weird fiction author writing today, outside or inside the coterie of Ballardian mediavores, who could so effectively splice a lost celeb icon into a horrorshow slasher derby, but that’s all part of the extra you get with Barron, like the Muybridgean intrusions of “The Imago Sequence.” And for anyone misled by the cover image into expecting some kind of White Fang sled-run through Alaska, the one canine protagonist in this volume is a cyborg war mutt fazed only by pocket nukes.
Familiar Barron tropes, meanwhile, are fully on view: Prose so hard-boiled you could strap a volume to your chest instead of Kevlar, so tight that you couldn’t slip a stiletto in between its clauses. And yes, there is a danger that Barron might become a cult figure for the armchair macho types who get wet over Hemingway and Tarantino, but the juster comparison is with the original Jack London, socialist, voracious reader, and true outdoorsman – no overcompensating poseur a la Hemingway. Barron also does a mean line in pure fear, which may discomfit the benchpressing bourgeoisie, but which also earns this collection its place of honor in the horror canon. Few deaths are clean in this book, and the adrenalin rush stoking its aggressive zip is chiefly the giddy vertigo of pitifully limited beings rushed to their dissolution by forces far beyond their petty mortal ken. Barron’s northern gods are inscrutable, implacable and merciless, and there’s no heaven here to help those who their cold eyes fall on.
That probably doesn’t give any kind of useful step-by-step walkthrough of what’s going on in these stories, but often their whole point is that there’s no straight line, only a drunkard’s walk fueled by whisky and mind-expanding poisons. One which sets a direction for the whole of contemporary horror. If you have any serious interest whatsoever in the field, you have to read this book. Mush.