"The Internal Vista is Infinite": An Interview with Laird Barron
Laird Barron is a name that has inspired some controversy around these parts mostly for three reasons:
1) Barron is one of the most talented and skilled living writers of weird fiction.As a longtime reader and friend of Ligotti, "More Dark" got under my skin. The first time I read the story, I took it as a humorous piece that descends into real Ligottian horror by the end. But the combination of the story and the aforementioned blog entry made me take the story a bit more personally. And, in consequence, for close to two years I've held on to a sort of unspoken, unwanted resentment towards Laird Barron.
2) Barron wrote a satirical meta-fictional story entitled "More Dark," published in 2012, which features a fictionalized version of Ligotti (Tom L) cast in an ambivalent light.
3) Barron posted a 2013 blog entry, "Lord of Darkness," in which he simultaneously extols Thomas Ligotti's fiction and excoriates Ligotti's nonfiction.
Which leads me to a few weeks back when an idea popped unbidden into my noggin: in "More Dark" Barron treats the fictionalized version of himself far more brutally and critically than he treats Tom L. Which led me to the conclusion that I had perhaps misunderstood the purpose of the story. Which led me to the conclusion that I had misjudged Laird Barron's work and—by extension—the man himself.
So I did what I should've done a couple of years ago: I contacted Barron. I began with an explanation (see above) and an apology and, shortly thereafter, had an enlightening and fascinating phone conversation with him.
Graciously, Barron agreed to an interview covering a range of topics including some which we covered during our aforementioned chat.
Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview, Laird. I know you're incredibly busy. Can you talk about the project or projects you're working on? You recently mentioned some movie deals based on your stories in the works. Where in the development process are they?
Thank you for the conversation. I’m keeping busy—sixteen or seventeen new stories will appear in various anthologies between autumn of this year and late 2016. Several are novellas. My next collection, Swift to Chase, should arrive late next year as well. I’m working on a novel. Another novel manuscript is on submission. Two screenplays are in progress, but the commissioned projects take priority. "More Dark" has been a story of special attention to many Thomas Ligotti Online readers, as you know. Upon rereading it, I was struck at how existentially grim it becomes both in spite of and because of the metafictional movement of the piece. It's a singular and superb piece of fiction. What was the genesis of "More Dark?" How long did it take from inception to final revision to write? In what way was the writing process different from writing less metafictional work? Is there anything about the minor controversy that the story produced here at TLO to which you'd like to respond or comment upon?
Philip Gelatt, the excellent writer of the film, The Europa Report, optioned my short story, --30--. A pair of biologists relocate to a remote wilderness site and document aberrant wildlife behavior. At one time, the area was home base of a Manson-style thrill-kill cult. Rumor is the film may shoot this fall. Another director recently optioned two of my stories. I can’t say much more at the moment.
The roman a clef is a venerable tradition. One of my favorite Karl Edward Wagner stories, “Neither Brute nor Human,” takes the relationships between writers and fandom head on, and that has bounced around in my imagination for years. I did not plan to write one, but at a certain point in the evolution of my writing process, and my creative interests, “More Dark” became inevitable. I'm interested in your experience/past history with Ligotti's work. When did you become aware of him and delve into his fiction? Are there any Ligotti stories that resonate particularly with you as a reader and a writer, and—if so—what are they and why?
The story originated similarly to events as depicted in its opening paragraph—during a train ride from the Mid-Hudson Valley to my reading at KGB in New York City. John Langan accompanied me and he began spinning a metafiction tale regarding the trip. We were simply kibitzing; I don’t believe there was any serious intent to formulate a plot. However, the idea stuck with me and solidified in my subconscious to the point that when I became seriously ill from flu complications a few days later, I experienced fever dreams. The dreams never fully dissipated. I eventually wrote the story and took it in a far different direction than our discussion on the train. I spent around six weeks with the manuscript and eventually sold it to Revelator. The process itself was among the easiest I’ve gone through. That old saw about a story writing itself, well, it fits in this case. I’ll note that ease doesn’t imply a lack of consequence. While parodic and satirical, it’s also necessarily a personal story.
The elephant in the room is the depiction of Tom L and whether it was intended as a slam against Thomas Ligotti. I hesitate to dissect or defend my work. Given the interest and the repercussions of “More Dark” over the past three years, I’ll confirm that yes, it’s a satirical text, yes, it’s metafictional, and yes, it’s critical and pointed, especially in regard to antinatalism, pessimism, and the cult of celebrity. MD takes Ligotti to task because he’s important and merits a response beyond dismissal or abject praise. The story interrogates his work and philosophy. It’s not meant to denigrate or condemn either.
I heard of Ligotti in the 1990s, although I didn’t keep abreast of his career. That was a tumultuous few years in my life, racing sled dogs and eventually uprooting from Alaska and traveling to the Pacific Northwest. Around 1998 I settled down and wrote seriously. A big part of the process of maturing into a professional writer entailed research of contemporary horror. Ligotti represented a departure from character and plot-driven horror, and was light years away from the category horror of the day. His work isn’t the sort of thing you pick up for an entertaining lunch break. As with all serious literature—Borges, Carter, Camus, Eco, and so forth—it’s necessary to understand where it’s coming from, what it’s reacting against. A certain conditioning process is vital to successfully interacting with Ligotti. I’m not enamored of the idea of gateway fiction, but he’s not the guy to introduce readers to the genre. How would you describe your own "shifting obsessions" over the years of your writing career? What has remained the same? What has changed?
What resonates with me? His work is more than the sum of its parts. A cumulative, accretive, experience occurs when one reads any good author’s portfolio over time. There is less of a quality or tonal arc in his work than is typical in a long writing career. Granted, the arc exists, if only as it pertains to delineating his shifting obsessions. I’m fond of early, more evidently Lovecraft-inflected Ligotti. “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is brilliant. It nails the Lovecraft tropes, and in a broader sense is reflective of classic small town horror popular in the 70s and 80s. Of course, readers bring their own baggage along. The story strikes me as a high-water mark due to my affinity for Lovecraft and what-would-you-do-if-this-happened? scenarios. His corporate horror resonates with office workers and that material never affected me deeper than an acknowledgement of craft. Give me the outsider/voyeur wading into ever-deeper water. Give me the malignant joy of clowns, the savage cheer of reveling yokels, and the worms in the earth.
Epic fantasy, space opera, and Robert Service’s poetry delighted me during adolescence. These captivated me and I mimicked them as I learned to write. Things change, but decades later, I remain a devoted fan of Roger Zelazny and his work. His model of splicing genres influenced my development; moreso than Lovecraft, or King, or the rest. Many other artists exercise a profound effect upon me—Lovecraft, McCarthy, Martin Cruz Smith, Sexton, Angela Carter, Borges, Vonnegut, and so on. It always circles back to Zelazny and his quirky methods. That’s the foundation. I’ve built and perfected my own system, yet I wouldn’t be who I am without This Immortal or Lord of Light, Nine Princes in Amber or My Name Is Legion.The explicit and implicit cosmic horror in many of your past stories—like those of fellow horror writer Matt Cardin—contains a kind of theological, Lovecraftian undercurrent. Ligotti himself was haunted as a child by religious dread and obsession. You've expressed that your own "youthful experiences" with the Bible – specifically passages from the Old Testament – were fascinating to you. Could you expound on these experiences and how they influenced the tenor and content of your fiction to date? Other religions, mythologies and worldviews?
Despite this, I didn’t make a career from category fantasy, science fiction, or poetry. I made a career from horror and hard-boiled weird fiction. Apparently Edgar Alan Poe, Coleridge, the bleaker Conan stories, such as Red Nails, and the unexpurgated Grimm’s fairy tales overpowered the softer, kinder muses. Cosmic horror, Lovecraftian horror, noir and pulp fiction and wilderness adventure, are genres I enjoy, and I’m primarily identified in relation to them at this point. The main shift has less to do with radically different obsessions, but expansions and mutations of obsessions I’ve pursued all along. Early on, the story was the thing. More and more, I’m intent upon creating a tapestry or mosaic of fiction with sufficient negative space around and between active elements so that individual stories exist as discrete, visceral islands of color against a unifying background of dread and awe.
I appreciate the nuance in the opening of your question—there is a profound difference between the explicit and implicit nature of cosmic horror. The horrors of an indifferent universe are implicit in London’s “To Build a Fire” and no less affecting than the awesome manifestation of cosmic evil in “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness.”In our recent conversation, we discussed how your story's protagonists often owe more to Robert E. Howard than to H.P. Lovecraft's and how survivalist themes (as in much of Howard's or William Hope Hodgson's work) figure in large. Man versus nature or—oftentimes—the preternatural. McCarthy comes to mind. I'm fascinated by the dichotomy between your own experiences growing up in the wilds of Alaska and your affinity for the hard-bitten protagonists you (sometimes literally) put through hell.
Cryptozoology is amusing. Contemplating humanity’s place in the cosmos is a necessary philosophical pursuit. Mythmaking, and myth-preservation, also a psychological imperative. Religion is a fascinating and vital human preoccupation. To paraphrase Hitchens, religion was our first and worst means to examine reality.
I draw a line in the dirt at the codification of superstition into a belief system that is then inflicted upon hapless others. During my childhood we lived in the wilderness in a small house. Dad may have sent a few people into the afterlife as a Marine in Vietnam, but he didn’t “get” religion. In all the years I knew him he was a staunch agnostic and decidedly anti-Christian. Mom went the other way, and by other way I mean she went off the deep end. My parents argued over religion. Battled. One of the reasons we moved from “civilization” into the deep woods had to do with my father’s desperation to remove us from the influence of mom’s church. To say this met with mixed results is a polite understatement.
Looking back, I can’t decide whether her plunge into fundamentalism (which occurred around my sixth or seventh year) was a symptom of mental illness that runs through our blood on that side of the family, or a defense mechanism against the creeping madness of isolation in the Alaska sticks. I remember the febrile joy of her devotion, however. The seldom-spoken solace that she’d get even in this life or the eternal after; that mad glint I glimpse when Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are getting their freak on on TV.
I admit this much about a hellfire upbringing— scaring the #### out of a kid eventually bore fruit after all. There’s no better example of an amoral superbeing intent on plucking the wings off flies than Mom’s Old Testament God, He who stands outside of time and space, He who contains all things good and evil. Much as I admire Lovecraft’s inscrutable Old Ones, Cthulhu isn’t an improvement on the demons and devils we’ve known all along.
Lovecraft’s vision interests me more than the particulars of that vision. In the sense that he looked past mythological horrors, and the modern horrors of writers such as Dunsany, I try to look past Lovecraft and into the essence of what provokes our fascination with cosmic horror. We’re all gazing into the same abyss. As it pertains to fiction, the biggest, constantly repeated mistake in contemporary horror is that most writers fixate on Lovecraft, or CA Smith, or Ligotti, and so on, instead of examining that radioactive core at the heart of everything. Too many of us conflate Pickman with his model.
I’m contemptuous of the anxiety of influence and wary of the reverse side of the coin, the ecstasy of influence. It’s a matter of mitigation, or amelioration of intensity. Influence should be embraced, nothing springs from a vacuum. The trick is to possess as many influences as you are able. Great artists don’t simply wear an influence on their sleeve—they wear them on their collars, their backs, their pants legs, like a NASCAR driver wears patches on his jumpsuit. When it comes to voice, less isn’t more, less is death. From influence you derive your own unique presence. At the brass tacks level, to get at the best stuff, the pure stuff, you can filter Lovecraft or McCarthy, but the mesh has to be cheesecloth fine.
Sure, the Alaska experience is helpful. So is my experience in the Pacific Northwest and the scores of labor-intensive jobs I’ve had over the years. Perspective can be a powerful tool for an artist, especially a writer. My time in Alaska is important to my development, although more due to my family’s poverty than anything else. Those experiences made me fragile as glass in some respects and tough as leather in others. The people you meet in the wilderness, on fishing boats, or the mean streets of Anchorage tend to define hard-bitten. To paraphrase something I said in another interview long ago, the chief advantage of a youth misspent in Alaska is that when I reach into my pocket for dues, that bloody little IOU is paid in full. I don’t have to invent characters, I remember them.
Mainly, I learned to not only withstand boredom, but to greet it as a traveling companion. When you are a speck inching across a lunar plain between Ophir and Iditarod, or in the middle of the sea, you either shut down and become a Ligotti-style automaton, or you go inward deep enough to realize the internal vista is infinite.