Barron, Laird. “Hallulcigenia.” The Imago Sequence. Night Shade Books, 2008, pp. 119-168.
The story in a spoiler-light nutshell: Rich Old-boy marries a younger woman and both get royally messed up by an encounter with in a barn decked out for ritual sacrifice. Cosmic cronenburgs are involved. Cult harasses Old-boy as he cares for his now-disabled wife and drinks way too much scotch. Eventually, everybody gets eaten.
I love that the majority of Laird Barron stories end with people getting eaten–either mentally or bodily. No first person narratives here, oh no; the reader is along for the tragic ride, watching the characters stumble towards doom not so much because of their flaws but in spite of their strengths. And Barron’s characters have plenty of flaws.
The ride in this particular story is a long, highly atmospheric descent, with lots of the cosmic horror/weird fiction imagery I love–pylons and distorted shadowy figures, eldritch horrors seeping out of the cracks of the world, that there’s-no-way-you’re-getting-out-of-this feeling. When I was a kid, I loved Clive Barker and Anne Rice for similar gothic imagery, but when I grew up I found myself turning to Laird Barron (and Kurt Vonnegut, for some reason), because adulting for a few years now has shown me the world’s not so much a gothic romance as it is a pensive noir tragedy.
This particular story, though, is a proper showcase for Barron’s flaws (which, I’m not suggesting should be removed–I believe art should be flawed, and if it’s not flawed it’s just commerce). The story contains maybe a few too many disparate horror elements that don’t always match thematically (Is it the eldritch horror a wasp-god? A Dagon-esque jellyfish? A once-human patriarch turned cosmic wasp-jellyfish? What was with the horse, anyway?). Also, the story may go on for a bit too long at a whopping 49 pages of densely-packed text (I’m really into short stories right now because of certain attention issues. I’m not sure if I should blame the internet or my English degree.)
But ultimately, it’s these flaws that help create this tumbling, so-literary-its-nearly-incoherent, inescapable cosmic noir atmosphere that I’m a total sucker for. Even after I’ve devoured other Barron collections, I’ll return to story again and again.