Sunday, November 30, 2014


It took me quite a while to formulate my thoughts on Laird Barron’s Lovecraftian-by-way-of-Robert E. Howard novel “The Light is the Darkness.” This was primarily because I try to find good sides of anything I read. (Yes, even Twilight, which had an interesting idea regarding vampirism—if you WANT to be a vampire, you don’t lose control. It’s a mishandled, throwaway line in an awful series, but it IS a bright spot.) Let’s just say it was difficult with Barron.

See, the problem with Barron is that he tries too hard. His writing seems like that of a very excited child who’s been given permission to play with big kid toys. He’s tinkering in Lovecraft’s sandbox (Lovecraft’s antipersonnel-mine-laden sandbox), and he’s so glad to be there that he wants to mention every single Lovecraftian idea Lovecraft, Howard, and every similar writer afterwards has invented. Because I am a singularly boring man, I spent some time picking through the book, finding every Mythos organization or Elder God Barron namedrops.
There…There are a lot. A very many great number of references. Cthulhu, Delta Green, Azathoth, Hastur, any number of fictional alphabet soup agencies. I could go on. But I won’t, because I didn’t write all of them down. I’m not that weird and dedicated. But what ends up happening is that all these little threads hanging down from the scenery get distracting, start to take up background that Barron should flesh out on his own.  See, Lovecraft created a world where, in any individual story, there was one primary horrid plot that got focused upon, and in the dark edges of the set, you see little whispers, little hints of other nasty doings, which give the idea of a larger world filled with sordid affairs and all-devouring cosmic squiddies. Barron seems to want to give them all equal bidding, creating a world that feels crowded with static images rather than horrifyingly alive. In fact, it almost felt to me that he was namedropping these very many (so bloody many) mythos elements in an attempt to establish nerd cred, shouting, “LOOK AT ME I KNOW ABOUT DELTA GREEN AND THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON AND PROJECT TALLHAT, AREN’T I VERY CLEVER, MUMMY?” (In this interpretation, Barron is a small British child with a squeaky voice and a bunch of acne scars. This is not true of the real Barron. I think.)

HOWEVER! Barron certainly writes in a manner reminiscent of a middle-school…child? Runt? Whelp? Whatever the proper term is… His prose doesn’t even deserve to be called pulpy, I’d argue. Pulp still feels elegant despite an overall simplicity (occasionally decorated with some great imagery). Barron’s work felt more like a second-draft of something I’d write, functional, but hardly elegant, and certainly not something I’d wrap up in a nice cover and send out to the world with my name on. 

That seems to be a theme throughout. Every character is thoroughly unlikeable, particularly the protagonist, who is an incredibly-smart, physically-imposing man with phenomenal cosmic power who, despite being uglier than your average deep-sea creature, somehow manages to have lots and lots of sex, such that it’s normal and expected that his creepy uncle’s spies are sleeping with him and he can’t remember the names of anyone he’s slept with. And he’s some sort of genetic freak whose racial makeup would give Lovecraft the shudders. Oh and also too he might be perving on his sister, who has been missing for years. Don’t ask. Also three, our hero Conrad is a modern-day gladiator, killing folks in super-secret “ludii” (Latin for games, I believe), hosted by wealthy folks. It’s a great excuse as to why Conrad has so much free time and money to swan around looking for his sister. Whom he lusts for. Supporting that theory, our protagonist has no desire other than figuring out why his sister is missing. Conan the Barbarian has more dimension in his little finger, and more mystery in one page of a story. 

Because, yes. This is supposed to be some sort of mystery scavenger hunt deal. Except for the fact that there isn’t any. It’s pretty clear right from the start what’s going on, and I’m hardly the most genre-savvy muchacho out there. In fact, I’m pretty darn slow on the uptick. So if I think there’s no mystery, there must not be much mystery. Which leads me to another problem. Barron thinks it’s a good idea to shine bright lights on monsters. (Not literally. Metaphorically. You know what I meant.) The issue with that is: You shine a light on a monster, you see the zipper in the suit. And that’s pretty much what happens. I was more tense and scared (which wasn’t much) when I DIDN’T know what was going on. As soon as Barron told me, and started describing his idea of eldritch monstrosities, I just sort of went “Oh. Of course. He went THAT route.” Which is not a good thing for your reader to be saying, in general. 

And that’s the thing. I just spent eight hundred (800) words detailing the problems I had with this book. Now. I AM a bit of a nit-picking, pedantic lout with no life. That’s fair to say. (Though I wish you wouldn’t, because it hurts my feelings. Though it's true.) So maybe I’m on the lookout for things to hate. I suppose you could argue that. But I’m not denying that I got some enjoyment out of this read. Scattered amongst the rubble of sentences that almost achieved greatness, there are some true gems. Some ideas, some flashes of brilliance that could be stolen, polished up, and inserted into something else. For example, there’s a great little line that goes something like “Time is a circle.” If you’ve watched True Detective, you’d maybe hear an echo of Rust Cohle’s saying, “Time is a flat circle.” Given the thematic overlap between The Light is the Darkness and True Detective, and the time frame involved, it’s entirely possibly someone did a little borrowing. And that says something to me. It says that this wasn’t a complete waste of my time. Heck, it might not even be a complete waste of your time. If you like stories about gladiators who dawdle about faffing after elder gods and lusting for their sisters, and you’re not picky about the quality of the writing, give this a look. Otherwise, I’d read H.P. Lovecraft and R.E. Howard and Karl Edward Wagner.