I’ve never really been scared by a novel or a short story before I came across Laird Barron‘s The Imago Sequence and Other Stories—a Shirley Jackson Award-winning masterpiece featuring a strange blend of tough guy noir with Lovecraftian weird. “Old Virginia,” the very first story, gave me nightmares. So did the second—”Shiva, Open Your Eye.” Then came Occultation in 2010. Another set of short stories, another set of nightmares. I got it into my head that he had to be a madman holed up somewhere deep in the Pacific northwest, churning out phantasmagoric fever dreams on an ancient typewriter by candlelight.
His publicity photograph doesn’t do much to dispel the notion; it shows a man standing in front of a restless sea, his face dominated by a large eyepatch and an unkempt beard. He isn’t quite expressionless—the beginning of smile, or maybe a grimace, has crept onto his face in the split–second before the picture was captured. And if you look at this photograph long enough, you might forget all about Barron and start to ask questions about the choppy sea in the background. There’s something undeniably primordial and unknowable about that sea. Read a few of his short stories, and you’ll have the same feeling about his work.
Laird Barron is, of course, not a madman. At least not as far as I could tell. He was in town for a Second Story event, and we were eating a late dinner at the Arby’s across from the Lafayette Square Mall. It had been a long day—three school visits followed by a reading at Service Center. And the next day would be long too—writing workshops and a Halloween party. But Laird seemed energized by the whole thing (or maybe he was just excited to finally sit down to dinner). Our conversation bounced around from football to Denis Johnson to comic books to hunting, and I didn’t really get a chance to talk to him about his own work and influences.
So Laird was kind enough to agree to an interview. I didn’t make the same mistake twice, and I’m now more convinced than ever that he is indeed not a madman. Instead, he’s an intelligent, thoughtful voice in an all-too-often stale genre.
LP: Your background is endlessly fascinating—losing your eye when you were young, growing up in the wilds of Alaska, racing in the Iditarod—but those things don’t seem to make it into your writing. At least not overtly. Do you consciously avoid mining that territory? If so, why? If not, can we expect a book of short stories or a novel drawn from your Alaskan adolescence any time soon?
LB: I’ve had my share of character-defining experiences. Losing my eye to cancer being foremost of these since it happened when I was a baby. For many years I allowed the experiences of that early life in Alaska to inform my writing, to materialize on the periphery now and again, but never permitted it to fully manifest. Why not? I’ve a complicated relationship with that person and his parents, our way of life during the ’80s and ’90s…with the state of AK itself. I’ve felt the need to distance myself from all of that. Gradually, I’ve thawed to the idea of integrating my time in the north with an ongoing fiction project. The best art is that which evolves and builds upon what’s come before. My first three collections were permutations of cosmic and supernatural horror, each book drifting further into the dark. Among many other items, I’m working on a collection of Alaska-themed stories. Yes. There’ll be horror of all kinds, but it’ll descend into more traditional realms and be somewhat autobiographical. Here’s hoping it’ll see the light of day in the next two or three years.
LP: Most everything you’ve published can be categorized as horror. But it seems that your interests are much broader. How has poetry, for example, impacted your writing?
LB: Poetry is important. I grew up with the works of Robert Service and Edgar Allan Poe; my mother and uncle wrote poems and song lyrics. I had some work published in the paper, but it wasn’t until much later that I began to study poetry; devoted a year of my life to it. It’s a tough gig, writing good poems. The essential skill I picked up from that experience was how to tighten and refine my prose. Poetry relies on economy, a succinct distillation of emotion. I’m still working on it.
LP: Much like Lovecraft’s work, many of your short stories are a piece of a much larger puzzle, sometimes with obvious connections and other times with not-so-obvious connections. Did you set out to create your own mythology?
LB: I set out to explore various horror traditions and build onto all the wonderful, frightful material that came long before. From the beginning, I wanted some of my stories to form a sort of mosaic over time and that has manifested as something of a mythos. Patterns, designed and otherwise, emerged over time. There are the obvious items–recurring characters, monsters; revisited geography and themes. I’ve tried to delve deeper than the obvious, however. I use a mirroring effect–a male character in story A reappears as a female character in story B; antagonists and protagonists are transposed; a recurring theme is approached from different angles.
LP: If you were to remove the supernatural elements from many of your stories, you would often be left with a fully (or nearly) complete work in an entirely different genre. Remove the supernatural from “The Imago Sequence,” for example, you’re left with a freestanding crime/heist novella. What is about the supernatural that keeps you coming back to it?
LB: Mom was a devout Christian and Dad was a hardnosed agnostic. Those were some intense childhood years around the Barron house. I’m not religious, as it turns out. However, I am cognizant of our minuteness in relation to the world we live in, to say nothing of the cosmos. My definition of the supernatural is that there are processes and mechanisms and effects that outstrip our current scientific understanding. When every mystery is uncloaked, every enigma resolved, when that which we refer to as the supernatural dissolves from our lives, then I might stop writing about it.
LP: Do you prefer writing short stories, novellas, or novels? Why?
LB: I love the art of short fiction and poetry. The compact density of a novelette is alluring. However, novellas are my preference, especially for horror. They possess the utility of a novel in the sense you can develop thematic depth and plot. There’s room for a cast of complex characters, room to breathe and digress. If you do it correctly, you’ve accomplished any number of these tasks and gotten out before your welcome wears thin. I certainly think it’s easier to maintain a pitch of horror or dread across the span of twenty to forty thousand words than to do so with a full length novel. However, for exceptions, one need look no further than Ghost Story by Peter Straub, or The Shining by Stephen King.
LP: As a child, did you receive any formal education or encouragement regarding your writing? If so, from whom? If not, can you speculate on what that education and encouragement might have done for you?
LB: Initially, I had a lot of support as a child–people thought it cute and precocious. My interest in writing stopped being cute and precocious when I reached my teens. At that point it was considered a pipe dream, an impediment to the serious business of day to day survival. There was a lot of resistance from my parents and the friends of my parents. It required a dogged effort on my part to ignore the naysaying and persist. I didn’t receive any formal training in the arts. That’s probably a double-edged blade. In some ways, my development was more liberal and authentic than what is fostered by the typical classroom or workshop. Nonetheless, the right mentor in the right environment might’ve opened up the world for me. While it ultimately turned out well, my progress was probably delayed by not partaking in a structured setting. Whatever one’s natural gifts, proper education can only sharpen them.
LP: During your recent visit to Indianapolis, you had a chance to visit some local schools. What did you take away from the experience? Were the kids excited about writing?
LB: The students were engaged and the schools were welcoming. It’s important to get artists into the school setting–the presence of a working writer lends immediacy to the proceedings and dispels some of the abstractness that surrounds the drudgery of day to day assignments. Some of the students were excited about writing, others were less so. However, I think most of them got the message that it’s okay to dream. You just have to be persistent.
LP: Can you name some contemporary authors worth checking out that might not be on our radar?
LB: I’ll toss out three authors who work in the dark fantasy/horror field: Stephen Graham Jones’ collection The Ones That Got Away is among the best of this young century; Livia Llewellyn’s collection Engines of Desire; Norman Partridge’s collection Lesser Demons. Llewellyn’s work is supercharged with the erotic and the taboo, while Partridge operates in the shadows of noir, western, and hardboiled horror. These are three of our finest.
Laird Barron’s latest collection—The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All—will be out on April 2, 2013.
 I’m convinced that Barron probably bristles a little bit at this description. His work dwells on the obscure and the forgotten, so maybe a better point of comparison would be Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood.
 Second Story’s a great little organization based in Indianapolis dedicated to helping kids learn to love creative writing.