Top critical review
Only 1 really good story, the rest range from terrible to merely ok.
on March 19, 2018
I was not too fond of Laird Barron's Occultation anthology. However, I heard him praised often in horror circles, so I decided to give him another try. Unfortunately, I don't think it was a fluke. While better than Occultation, the Imago Sequence is still plagued by many of the same problems as Occultation.
Beyond individual comments for each story, I don't have much to say that I haven't said for Occultation. Like Occultation, Barron sacrifices the story for literary elements that squash the story flat, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The endings are usually hard to understand or don't really resolve or conclude anything. As I will go into some spoilers to explain why some of the stories didn't work for me, here is your *SPOILER ALERT*. Skip to the last paragraph to get my conclusion.
(1) Old Virginia: 3.5/5
This story starts off quickly and, despite a bit too much backstory, it gets moving at a quicker pace that I've seen in some of Barron's other stories. A couple of black ops soldiers are tasked with guarding some small research compound from Soviet spies. What they're guarding, however, is worse then anything any of them would have imagined. The ending here was kind of... rough. It just sorta ends without any real resolution. The creepy psychic woman ends up riding(?) the protagonist as they head out to meet the Mother or something. I dunno. It was kinda disappointing, but the rest of the story leading up to the end was entertaining.
(2) Shiva, Open Your Eye: 1.5/5
This story just sucked. Some kind of supernatural, long-lived creature meets with a government agent of some sort. The agent is easily dispacted, after which the creature decides to bore the reader with a snore-inducing autobiography. This story exmplifies Barron at his worst. There is so much space devoted to the government agent's life and history. Who his kids are, where they went to college, how he met his wife, the type of shoes he wears, and so on. None of this is relevant to the story in any way. This character has no bearing on the "story" and, for some reason, Mr. Barron decides to subject his reader to the most inconsequential info dump I can imagine. In addition, there is no story here, no real plot to speak of. Just some supernatural creature talking about itself in the most conceited tone possible. I have no idea what the point of this garbage was, and I don't even care to know at this point.
(3) Procession of the Black Sloth: 3/5
I have very mixed-feelings about this story. It was definitely interesting. A corporate agent/spy is sent to sort out some bit of corporate espionage problem at a corporation's production plant in Hong Kong. Things get weird as the protagonist's sanity pours down the drain. This could have been an awesome story with some genuinely creepy moments. Spooky old ladies, supernatural tapes, etc. All of this is, in my humble opinion, ruined by the twist. *BIG SPOILER ALERT* Essentially, the protagonist is dead and now dwells in some kind of Buddhist hell. Don't know enough about Buddhism to say much more than that. That said, I hate these sorts of twists. I always end up feeling cheated. Everything feels like it's leading to the revelation of some kind of conspiracy, but no, the main guy is just in hell and has to come to terms with that. It's such a disappointing twist, and I HATED the story right after reading it. Looking back on it with a cool head allows me to see some merit in the story, but that twist still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. A final thing that bothers me is the dreaminess of the story. In short, I hate it when stories make you feel like you're reading a dream. You're unsure what is happening ,what is real and what isn't, where the dream began and where it ended. Some people like this; I hate it. It sacrifices clarity for what? A sense of bewilderment? I don't want to be bewildered while reading horror stories; I want to be creeped out.
(4) Bulldozer: 3.5/5
I first read (i.e. listened to) this story in Lovecraft's Monsters, which was edited by Ellen Datlow. This story is merely decent. A bounty hunter (of sorts) heads out looking for some serial killer in the Old West, a serial killer that stole some kind of occult tome. Things get weird once they meet up. About 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through something happens and I just completely lost it. I simply had no idea what was happening any more. Like Old Virginia, the story up to that point was very interesting, and then I got completely lost.
(5) Proboscis: 1.5/5
I heard this story one some kind of award. That surprised me. I don't know what makes this story so great. A group of guys (bounty hunters I think) have just snatched this pedophile and his girlfriend at a hotel and ran into trouble with Canadian authorities. The story actually begins just after all this has happened. The protagonist and the rest of the tough guys hit a couple of stops on the way home and I think some weird stuff starts to happen. In the end, they crash and the protagonist sees something creepy and runs away. He then cries on a bus while an old woman attempts to comfort him. That is literally the entire story. I don't get it. There is pretty much no story here, just a bunch of superfluous back story tacked on to a narrative about a guy walking around and seeing something weird. It's just so maddening as I feel like I'm wasting my time listening to these stories where nothing really happens, and the story goes nowhere. I don't get why these stories win awards and praise.
(6) Hallucigenia -- 3.5/5
This story was better than some of the others in this collection but is still held back by the same sort of problems. While investigating a seemingly abandoned barn on a farm, a horrific accident nearly cripples an older man and puts his young wife into a sort of semi-vegetative state. Sometime after, the husband decides to investigate what was going on in that barn and on the rest of the property. Things get creepy and weird fast. I really wanted to love this story. It had so much potential as the premise is very interesting. Mr. Barron ruins this story by spending WAY too much time on meaningless and irrelevant things that do not move the plot forward in any way. At one point, the protagonist goes to a fancy restaurant where many of the cities elite spend their time. This is after a couple of creepy things happen that managed to pique my interest. Mr. Barron decides that now would be a good time to rattle off the names, occupations and mini biography of every damn person in the restaurant, people who are never mentioned or referred to again. This is but one example, but luckily, after a certain point, the story picks up. Though like most of Barron's stories, I have no real idea what happens in the end. If not for these problems, this story could have been so much better.
(7) Parallax -- 2/5
Here we have another story with an interesting premise that meanders into nothingness. A celebrity and modern artist copes with the disappearance of his wife. That's literally the entire story. Sure certain things like the occult are hinted at or referenced, but they are just red herrings and don't impact the plot much. Sure you learn about the back story of the artist and how things came about. This backstory could have served as a strong foundation to a very interesting story. Ultimately, the story is nothing more than the protagonist complaining about his drunken habits as he recalls what happened. A nonsensical ending gets thrown in at the last second that made me wonder I even bothered reading this.
(8) The Royal Zoo Is Closed -- 1/5
This story takes home the dubious honor of being the worst in the anthology. There was nothing here you could even call a story. It's nothing more than the thoughts of a protagonist as he lives through what seems to be a literal apocalyptic day. At least, that's what I think happens. Beyond that, nothing really happens. Oh sure, things go to hell quickly, but what's the point? You don't find out anything about what is going on, nothing about the character. There isn't even a plot, the whole thing is nothing more than modern angst given a voice, entirely forgettable and just plain stupid.
(9) The Imago Sequence -- 4.5/5
I was not expecting much from this story. Given the not-so-great quality of the other stories, I was prepared for a long, drawn-out story about absolutely nothing. And Laird Barron finally decides to show us that he can actually write a decent story. A tough guy who specializes in "collections" is hired by a longtime associate to track down two other images that will complete a creepy and mysterious trio of paintings or photographs called The Imago Sequence. As he investigates, the protagonists quickly stumbles into something far worse. Cults, strange philosophies, and weird Lovecraftian nonsense (I use nonsense affectionately here). Here is a story that once it gets going, it doesn't stop. The investigator is constantly propelled forward by more and more clues that slowly bring him face-to-face with some really creepy stuff. To be honest, I don't get the ending. However, I'm more than willing to reread this story as it was the most intriguing story in the entire collection. Barron doesn't get mired in too much pointless backstory and manages to tell an interesting, though somewhat cryptic story. Best story in the collection by far, though I guess that isn't saying too much.
(10) The Hour of the Cyclops -- 3/5
This was a fun, pulpy story. The protagonist infiltrates the villain's lair and attempts to save the damsel in distress. Things take an... interesting turn. You never really find out much about the protagonist, and that's perfectly fine. He doesn't need any backstory. The other characters, the villain and the damsel, are given some background info, but for once, the author doesn't bury us in it. You're given just enough to get a sense of what's going on. The story starts in the middle of things and moves very quickly from there. This was probably the biggest surprise. This story isn't the greatest, but due to the fact that it actually has a plot and moves quickly, it stands head and shoulders above some of the other stories in this collection.
After reading a second anthology by Laird Barron, I have to conclude that he simply isn't for me. I don't like the kinds of stories he tells, I find them boring and maybe even a tad pretentious. He's a magnificent wordsmith, no doubt about that. But his stories don't interest me and/or don't make a whole lot of sense. Another very disappointing horror anthology and probably the last thing I read from Laird Barron.
2.5 out of 5 stars.