Showing posts with label paul j. garth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label paul j. garth. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Tongues, fiction by Paul J. Garth


Brandon brought the car to a stop in a sandy wash out on the side of the road between a set of bending trees, their limbs drooping towards the ground as though tired from carrying the weight of the sky. Running his tongue over his teeth while Kent smoked out the window, they listened to engine ticking in the darkness. The cold metal of the .32 digging dug into his back, and, though nothing had happened yet - though nothing would happen if they stuck to the plan - he still felt his heart beating staccato against the ribs. Between the trees, the moon winked out at them, vicious and taunting.

Cool air slipped in beneath Kent's smoke and settled beneath the sweat on Brandon's face. He wiped away the chill and eyed Preacher Ferland’s house. The house was a squat, small mid-century farmhouse, sitting atop the crown of a low brown hill, alone on either side for a half mile or more. “That’s it,” he said softly.

They watched the house and the road and the emptiness of everything in this small out of the way place in silence. Neither said anything, but Brandon was certain that Kent was feeling the same thing he felt. A sense of fear. As though the place had somehow been irradiated by the man who lived inside. On the dashboard, the clock slid later and later. The edge of the coke dying inside him, Brandon turned to Kent. “You ready?”

Kent checked the chamber of his Glock and placed it in the front pocket of his hoodie. “Let’s go.”

They moved together, black hoods pulled up over their skulls, breath hanging fractal in front of their faces like wisping smoke. Above them, stars, ageless and innumerable, lay scattered across the sky, and the winking moon hung high and hysterical. Frosted ground crunched underneath their boots and the smell of cold and rot and dead crop filled their noses as they moved over the withered field, towards the Preacher’s house and the copse of trees that lay behind it.

The night hummed in stillness. No dogs. No cars. No signs of life other than their own footfalls and a porch light that hung next to the front door, gleaming dully in the night and illuminating the dead grass of the hill. Silently, they moved to the edge of the light, then circled the house before consulting briefly in the bones of the trees.

“What do you think?” Kent asked.

"I dunno, man," Brandon said. The cold was all the way in him now, and though movement had numbed his fear to a dull ache, it was still there. But so was the anxiousness of what Kent would think. "I guess I'm okay."

“Yeah. The light being on. Gotta be a mistake. Something he forgot to turn off. He’s gone. I know for sure.”

“Okay,” Brandon said, hyping himself up. Pushing the fear away. “Okay. Yeah. Fuck it, let’s go.”

Brandon took the lead. He kept low and moved quickly. Taking the short back steps in a single stride, he pressed himself against the back door of the Preacher’s house. His ears buzzed with blood. His tongue slid over his teeth, tracing the gaps. His hands were shaking.

He counted to five. Willed his hands to be still. He tried the door. Locked.

Kent rose beside him, hefted the Glock by the barrel, and swung it into the window of the door. Glass shattered and fell into the dark of the house.

Brandon rose, reached in and flipped the lock. The door swung open. Together, they went inside.

The kitchen was small and empty of furniture. Shards of glass covered the yellowed laminate floor, tossing moonlight. The floors were dirty, the cupboards an off-white, and the smell of dull smoke hung in the place, the ghosts of a previous resident.

“Where you think it is?” Kent asked, gesturing around with the gun.

Brandon shrugged. “Could be under the goddamn mattress for all I know.”

“Mattress? Man, you made it sound like this guy sleeps in a fuckin’ coffin.”

“Let’s find it and go.”

They moved into the front room, half-blind except for narrow slats of moonlight sliding through a gap in the curtains.

Somewhere in the back of the house, a board moaned, low and soft.

“Jesus,” Brandon said, spinning around, the barrel of his gun sweeping the dark. His feet backed up, reflexively, and he was almost halfway through the kitchen towards the back door when he felt Kent grab him softly in the dark.

“Stay cool, man. The place is empty. If he was as scary as you tell, He would have been out here already. Would have heard the glass break.” He winked in the dark. "It's just us and the ghosts out here now."

“Don’t say that, man. Fuck.” Brandon shivered. “I feel like I’m robbing the Devil. I mean, fucking snakes, man?”

The Preacher had come at the end of summer heat, blight and infection hot on its winds. He’d stood outside of town and promised forgiveness and deliverance, and the people had come. He handled snakes, they whispered, serpent’s that God protected him from. They claimed he’d cured the sick and offered salvation, not just to the damned, but to the town and the land itself, the vipers in his hands the whole time he spoke.

Brandon had heard the rumors - of Ferland’s Godly powers, of his command over the Holy Ghost, and that, despite the peoples’ interest, the Preacher stayed a mysterious figure, rarely seen by anyone outside his white revival tent on Sundays and Wednesdays. His interest grew with each new outrageous story he’d heard, until he felt compelled to see it for himself.

In the heat of the tent, Brandon had seen the snakes. But worse, he’d seen people he’d known his entire life overtaken by something he could not name, Prophecies of the End Times on their lips, their eyes shining in ways that made his arms burst in gooseflesh.

“They do that shit down south,” Kent said, trying to sound calm and worldly, though Brandon knew the furthest south he'd ever been was to Missouri to buy legal weed and fireworks.

He tried to shake the memory, but the white tent had bound itself to him, and even then the memory of the place and the humidity inside scared him, made the skin around his balls draw up tight and the hair on the back of his neck electric.

Kent started moving, deeper into the house. “Thing I don't get is, why would anyone in Nebraska sign up for that. We're not the south. We do things our own way here. And how does it work? Is God in the snake? What if it bites? That mean God hates the snake handler, or someone in the crowd?”

Brandon thought again of Ferland on his rickety stage, his face whittled into a grin. He thought of how he paced back and forth, rattlesnakes in each hand, the serpents flicking forked tongues and widening their jaws to strike. He remembered how he'd watched and wondered, slack-jawed, the question of what drove a man to do such a thing burning behind his eyes. He pushed the thought away. Focused instead on a different memory, the image of the wicker donation plate overflowing with cash, the Preacher blessing and raising it over his head at the end of every service.

“It's all bullshit,” he said, but even as he spoke he could hear the own rattle in his voice. Could feel the bone in the back of his throat. “None of it works. It just is. Let’s just find the money and get the fuck out.”

They began to walk again, moving deeper into the dark room off the kitchen, floorboards creaking underneath.

From somewhere in the shadows, they heard rattling.

They stopped, trading looks, fear written across their faces. Brandon reached behind him, grabbed the grip of the .32 for comfort. Breathing deep, he reached around the doorframe, found the light-switch, and flipped it on.

Dull, yellow light filled the room, barely pushing back the dark. The room was small. Unkempt. A bookshelf along the far wall filled with religious tracts, books on demonology, screeds against The Pope, and the “Left Behind” novels. A small desk pressed back against the far wall. Next to the desk, on top of an old nightstand, sat a red wooden box covered by a piece of warped plywood, cement bricks resting on either end. Muted rattling came from inside.

Brandon stared at the box, his eyes like cotton, dry and itching. It was the same box he’d seen the Preacher reach his hands into, rattlesnakes wrapped around his wrists as he pulled them back out, their hisses and rattles accompanying his apocalyptic witnessing.

Brandon took a step back. “Oh fuck, man,” he said. His bones had fallen loose inside his skin. Droplets of sweat broke out on his face. He imagined one of the snakes sliding past his teeth and down his throat, it’s tongue flicking the blood from his hammering heart.“I didn’t know he kept them here.”

“I didn’t either,” Kent said. “I thought they stayed at the tent.”

The rattling slowed to a dull drone and then stopped.

Brandon reached out and touched Kent's arm. "I’m not sure I want to do this, man. It was my idea, yeah, but, man, I don't want to be here. I don’t want to rob this dude. A normal preacher or priest of whatever would be bad enough, but this guy is another fucking level. This shit freaks me out too bad.”

Kent looked at him with cold eyes, yellow and slit in under the rooms lonely light. "You know why we wanted to do this, Brandon. Get it the fuck together."

Brandon need cut through his gut, swirling with fear. He thought of the nosebleeds, spilling down into his mouth. Of his gums, too dull to feel themselves giving up the root. He thought of Kent on the ratty bean bag, finally passed out after three days. Of how they always needed more to last them. Of how he’d finally figured a way to get out of the middle of fucking Nebraska and to a place where there was something. Better drugs, better women, better jobs. Something more than a tiny town off the highway that offered only a more bitter, angrier God, shit coke, and the same jobs at the silos. And now he wanted to throw it all away.

Because of the Preacher. Because of Ferland. Not because of the things he'd seen him do, but because of the glow he'd held in his eyes as he'd done them.

Brandon shook his head. “No. Dude. Seriously. I’m gonna wait outside.” He gestured around the room with his hand. “Fuck all of this. You wanna do it? Fine. Don’t even need my split. There are other ways we can get right. Other ways we can start over."

"You always were a pussy," Kent said. "But you better wait at the car. Cause I'm gonna find it.” He turned, walking across the small room toward the small hallway, the kitchen, and the rest of the creaking black house beyond.

Brandon looked away, shame and fear and need all twisting in him now, ringing him out until the sweat slid from his pores and the snakes smelled it and began beating themselves against the slivered wood of the container.

Behind Brandon, just a few steps in to the hall, Kent’s footsteps stopped. And then a scream rose up.

Brandon turned turned, a question forming on his tongue. From the room, he saw Kent raising his hand, the small black Glock swinging up in front of him.

The back half of Kent blew outwards, blood and muscle and bone, the gunshot thundering against the thin wood.

Gore painted the wall next to Brandon.

Iron in his mouth. Smoke burning in his nostrils. His ears went numb. Felt his heart beat through his empty gums. A scream spilled from his throat as he watched Kent’s body tumble forewards, his guts suddenly unzipped, and land face down on the wooded floor of the study, but it died between his teeth.

Brandon fell against the wall, stumbling and sliding on his friend’s blood until he ended on his knees, his eyes searching the dark where Kent had pointed.

The Preacher stood hunched in the dark of the kitchen, a shotgun leveled, a black outline against the dark of the broken back door. The man’s eyes haunted the darkness, reflecting the hoary light of the moon.

Slowly, the shotgun leading him, the Preacher walked into the room.

Brandon’s spine wracked. Fire burned through his brain, screaming for him to reach to the back of his jeans, to the pistol cold against his sweating skin, but he was frozen in place, his veins leeched of heat and blood. Behind him, the snakes in the box hissed furiously and thumped their rattles against the wood.

The Preacher stepped over Kent’s body, avoiding the spreading pool of blood, the shotgun sweeping around Brandon. "Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off," Preacher Ferland said, his voice softer than the rickety accented ever-rising Drone Brandon had heard in the tent. He slipped a foot under Kent's shoulder and kicked the body over on it's back.

Kent’s eyes, stuck open, stared at the bottom row of the bookshelf, a look of surprise and pain knit into his face.

In a terrible moment, Brandon realized that his friend’s twisted body, insides spilling over the wooden floor, looked like a burst snake in the middle of birth, and he fought the urge to vomit. Sweat ran from his brow. Mixed with blood. Stung his eyes. Fear, a deeper fear than he'd ever experienced, spread across the top of his skin and pounded in his skull. And below that, the urge for coke screamed.

He ran his tongue over the gaps of teeth to fight the urge. “It was a mistake,” he said, finally able to slide words from his mouth. “A mistake.”

Ferland stared in silence. Their eyes locked, and Brandon felt something, like the Preacher was probing his soul.

The snakes slowed their mad writhing, and the room became so still and silent Brandon was convinced the Preacher could hear his heart beating, and that, at the sound of it, the man’s tongue had become wet.

“Just let me go!” he screamed.

No answer. The Preacher’s body stood so still it seemed he were carved of stone.

He’d seen the Preacher speak in tongues and exorcise demons and boom to his flock - his voice always loud, musical, trembling with power - that in the very land they worked lived the Devil. But, Brandon realized, he’d never seen the man be still or silent, and in the pale of the room, the Charismatic’s quiet unnerved him even more.

Then, almost imperceptibly, the Preacher began to hum, airy and light, a hymn, like something sung joyously by a choir.

“Just let me go,” Brandon said again, his voice breaking now. He wanted to weep. Pray. Wondered if he would be able to pull out and empty the .32 before the Preacher fired on him. Knew it would be impossible. Crashed his thoughts in to one another, trying to decide if it'd be worth it anyway.

The Preacher stopped humming then. “Amen,” he said aloud, and Brandon realized the humming had been a prayer - a paean, maybe, for forgiveness. He watched as Ferland lowered the shotgun and came to him, his hand out, offering to help him up. “I’m sorry for your friend,” Ferland said. “But he was about to shoot me. I just hope he was right with the Lord. Now,” the Preacher paused, taking in all of Brandon, his ratty jeans, his worm boots, the sweat rolling across his forehead, his twisted and failing teeth, “You need to tell me why you’ve come here.”

“No,” Brandon said. “You killed Kent.”

The man’s eyes took on a determined set, the skin beneath them smooth and tanned. He stepped forward, the shotgun lowered, his hand out.

Brandon looked down and saw Ferland’s feet, slick with Kent’s blood from the spreading pool. “Just let me go,” he begged. “I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”

“Robbery, am I right?” the Preacher said, ignoring the request. “Because of drugs? Or is it a woman you’re stealing for? Either way, a whore has your soul.”

Shame soaked through him, mingling with the pulse inside that begged for a hit. Brandon nodded. “Drugs,” he said, then he reached up and took the Preacher’s hand, warm and somehow clammy at the same time, and brought himself to standing.

A dark humor settled into Ferland’s face. “But you don’t know where the donations even are, do you?”

Brandon shook his head, the bones in his neck grinding on each other. “Please, he begged, “don’t kill me.”

“What do you think of me?” The Preacher stepped backwards, as though he were offended at the thought. “That I judge you as evil for your addiction? Because you have fallen under evil’s spell? No. No, not at all. I believe in forgiveness,” the Preacher’s face grew softer, his voice calming, “I am not meant to kill you,” he said. “I am meant to teach you how to live.”

Ferland paused, then reached out and took Brandon’s hand in his own as though he were a child, the blood on their palms mixing. “In you,” he continued, “I see one of God’s children who has lost his way. That your way to Glory has been blocked by something else. And I believe — I have to believe — that you have been brought to me, delivered to me, so that I can guide you back to righteousness.”

Preacher Ferland leading, they moved across the room together, stepping over Kent’s blood, already gathering the smell of rot. Calmly, the Preacher led Brandon to the red wooden box on the old nightstand.

“It’s in there,” he said. “And you’re going to take it. A sign of God's love. Not blasphemous Serendipity, but something older. A perfect order. I can look at you and know, through His wisdom. That you are a fearful man. But tonight, you shake the fear off.”

Hissing leaked from the box as the snakes came alive again.

Brandon bent at the waist, retching up bile. The Preacher’s hand calmly rubbed his back. “Jesus Christ,” he gasped.

“Exactly!” Ferland clapped him on the back, then raised him back to standing before taking a step away.

“Go on,” he said. “It’s waiting for you.”

Brandon tried to stall, to grab something in his mind that would spare him, but everything slipped under the weight of his need. Of his shame. His fear. The anxiousness he could never seem to shake. “You,” he tried. “You were supposed to be gone.”

Disappointment clouded the Preacher’s face. “No man will know my coming and going. Don’t you recognize that? You? A thief in the night?”

He felt Ferland reach into the back of his jeans and pull the .32 from his waist. His temples hammering in fear, Brandon stepped to the box. With hands quaking, he removed the bricks from the corners, then slid the piece of plywood off, inch by inch.

The inside of the box was dark and still, the scales of the rattlesnakes cooly reflecting the overhead light. One of the things knocked its rattle against the wooden side then fell quiet while the other tasted blood in the air with its forked tongue. Their eyes beat black and cold. His legs tingled as if to lead him away, but he could not bring himself to move. A tail slid across the top of an old metal cashbox nestled between the vipers, filling the box with a tinny echo.

“You see it,” the Preacher said, taking a step back. “You just have to believe now. God brought you here for this. Put your faith in Him and you will not be harmed.” He gestured again at the box, an air of weariness flushing across his skin. “But those who don’t believe are punished.” Ferland raised the pistol. Pressed it, softly, against the back of Brandon’s skull.

Brandon stood, staring at the snakes, his vision blurring with darkness at the edges. He tried not to think of the gun at the back of his head. Tried not to think of Kent and all the nights they’d spent on back roads, passing the pipe or the powder between them, how badly he needed it now. Tried not to think of the insides of his friend’s body, now exposed and twisted and leaking on the floor.

His tongue worked the gaps of his teeth.

He thought of getting clean, how he might actually be able to do it now that Kent was gone. He thought of Preacher Ferland’s God, full of wrath and retribution and mercy for those like him, those who had fallen into the dark. He felt the Preacher standing behind him, as though he’d been placed there by God himself, and how he’d seen seen the man plunge his hands into the box, before pulling the serpents out, always unharmed, his face calm, serene, at one with the Maker.

Brandon swallowed. He tried to summon a calmness or faith. Tried to find a way forward without his own fear.

An electricity entered the room, soft but insistent, just over the surface of his skin.

“God is here with us now,” Ferland said, pushing Brandon forward. “You can feel it. Don’t let Him leave you now.”

Brandon raised his right arm and placed it over the top, a half-forgotten Psalm on his lips.

The rattlesnakes began to writhe, their bodies turning and twisting in the shadow of his hand, the ends of their tails rattling, beating against the cheap wood. Forked tongues flicked rapidly, the serpent’s eyes shining sick and wet in the shadows.

He closed his eyes. Tried to picture God and his Kingdom. The peace of it. The bravery. The Power and the Glory and the Joy.

Slowly, Brandon lowered his hand into the red wooden container, prayers flowing from his lips. Behind him, Preacher Ferland joined in, his voice loud and commanding.

The hissing and rattling of the vipers grew louder as he lowered his hand deeper, the tails of the rattlesnakes thumping against the insides of the box. Brandon raised his voice to match the Preacher’s, his eyes clenched shut as his hand descended into the whirling mass of scales and teeth, and amidst the electricity and their voices and the shaking of the snakes tails, the room became filled with a strange uneven melody, like a man speaking in tongues.

Paul J. Garth has been published in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Tough, and several other anthologies and web magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska, where he lives with his family. An editor at Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Laird Barron's Black Mountain, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Black Mountain
Laird Barron
G.P Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by Paul J. Garth

There are several scenes in Black Mountain, Laird Barron’s second crime novel, that see the protagonist of Barron’s series, Isaiah Coleridge, reflecting on a life lived in the shadow of inescapable death. The Shade has always been waiting, Coleridge recollects deathsheads and cosmic gloom as constant parts of his life.Through the course of these recollections, peppered throughout this gloriously plotted, violent, and fascinating novel,  Isaiah reveals he’s done what most men cannot: instead of attempting to escape the shadow of death, he’s felt himself drawn to it. In Alaska, Coleridge’s former home before a mob-enforced exile, the two were joined as seamlessly as night falling over a distant, darkened peak.
When we first met Coleridge, in last year’s Blood Standard, this past before exile from the Outfit was only hinted at, shown in asides tossed between mobsters and mentors, quips made to button men, white supremacists, and mercs who had made the mistake of trying to intimidate Isaiah while his feet were still wet in a new setting, but the genuine weight of Coleridge’s past experience was mostly mentioned in asides or as window dressing to let you know how dangerous Coleridge could be. Blood Standard is a good book, a haymaker introduction to a wonderfully complex, caring, yet hostile new character operating in a non-traditional location, written by one of the last decade’s most exciting writers. Like Isaiah, however, there were times when it felt as though there was a component missing, some piece of the puzzle that had not yet been formed and placed. In short, it was very close to the book readers had imagined when they heard Laird Barron was trying his hand at writing noir novels, but not quite the whole.
Black Mountain changes that. In Black Mountain, all the pieces cohere, and Barron places each one meticulously, including some new ones, revealing something exciting, elemental, dark, and formidable. Black Mountain, in a just world, would put the rest of the crime fiction world on notice.
Set close to real time, Black Mountain sees Coleridge, still off his game by a step or two after working through the investigation in Blood Standard, hanging out a shingle as a PI. When his former associatescome to Coleridge looking for help tracking down who might be responsible for a made man ending up headless in a local lake, Coleridge takes the case.  Through his investigation, Coleridge is thrown into a shadowy world of almost mythological hit-men, sinister corporations (including one that longtime Barron fans will relish seeing again), mob politics, femme fatales, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and dysfunctional families.
In lesser hands, Black Mountain could read like something overly familiar, a mix between Red Dragon and a Quarry novel, perhaps, but Barron eschews cheap plot twists and the know structures of the genre, preferring to take the story to new, stranger territory. That Coleridge’s ensuing search for answers is expertly plotted and ultimately leads to dark truths will not be a surprise for anyone who has previously read Barron, but what may be surprising is how organic and natural the investigation is. Isaiah Coleridge is not a trained detective, and he is certainly not a detective with enough experience to find someone even the FBI has spent years looking for, but he is tenacious, and he knows how to make people talk. Add in a deep personal insight into others and a doomed sense of self, and you’re left with a fantastically unique, even more deeply fleshed out protagonist in his second outing, one more comfortable with animal cunning than any kind of traditional investigative logic to lead him to the next inevitable step. Again, in less skilled hands, this would feel like a cheat, a series character being right because the plot demands it, but Barron is better than that. On occasion, he lets Coleridge fail or be wrong (this seems to be a theme with Barron and Coleridge--the fallibility of the investigator--that some may find off putting but others will think lends a level of authenticity to the proceedings). By working the clues and relying on his confidants, including an FBI agent who passes along critical but confounding information, Coleridge soon finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy both larger than most presented in noir fiction, and also one that is much more deadly: The Croatoan, Coleridge’s quarry, is ruthless, brilliant, and, the wiseguys whisper, potentially supernatural. A serial killer created by private corporations and the alphabet soup of nameless government agencies, the Croatoan is literally pulled from the innards of the earth, and just as Coleridge is hunting him, the Croatoan hunts Coleridge.
     The plot of Black Mountain is fast-moving, intricate, expansive, and mysterious, but the major achievement of the novel is the atmosphere Barron creates, infecting the reader with some of Coleridge’s own sense of predetermined cosmic doom. The prose in Blood Standard was good, but it sometimes felt as though it had been muted or toned down, focusing more on birthing Coleridge’s voice than the prose style Barron was previously known for, but in Black Mountain, the two elements have been joined beautifully,  establishing both a mood for the novel, an outlook for Coleridge, a sense of dangerous psychogeography with the setting, and a cold and brutal sense of impending death for everyone involved. Take, for example, the following scene, in which Coleridge investigates a warehouse in which the Croatoan might have worked decades before:
Hush prevailed as I moved inward and reached a set of doors marked RECEIVING. Old, old metal doors with metal handles. The left door was painted crimson, the right black, and, to either side, brick walls pallid as a dirty eggshell. The doors had been frequently repainted; a detail that inexplicably heightened my disquiet. Whatever had transpired in this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s lingered as a dim, psychic taint.  
All the above paints a picture of Black Mountain as a grim, death-obsessed book, but though the novel is made up of those elements, and though they are thematically necessary, such a picture would not fully capture Black Mountain as it is, as, amongst all the darkness, there are moments of light, as well. The supporting cast of the Isaiah Coleridge novels was perfect from the beginning, but they take on new life here, including shading Coleridge’s sidekick, Lionel, who, though he is almost as dangerous as Coleridge frequently behaves like a funny lovelorn teen; Devlin, a precocious kid who lights up the proceedings;  Meg, Coleridge’s girlfriend, who delights in Coleridge and whose affection for him is contagious, yet she still relishes giving him a hard time;  and an ever-evolving set of mobsters and wiseguys,  all of whom seem to be as interested in throwing zingers as they are making money, committing crimes, and figuring out who killed their compatriots. In addition, there are scenes with Coleridge that move from blackly humorous to just flat out hilarious, including an encounter between Coleridge and a would be intimidation squad that somehow manages to be laugh out loud funny between all the gunshots and broken ribs.
Laird Barron has been writing professionally for almost two decades now, and his body of work is deep and full of incredible stories, but the move to crime fiction has given him a second life, stretching his skills and unique understanding of our world onto a genre that seems ready made for him. Asked a year ago what stories best showcased Barron’s talent, I may have replied with a long list of personal favorites: “Bulldozer”, “Hallucigenia”, “The Imago Sequence,” “The Broadsword”, “Occultation”, “--30--”, The Croning, “The Men from Porlock”, “The Redfield Girls”, “Hand of Glory”, “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees”, or “Frontier Death Song”.
     Now, the answer is simple: Black Mountain. In Isaiah Coleridge, Barron has perfected a series protagonist who, though their survival is (mostly) assured, still plumbs the depths of genuine noir. This is the book crime fiction, a genre sometimes known for treading water, needs right now. This is, so far anyway, the best series crime novel of the year.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Blood Standard, by Laird Barron, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Blood Standard
Laird Barron
G.P. Putnam's Sons
336 pages
reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Rumors of what would end up being Blood Standard, Laird Barron’s first mainstream crime novel, had been going around for years. As a devotee, I first heard whispers that Barron was writing a noir sometime in mid 2014; there were no other details to the gossip, no plot hints, character ideas, or even a sense of where the book would be set, but the rumors were more than enough to get anyone even slightly plugged into the gray area where crime fiction and horror fiction overlap very excited. Shortly afterward, when Barron confirmed in a Facebook post that he was in fact writing a noir novel, I don’t think anyone could have imagined a more perfect pairing.

Barron, the 21st century's undisputed king of cosmic horror has always had a soft spot for characters straight out of classic noir: whether it’s the Pinkerton or the private detective stumbling across unimaginable truths, the CIA spook or the grizzled military commander monkeying with things they do not truly understand, miners and geologists, comfortable only in solitude but forced to work together to stay alive, or the lavishly rich, surrounding themselves with potential victims. Barron’s collections were full of gruff men of action whose minds were destined to end up as broken as their bodies. The promise of those characters, and the language and atmosphere Barron used to wring every ounce of tension from their suffering, but set in a world in which Old Leech was not to reveal himself? It was almost too good to be true.

Enter Isaiah Coleridge, another of Barron’s signature hardscrabble heroes. A mob enforcer sent from the warm arms of The Outfit to the outer edges of the universe, in this case, Nome, Alaska, Coleridge witnesses a money-making slaughter scheme on the Chukchi Sea and, maybe for the first time in his life, does the right thing. Or the wrong.

Exiled for his sins against the Outfit to the quiet Hudson Valley of upstate New York and held in check by an awareness that the Outfit might come calling at any moment to collect their pound of flesh, Coleridge settles in to a quiet life on a farm. It’s only when Reba Walker, the farm owner’s granddaughter, goes missing, and Coleridge promises to find the girl, that he is pulled back into the world of greed and violence, and he jumps in with both feet.

The violence in Blood Standard isn’t meditative or philosophical as in the majority of Barron’s previous work. It simply is, an essential aspect of Coleridge’s life that is so commonplace it is barely worthy of note. Whether or not that is a good thing will be the cause of some debate among readers. The novel moves along at an almost impossible pace, most scenes action-packed and filled with growing mystery or tension or violence, but the language is clipped, especially in comparison to Barron’s horror work. In previous short story collections readers were treated to horrific imagery and the suggestion of the baroque and the grotesque awaiting behind even the most commonplace of items and incidents, elements which I think makes Barron one of the best prose stylists I’ve ever read. In Blood Standard, most of that is gone, excised instead for action and forward momentum, though Barron occasionally slows down the ass-kicking to deliver a knockout of a section, including the following plumbed from the depths of Isaiah’s fever dream:

I wandered through Elysian Fields and the Boar of the Wood hunted me, his tusks as sharp as spearheads. He felled the tall grass with each sideways swipe of his massive head. My grandfather, dressed in skins and a necklace of sharks’ teeth, floated always two places ahead his gaze serene as a storm cloud. He raised a flint ax and I woke, the blare of a conch horn trailing into the ether.

I’ll be honest and admit now that there were times when reading Blood Standard that I wished the Barron prose I’d fallen in love with would reappear, that I’d get more of the above, an exploration of the sense of cosmic doom that immediately follows a head cracking--an unconsciousness made of cold stars and the void behind them--but it’s also entirely possible that the only reason I wanted that is because that was the book I’d been imagining for four years, and it’s very likely that readers who haven’t read Barron's previous books won’t find anything amiss at all. Besides, Blood Standard is straightforward about the kind of book it is from the jump; if there’s ever been another book that greets the reader with a balled up knuckle sandwich right on the title page, I can’t think of it.

That’s not to say Blood Standard isn’t a recognizably Laird Barron novel, either, as it is absolutely packed with what some have come to call Barronisms, each circling one another, all of the converging and separating in Blood Standard s murky mystery. Lurking at the edge of the plot are unscrupulous FBI agents, a group of private military mercenaries working for an atrocity-prone organization known simply as Black Dog, mobsters (so many mobsters), a particularly bacchanalian Beltane fire celebration, and Isaiah’s father, a cold-hearted son of a bitch who, if he’d been copy-pasted into Barron’s first breakout story, “Old Virginia”, probably would have staved off all the miseries in that story and saved the day. Plus gallons of whiskey and racks and racks of guns.

It may seem amiss, at this point, that for book supposedly about the mystery of a missing girl, I haven’t discussed the mystery that much. That’s for two reasons. The first is that the mystery works perfectly well as a means to drive the plot forward, which is to be expected in a modern crime novel. Blood Standard performs admirably, each chapter deepening the mystery while also suggesting increasingly sinister explanations. But the more interesting reason to discuss everything but the mystery is that the resolution of what happened to Reba Walker may strike some readers as unsatisfying. At first, I might have agreed with those readers, but that’s only because it took me a while to understand that the potentially unsatisfying resolution of the mystery is exactly the point. Blood Standard is an action story wearing the skin of a mystery novel, but it’s also the story of Isaiah Coleridge and his attempt to find his place in a world where even the criminal rejects have rejected him.

A cross between Jack Reacher or Clyde Barr novels and some of Dennis Lehane’s more introspective and gothic work (Shutter Island and the displaced narrator of The Given Day seem like obvious touchpoints), Blood Standard is less about the mystery of what happened to Reba Walker and more about what Isaiah Coleridge--and men like him--have to do to survive the modern world. If Coleridge, with all his sins and his Barbarian nature, had been able to set the world right, it would ring false, like Barron were giving us a neat ending simply for its own sake, but as anyone who has read Barron before knows, he doesn’t believe in neat or happy endings: the universe is too complex for that, as even the section in which the resolution is revealed is titled “The Gordian Knot”.

A novel about an difficult man trying to resolve a hopeless mystery, while also trying to accomplish something else that may as well be impossible, starting a new life, Laird Barron’s first crime novel is as much a character study as a beat ‘em up, rich with all the signature themes longtime Barron readers know and love, while also being straightforward and action-focused enough to welcome a mainstream audience. Whatever comes next for Isaiah Coleridge will surely be haunting and difficult and expansive on the world created here, and if it’s half as much fun as Blood Standard, I can’t wait.