One of the items in the Necon goody bags this year was the June 2006 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my friend Laird Barron has a novella in this issue called "Hallucigenia". Now, Laird is a new friend, one of those people I've met through the writing biz, but I hadn't read anything by him yet, despite heavyweights like Ellen Datlow and Gordon Van Gelder going on and on about how excellent a writer he is. I was excited to finally give his work a try.
And I have to say, "Hallucigenia" didn't disappoint. It's a dark, horrific tale that could have just as easily been printed in a horror mag as an sfnal one. The writing was smooth and evocative -- Barron is clearly one of those writers who knows the power of just the right word -- and the story was gripping. It's one of those what's-real-and-what's-not tales where you keep half-expecting the protagonist, who gets knocked unconscious in a barn during a kicker of an opening sequence, to be found dead in the same spot at the end and it was all just a Jacob's Ladder-type death dream, thus invalidating everything you read over the course of sixty-odd pages. But to Barron's credit, he avoids that ending and keeps everything valid and honest. If the construct becomes a bit too Lovecraftian by the end, with talk of ancient demonic forces that dwell beyond the veil of reality and the powers they can bestow upon their followers, it's a forgivable sin. And unlike a lot of Lovecraft-influenced work, it actually fits into the plot instead of acting as set dressing. Also -- big props to Barron -- there were no crazy sounding god-names filled with apostrophes and hyphens, and no magic books where all the answers can be found. There's only the protagonist caught in the middle of something he doesn't understand and, despite being kind of a jerk in all the ways that a lot of wealthy fictional characters are portrayed as jerks, he can't even be blamed for it.
I sometimes feel like a phony when I say "so-and-so is a writer to watch" because it sounds so blurby, and as we all know, 90% of the blurbs on books are bullshit. But Laird Barron's the real deal, and you should be watching him. I can't wait for someone to put out a collection of his work soon so I can read all his stuff at once.
I'm recommending this one for a Bram Stoker Award, too. It may be a bit too refined for a lot of horror readers' tastes these days -- there isn't a whole lot grue, though there is some ick, and it's more descriptive than action-oriented -- but I hope by recommending it I can bring it to more horror fans' attention. "Hallucigenia" may be published in a magazine whose title references every other speculative fiction genre besides horror, but it's a horror tale through and through.