“A great film demonstrates a profound sense of place or character… A great film is one that I want to dissect.” — Meet author Laird Barron
I caught up with author Laird Barron to chat weird fiction, cosmic horror, the craft of the story, film, his thoughts on True Detective Season 1 (his influence on creator Nic Pizzolatto is well-documented), the first cinematic adaptation of his work titled They Remain, and his foray into the world of hard-boiled noir fiction which will undoubtedly be profoundly dark and stoked by Barron’s impressive array of influences and acumen for what terrifies us most viscerally. I hope you enjoy Laird’s observations and learning on the craft of story (in film and literature) as much as I did.
Welcome Laird to The 405! I was wondering if we might be able to start by giving our readers a good, solid idea of what “weird fiction” or “cosmic horror” is to you. What got you into writing in that vein? Which writers have been most influential on you (of any genre)?
Thank you for the chat.
Cosmic horror is primarily concerned with the minuteness of humankind in the face of the cosmos. We are essentially microbes clinging to a speck of dust as it plunges into a vast interstellar abyss. I also note that the quasi-infinite nature of the microcosmic universe is an equally valid framework. Inner space, outer space; it’s the same. A cosmic horror story in essence says, we are tiny and impermanent and great, terrible truths await — so allow me to show you how small, how impermanent, and how terrible.
Influences and provenance — World mythology, including the Bible. Lord Dunsany; H.P. Lovecraft; to some degree C.S. Lewis; Michael Shea. The concept of God as a being who exists beyond mortal time and space got the ball rolling. I read a ton of mythology in my youth, and many of the writers who personify the fantastic and the weird in a traditional sense. We didn’t have much, but we did have a broad selection of books lying around the cabin.
Weird fiction is more slippery and divisive in terms of definition. I’ll quote from remarks I’ve made in the past:
“A proper weird story may consist of any number of elements, but at the core it’s concerned with irrationality, with the alien, and strangeness. Reality is mutable and subject to contravention. Dislocation and dissonance prevail.”
Influences — Poe; Machen; Blackwood; M.R. James; and Shirley Jackson. But some of the best weird fiction is appearing as we speak. John Langan; Paul Tremblay; Gemma Files; Stephen Graham Jones; Philip Fracassi; Livia Llewellyn; Jeremy Robert Johnson; Adam Nevill; and scores of others are doing the work. Some of this is down to editorial leadership. Ross Lockhart; Michael Kelly; Steve Berman; Mike Davis; and Ellen Datlow are the tip of the spear in that regard.
Thank you for the fantastic list of authors there Laird! In terms of actual writing: what makes a good story? More pointed: what makes good horror and good weird fiction?
Genre is a secondary consideration. Especially in that I find the weird and the horrific in mainstream literature, in westerns, thrillers, noir, you name it. A good story is compelling. Doesn’t have to be character-centric, or plot driven. It doesn’t have to favor atmosphere. It doesn’t necessarily derive from a formula. But whatever mode is chosen must be vivid and it must be attractive or repellant. The reader should feel something — attracted, repelled; sympathetic or empathetic; something.
Relating to horror — as a writer, I’m attempting to provoke specific emotions. Obviously, horror, but I’m also happy to tap into similar elements and antecedents. Disgust, dread, antipathy. What makes a good weird story? Depends what variety from what era. Ghost stories were weird tales at one time. A significant measure of pulp fiction, a la Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, qualifies. Modern practitioners would encompass the visions of Angela Carter and Robert Aickman. The weird is mutable and ever-changing. I discern it in the methods and concerns of those who’ve come along in recent years.
A contemporary weird story is often concerned with the howling white void that exists between the lines. There is a trend toward the elliptical and the metafictional. Writers have always been a bellicose bunch. Many contemporary practitioners of the weird invest effort in forcefully rejecting classical genre definitions, or subverting them. I value that contribution.
That subversion seems to be a huge part of what keeps any genre alive and vibrant I would suspect. Greatest challenges and triumphs as a writer?
Maintaining an even keel is a great challenge. This can be an arbitrary business. It’s consistently hard work for intermittently equitable reward. Perhaps one of the toughest aspects are the peaks and valleys you’ll likely experience once you’ve established your career. One book, or even one story, you’re doing the canon proud; the next book, you’re an abject failure. Accepting that critics and fans bring their own baggage to the party is helpful for one’s sanity. Creating a long-term plan that doesn’t involve bogging down in daily word counts or other sorts of quotas has worked for me.
I’m proud Philip Gelatt adapted my novelette “ — 30 — “ for film. It’s a thrill to see that dream realized. Writing has been my sole job for a few years now. It’s an increasingly tough environment to survive as a writer. I think it’s an accomplishment.
That most certainly is — I can’t wait to catch They Remain. I’ve found your observations on cinema and television that I’ve had the privilege of reading utterly fascinating. Favorite films and directors? Which have had greatest influences on you as a story-teller and artist?
John Carpenter (especially his early work); Takashi Miike; Ingmar Bergman; Brian De Palma; David Lynch. Those are some off the top of my head that I’ve consciously acknowledged as persistent influences.
Favorite films: Audition, Gozu and 13 Assassins by Miike; Phase IV by Saul Bass; The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring and Hour of the Wolf by Bergman; Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn; Body Double by De Palma; Sauna by Antti-Jussi Annila; and Ravenous by Antonia Bird. Carpenter’s The Thing may be my enduring favorite. It’s as close to a perfect film as I’ve watched.
My colleague, John Langan, and I went on a Japanese film noir/samurai marathon a couple of years ago. We hit the obvious, such as Kurosawa, but wound up ensorcelled by Hideo Gosha, who directed a slew of noir-ish films in the ’70s. The Wolves and Onimasa are standouts.
Great choices. Asian cinema does do noir very well. I personally haven’t thoroughly dissected the Japanese tradition there but I have the South Korean. What makes a great film?
Great films combine at least a handful of elements to create something that is aesthetically and emotionally satisfying and that resonates long after the credits roll. It should be provocative. A great film demonstrates a profound sense of place or character; it shows patience. A great film is one that I want to dissect.
Good films can rely upon immediate effects, cleverness, explosions; great films demonstrate subtlety and layers. If you learn something new every time you watch a particular film, that’s a positive sign. The same could be said about great pieces of literature.
That’s as great and concise a definition as I’ve gotten for that question. Since we are touching on it in other areas of the interview, Favorite films noir? From classic-era Hollywood, foreign or so-called “neo.”
If you haven’t read the book, I highly urge you to do so.
I need to do that. I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on season one of True Detective here as well — where creator Nic Pizzolatto has cited you as a very potent influence on him. The mix of hard-boiled elements and weird fiction there was brilliant, echoing everyone from Raymond Chandler, to Ligotti, to you (in narrative and Cohl’s eye-patch later on), Cioran, Robert W. Chambers, and Lovecraft. What was your favorite part of that season? If I may ask on the flip-side, what would you have done differently with it if you were Pizzolatto?
I wound up watching about half the episodes and chunks of the rest. My favorite? Episode 4 — the continuous tracking shot of the escape from the projects. That’s some harrowing television.
That whole episode I thought channeled the hard-boiled particularly well.
The ending of the series is bog standard TV drama. A boring climactic struggle with the big bad, followed by a tonally jarring coda. Rust and Cohle should’ve been buried alive and screaming in the same box, while the last shot is lawnmower man trimming the grass above their grave. Maybe he’s buying Girl Scout cookies. That’s your tonally consistent ending. For fuck’s sake, anybody who takes half a glance at our current political situation knows the light is a matchhead sinking into mud.
Well said. It’s sad what is sometimes sacrificed for wider tastes, especially in film and TV.
Getting into They Remain, what really piqued my interest about it was the Manson style cult dynamic in the story. What was your creative process like in exploring that in a new way, a novel way, when it seems — because of its inherent horror — that its already pretty ubiquitous, especially now with Charles Manson recently dying and Tarantino’s take on Manson getting a 2019 release date? Also, what do you think that sort of cult psychology says about humanity and the human condition?
I read an article about a CSI team that spent time on the ranch. The team was hunting for evidence of corpses. The investigators brought in specialized equipment and cadaver dogs. I became fascinated by the implications of the setup and how the team camped out on a possible killing ground.
That said, the story isn’t focused on the cult. My focus was on the relationship between the two characters and the wilderness. Wilderness without, wilderness within. The narrative structure is largely amorphous; except for a couple of specific instances, the constituent scenes can be arranged in any order. Like a nightmare. I rearranged those scenes multiple times, right up until publication. Phil Gelatt’s experience in adapting “ — 30 — “ proved similar.
Fascinating. I’m sure your take on that is powerful in and of itself Laird. After reading you, I’ve come to trust your voice as an author — as I’m confident others do and others will too.
Human beings are eminently programmable and eminently malleable. Hucksters with tracts or bottles of sugarwater in their pockets have relied upon that truth since when. As Jane’s Addiction so wisely said, “We’ll make great pets.”
Do you see yourself doing more with film in the future? Ever since I read “Frontier Death Song”, I thought it would make a pretty cool short film and perhaps turn more people on (who need to be) to your downright terrifying writing.
Thank you. “Frontier Death Song” came about thanks to my own cross-country adventure moving from Washington State to New York State and a comment by John Langan. I’d lamented the fact I wanted to include a prolonged chase scene in a story called “The Men from Porlock,” but neglected to for various reasons. John suggested I adapt my trip as a chase story. The Wild Hunt seemed a likely antagonist, and so it went from there.
I’ve a couple of partial screenplays lying around. Screenwriting occupies territory between story/novel writing and poetry. My brain doesn’t shift easily between screenwriting and other disciplines. So writing for film has remained on the backburner. But at least it’s on a burner.
I’m repped by a wonderful film agent, Pouya Shahbazian of New Leaf Literary & Media. Thanks to his diligence, and the hard work of his staff, there are multiple conversations in progress regarding adaptations of my work.
What can readers expect with your new work?
I recently handed in a draft of the second novel in a crime/noir series; the series debuts with Blood Standard, late May of 2018. Both novels operate within the broader definitions of crime and noir; and both feature gritty, occasionally horrific passages. This more recent story is exceedingly dark due to the nature of the antagonist, but also because I explore the implications of a professional killer gone straight — in this case, the series lead, Isaiah Coleridge. It plays fair with genre expectations, but also hews much closer to the psychologically bleak end of the spectrum, a la Hannibal (especially the television series), The Silence of the Lambs, and Season 1 of True Detective. I don’t gloss over the physical and emotional trauma that my characters suffer. Nobody gets off with a slap on the wrist when it comes to their ill deeds. A career in horror taught me that much.
I can’t wait for Blood Standard. Last, what is next for you beyond that?
I’m working on a handful of short stories. One involves a recurring noir character, Jessica Mace; the others are a loosely connected batch set in a baroque secondary world. I love the pulpy weirdness of Brackett, Leiber, Vance, Moorcock, and Zelazny; so those are my guiding lights as I flesh out stories of talking animals and android heroes tangling with blackhole vampires and the Children of Old Leech, and worse. There’s always worse.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators.