The great majority of Laird Barron’s oeuvre sits solidly at the intersection of crime and horror fiction, following the great, dark lights of those realms; the simplest, most reductive pitch for his work might be “Dashiell Hammett protagonists get caught in Thomas Ligotti stories”. To wit, his greatest preoccupations might be ripe masculinity colliding with entropic voids. There may be no living writer who so delights in irony.
Barron’s broader body of work, particularly his cultishly adored Old Leech stories, lean directly and unapologetically into lysergic, pitch-black cosmicism. ‘The Redfield Girls’ is a departure. Rather than a hard-drinking Pinkerton or mob enforcer, the perspective character of the novelette is Bernice, a member of the titular group of veteran schoolteachers who make the fateful decision to take a summer excursion at Lake Crescent, Washington.
Despite bad history and bad dreams, Bernice travels to the lake with her teenage niece (whom she both loves and resents) in tow. Ghostly stories centered on the lake are told. And then the group comes across an old boat on the lakeshore.
Lake Crescent is a real place, infamously deep (just under 600 feet), into which more than one person has disappeared. Tying Bernice’s family history to the real history of the lake, Barron eases on his trademark throttle, but only just; the dread is as thick, only quieter and less feverish in complexion. And while it might push its cosmic presences to the margins, the oblivions they bring being less total, Bernice’s pride and her refusal to trust her better instincts in the face of them are still fulcrums of the story, just as they are in Barron’s stories of brutish men.
There are elements here – the late middle age of the characters (plus one youth), their telling of stories, lakes with bad histories, a certain inexplicable resonance between rural Washington and upstate New York – that make me want to tag the story as a tribute to Peter Straub’s magnum opus, Ghost Story, but it’s enough to say that in the gothic, ethereal timbre of its horror, it is simply a ghost story, Laird Barron style. There is just as much Shirley Jackson or Caitlin R. Kiernan woven into it as anything else. I appreciate the contemplative ending, splitting the difference between the dread of sinister places and the sadness of senseless loss. We might use the novelette as an affirmative grist for the merits of genre fiction, but I think Laird would find that tedious; there’s no more tired an argument in the literary world.
First published in Haunted Legends, Tor 2010. Collected in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Night Shade 2013