AUGUST 24, 2019
“A MAN DOESN’T APPREHEND heaven in his gaze; he beholds a chasm. For he gazes not upward, but downward; deep into a cold, black rift strung along its jaws with tiny, dying lights.”
That dark, Lovecraftian line is on the first page of Laird Barron’s Black Mountain, the second novel in the Isaiah Coleridge series. Barron has long been one of my favorite horror authors, so I was happy to read that line because I’d been expecting something like it, something that brought together crime and his flair for cosmic horror. Barron is a relatively new name for crime fiction fans, but he is one of the most recognizable names in speculative fiction. He is a true horror master, and I knew his transition to crime fiction would bridge the gap between cosmic horror and pulpy noir. Black Mountain does exactly that.
The premise is pure noir: Harold Lee is a small-time criminal whose body turns up in the Ashokan reservoir on the eastern end of the Catskill Park in Ulster County, New York. Identifying him isn’t easy; he is missing his hands and head. The local mafia capo hires Isaiah Coleridge to investigate the murder. Coleridge used to work in Alaska as a killer and hired muscle for The Outfit, a mafia group with roots in various states, but now works as a private investigator. He soon learns Lee is the second man with mob connections to turn up dead without an official contract on his head. He is also the second body to have been butchered with a serrated knife. Those two things cannot be a coincidence, and that makes the capo worry. As Coleridge digs into the case, he finds himself in a deep, long mess that brings together a hit man who faked his own death and might be moonlighting as a serial killer targeting prostitutes, an heiress working as a cabaret dancer for fun, and a powerful corporation with too many secrets.
Much like Blood Standard, the first Isaiah Coleridge novel, Black Mountain is a love letter to hyperviolent pulp. Barron loves the genre and makes sure its most recognizable elements are present here, starting with an unforgettable protagonist. Coleridge is a brutish intellectual with a knack for witty comebacks, a modern Maori warrior who loves mythology, books, and Akira Kurosawa films. He also fears for his life like a normal man and accepts his limitations: “My powers of deduction aren’t worthy of Holmes, but my subconscious is a diesel thresher. The secret is to give it something to chew on.” But Barron departs from formula by enriching his noir with both horror and poetry.
Black Mountain is a crime-horror hybrid that takes the most entertaining elements of both genres and mixes them into something new that pushes the boundaries of contemporary crime fiction. From horror Barron grabs the fear of death, the tensions of knowing there is a killer out there and on the hunt, the gore of mutilated bodies and serrated knives digging into soft flesh. From crime he pulls mobsters, the existence of secrets that, if revealed, would lead to many murders. He also works with a level of violence that is rarely found in crime novels from big publishers.
With those elements on the table, Barron uses his elegant prose as glue. There is brutish behavior, but the words describing it are beautiful, mercilessly obliterating the imagined line between genre and literary fiction on almost every page:
Mr. Skinhead reacted adroitly once his partner dropped. He pitched the anchor underhand at my head and missed by a gnat’s hair. A window tinkled behind me. I could guess what came next and slid sideways and he heaved on the chain and the anchor recoiled. Metal grazed my arm, ripping suit fabric and gashing me deep. The blaze of pain cost me a second and I was late setting my feet to receive the inevitable rush.
The atmospheric creepiness of Barron’s cosmic horror seeps into the narrative at various points. The supernatural is almost within grasp, but it’s never allowed to flourish. Coleridge considers supernatural occurrences to be altogether plausible. For one thing, he’s haunted by the man who trained him, his dead mentor’s voice lingering inside Coleridge’s head. For another, Coleridge believes the murderer he’s after isn’t entirely human. The presence of the supernatural mixes with touches of philosophy, superstition, and even a bit of the paranormal. Between his ancestors, the ghost of his mentor, his painful relationship with his father, and the constant threat of death, Coleridge lives in a perennial state of uneasiness that infects readers. Like other contemporary horror masters Paul Tremblay and John Langan, Barron dangles the possibility of something inexplicable in front of the reader before dropping once again into the real world:
The American version of the Day of the Dead loomed in the near distance. Superstition isn’t my bag; on the other hand, I tend to respect the notion of synchronicity. Butterfly wings, prophetic dreams, and so forth. The atmosphere and the Americanized, commercialized tokens of death and devilry collaborated to reinforce my sense of impending doom.
Blood Standard was Barron adapting to a new genre. Black Mountain is Barron making the genre his own while simultaneously pulling it in opposite directions: this is at once more elegant and bloodier than most contemporary crime fiction, more eloquent and vicious, smarter and more ruthless. This is crime fiction hurled headfirst into Lovecraftian darkness. It even holds faint echoes of “The Call of Cthulhu” and the “terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein” that Lovecraft made us fear. Black Mountain delivers equal doses of darkness and brutality, but with elegant prose:
You don’t teach a child to become a killer by rote lectures related to physics — trajectory, velocity, impact, penetration — nor by morality, nor ethics, nor correlation. To create a predatory machine, you foster an appreciation of the natural world and our minuteness upon its canvas. You create an association between scents of gun oil and blood with pleasure.
Black Mountain is an entertaining, blood-spattered, and unusually self-assured novel with a meticulously constructed plot that masterfully braids several narratives into a single story. Barron has created a violent world full of multilayered characters and packed with enough guns, booze, mobsters, femme fatales, and mysterious killers to satisfy the most demanding crime fiction fans. Then he made the plot feel intimate and bizarre. He brought in ghosts and insecurities as well as something strange hiding in a cave and a hypermasculine hit man with almost superhuman abilities who is also brilliant and has a heart of gold. The sum of those elements is a novel that feels fresh and exciting, with its own momentum and a unique style. I cannot wait to see what he does next.