Laird Barron’s latest collection of interconnected short stories, Swift to Chase, is a volume Barron has called his “Alaska book,” and although extreme landscapes, barren tundra, and gun-toting eccentrics grace almost all stories in the collection, calling it an “Alaska book” is somewhat akin to calling Ulysses a “Dublin book.” I do respect Barron’s humility, however.
When you crack the spine of Swift to Chase, you are stepping into a horrifically weird, impeccably constructed universe. Barron’s mirror-world is as homicidal as our own, only because it is Barron, the violence is cosmic and supernatural at its core. At the dark heart of Swift to Chase is a nebulous evil which “wears us like suits” and pursues its various quarries in a high-octane hunt like a pack of demonic wolves from an icy hell where the demons piss ice cubes.
Evil wears the skin of a murderously-jealous husband in one story, of a musher with occult ambitions in another, of a vicious cheerleader with dark powers to rival Cthulhu in yet another (imagine a Satanic Heathers, or Pretty in Pink on adrenochrome)—or my favorite incarnation of evil in the collection, Andy Kaufman.
Swift to Chase is swashbuckling, adventurous, and frenetically paced, owing more, it seems to me, to genre convention and fandom than, say, The Imago Sequence or Occultation. Barron’s luminous intensity is still present, but this collection is less poetic and sensory, more straight-up entertaining. In fact, Swift to Chase feels ready to be scripted into a Netflix original series.
Almost all stories in this collection are first-person narrated in gritty, streetwise, or colloquial voices. I must say I personally miss the narrative prose style found in previous Barron collections, which made me feel that some dark God was carving perfect prose hieroglyphs into obsidian slates, writing sentences as densely descriptive as a Satanic Cormac McCarthy. The first person narration of Swift to Chase has a much more casual and accessible vibe.
It is somewhat hard to pick standout stories because all of them are truly so damn good, but a few of my favorites are:
“Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees” When a high school girl hires a Tony Clifton impersonator to cheer up her dying father, things get fantastically and comically evil rather quickly. Barron absolutely nails the tragicomic, self-absorbed voice of his cheerleading protagonist, and rewrites Andy Kaufman as the pinnacle of cosmic evil. Oh, and leeches. Be prepared to laugh and cringe.
“Ardor” A shady detective-for-hire is contracted to hunt down the occult journals or R.M. Bluefield (whom Bram Stoker based his Renfield character on) and the obsessed individual who possesses them. We are taken into the icy wilds of Alaska, where the nearly-dead are able to live on through preservation by the formidable cold. Barron ingeniously reimagines the vampire myth. This story has the metaphysical and hallucinatory vibe of Barron’s earlier works.
“Frontier Death Song” A man and his faithful dog are pursued sadistically along the icy winter interstates by hell-hounds and a horrific Hunter wearing a blood-spattered white mackinaw. The supernatural chase can only end in death, or inheriting the unnatural throne of the Huntsman, so this protagonist is somewhat doomed.
“Termination Dust” This is the origin story of Jessica Mace, Barron’s latest superstar protagonist. Jessica is a bad-ass femme fatale who carries a knife in her boot and kicks the ass of the various incarnations of evil who pursue her. In the story, a killer referred to as the Eagle Talon Ripper slashes the inhabitants of an Alaskan tenement building. This story plants the seed for one of the many mysteries that runs throughout the entire collection: Who is the Eagle Talon Ripper? Rather, what character is evil “wearing like a suit” in this particular incarnation? We are never given the answer out right, but Barron plants both illuminating and misleading clues throughout the book.
And this is part of the genius of Swift to Chase. As readers, we are never given answers to many of our questions. They are forced to germinate, unresolved, in our psyches. Who is the Eagle Talon Ripper? Who are the characters in the story “Black Dog?” Who, or what, is Smiling J? But the answers are indeed hinted at, insinuated, and sometimes ingeniously buried in seemingly unrelated narratives.
In addition to the pure entertainment value of these stories, Barron has woven us a complex and interconnected web which leaves us theorizing in strange and outlandish ways, putting our minds into a somewhat schizophrenic, paranoid state. You start asking yourself, am I just imagining things? Are these connections accidental, or part of a well-constructed literary conspiracy? Knowing Barron’s mastery, and considering the perfect, deliberate structure of the entire collection, it is the latter. I am positive there are die-hard fans who have covered their bedroom walls with lineages, connections, and clues from Swift to Chase like obsessed detectives in a twisted crime procedural. (Okay, I might be one of them.)
And trust me, obsession has never been so damn fun.