by Anthony Perconti
The American author Laird Barron is one of many writers of his generation that has expanded the scope of his chosen genre. Known primarily as a horror writer, specifically in the subgenre of cosmic horror, Barron has been pushing the conventions of this type of fiction, ever outward by mixing in outside influences. Over the last two decades or so, this author has added to his macabre tales, echoes, and snippets from such literary powerhouses as Cormac McCarthy, Ambrose Bierce, and Dashiell Hammett. In much of Barron’s oeuvre, his protagonists are almost as scary as the cosmological terrors that they square off against (albeit for different reasons). Barron draws from the long-established tradition that was codified by the American pulp magazine, Black Mask in the early to mid-Twentieth Century, lending his stories a hard-boiled resonance. These seemingly incongruent genre tropes complement each other exceptionally well in the capable hands of Barron. His stories have a certain degree of real-world grit, even though they veer headlong into the fantastic. One such example of this brand of hard-boiled cosmic horror is the 2015 novella, Man With No Name. Man mixes elements of Japanese Yakuza films, Jungian archetypes, and Borgesian metaphysics into a compelling mélange that is best enjoyed, accompanied by a tumbler of your favorite, aged brown spirit.
Sporting the subtitle of “A Nanashi Novella”, Man follows the exploits of the titular character (whose name roughly translates into English as nameless or anonymous) as he navigates the traps and snares of the Japanese underworld. Nanashi is an affiliate of the Heron Clan; he is a low level criminal whose specific role is that of a heavy. He is the guy they call in when problematic individuals need disappearing. A recovering alcoholic, Nanashi owes a debt to the Heron in that, they saved his life and gave him a sense of purpose, during an extremely low point in his life. When the order is given that the Heron foot soldiers are to kidnap the rival Dragon clan’s mascot, the famous wrestler, Muzaki, events are put into motion that impact the nameless man’s life in a fundamental way.
Laird Barron pulls a slow burn on the reader in that, the first half of the novella is structured like a standard hard-boiled crime story. It is a glimpse into the daily grind of a low-level thug. Nanashi and his criminal brothers go about their routine business partying, attending clan meetings, and escorting esteemed personages on long, bucolic rides through the Japanese countryside. But sprinkled throughout these scenes of trivial (well, at least trivial for yakuza members) occurrences, Barron slips in touches of the outré. He deftly tosses a crumb here, a crumb there, to gradually illuminate the fact that things are not exactly as they appear. “Nanashi examined the paper. It had been crumpled and smoothed a hundred times. It was yellow and specked with oil spots, or water stains. “What’s this?” “The beautiful thing that awaits us all.” It is no major spoiler to say that the beloved Dragon clan mascot meets a gruesome fate at the hands of the Heron foot soldiers. As soon as the dirty deed is done, in a scene that would make Martin Scorsese proud, the thugs receive a call from Uncle Yutaka, one of the Heron capos, calling the hit off. It is at this point in the story that the proverbial shit hits the fan.
Part two of the novella, “Maze of Knives”, delves into the repercussions of that lethal act. Or, to be clear, that supposed lethal act. All-out war erupts between the two rival crime syndicates. Bloody reprisals abound. As for the nameless protagonist, he makes the conscious decision to save the life of wrestler’s movie star wife, Susan Stucky. Nanashi uses his lethal talents against the members of his own clan, solidifying the fact that he is now truly ronin. The life he knew as the Heron’s ‘favored dog’ is burned away in a hail of gunfire and viscera. The nationally beloved wrestler Muzaki, much like Barron’s twisty, constructed narrative, is not all he appears to be. Muzak has hidden depths to him that just do not jibe with the rest of the natural world. The most fascinating and enigmatic character of the tale, in my view, is imbued with his own Secret Origin. “We exist in a universe of miracles and curses. The shipwreck during my childhood was both…There was nothing to eat except for one another. So it went and madness followed. On the forty-ninth day, rescuers came. Pale Ones, terrible to behold.” The ostentatious wrestler is in fact, well beyond the mundane concerns of normal humanity. He is part Polyphemus and part Billy Pilgrim; a monster who has become (or perhaps, always was?) unstuck in the time stream. A creature that views death (and linear time) as just an alternate operating system, another modality. This ‘cursed, malignant brute’ acts as the cipher Nanashi’s guide to the Maze and beyond, into the infinite mystery.
One of the pleasures derived from reading the works of Laird Barron, is his sense of narrative continuity. Not only does he write ‘bad-man’ and ‘bad-woman’ characters with the best crime fiction writers alive or dead, he also places his protagonists, antagonists and myriad entities within a greater context. As a lifelong comic book fan, I certainly appreciate narratives that are not ‘standalone’. Both Marvel and DC Comics have a long standing tradition of characters and concepts expanding out into multiple titles and events. So when Queens resident, Spiderman, meets up with Manhattan’s The Fantastic Four, it’s no big deal. It is directly implied that the characters inhabit the same world, why wouldn’t there be overlap, especially considering they are in the same business? Barron has been diligently (and subtly) constructing his own mythos, his own shared universe over the last few decades.
Does Muzaki have ties to the cosmological fiend known as Old Leech? Is it a member of its ubiquitous brood? Is Susan Stucky somehow affiliated with a branch of the Miller family? Have Nanashi and Isaiah Coleridge ever crossed paths? I haven’t the faintest clue. What I do know is, when I read Barron’s tales, I get the same kick out of them as I do when I’m tearing through a Michael Moorcock, Phillip Jose Farmer, or (to a lesser fantastical degree) James Ellroy novel. Part of the fun is in keeping your eyes peeled for the threads that link this person, place, or event, with others from his larger body of work. I consider it akin to Marvel Team-Up but crafted for fans of (cosmic) horror and noir fiction. Or in the words of Muzaki; “There are those who claim that Time is a ring. I have found it to be a maze, and my own role that of the Minotaur. Rabbit, O Rabbit. Welcome to the maze.” Once you enter this labyrinth, you will never want to leave.