It's not often that my first reaction to finishing a book is to sit and stare out a window in disbelief, but that was all my mind could summon my body to do after turning the last page in Laird Barron's new collection Swift to Chase.
It is that good.
I've been a fan of Barron's for a number of years now, and every time I think I've got a handle on the sheer breadth and scope of his fiction he releases a new short story, collection, or novella that blows my mental battleship straight out of the water. Swift to Chase is no different. Barron, wielding plot strings like a cosmic puppet master, fuses everything we've come to associate and love with his work (that wicked blend of horror, noir, and pulp) and takes it in new and wonderful directions with this latest release.
The collection is broken down into three distinct parts, though each is related to the other and to Laird's larger mythos that he has been steadily constructing over the past decade. The first part deals primarily with Jessica Mace, Laird's pulpy and noir protagonist whose broken nature and encounters with the darkness will leave you with chills that you can't shake. "Termination Dust" is the standout in this section, as Barron takes you back through Jessica's adventures and time as he slowly lifts the veil on the evil that stalks everyone hungrily. The second part includes some of this collections most powerful and disturbing tales. My favourite, "Ardor" tells the story of a man hunting for someone in the harsh and uncaring wilds of Alaska. This story showcases Barron's ability to weave an incredibly unique, surreal and fascinating tale whilst also grounding it within the scope of a moody noir and cosmic piece. "Ardor" is uncompromising, beautiful, deeply disturbing in places. It also highlights the fact that you CAN write exceptional cosmic horror out from under the shadow of Lovecraft and his acolytes. This section also includes "the worms crawl in", a revenge story that quickly escapes its boundaries and escalates beyond all expectations, and "Ears Prick Up", a remarkable story that includes robotic canine war machines and a post-apocalyptic Romanesque civilisation with an Emperor at its head. I was addicted to this particular tale from the outset, with Barron hooking me in with his unique, raw and poetic cadence:
"My kind is swift to chase, swift to battle. My imperfect memory is long with longing for the fight."
Some writers can create permanent and lasting memories in a readers mind. Barron achieves that in spades with "Ears Prick Up". The stark and haunting image of Rex loping across the frozen tundra will remain with me to my dying days I suspect.
In the third section Barron ramps it up even further with the cosmic and surreal strangeness of his tales. "Black Dog" takes a blind date and twists it with a bizarre and eerie ending, and "Slave Arm", a short and ambitious piece, answers so much and before asking even more. This final section is rounded out by two of my favourite stories from the collection, "Frontier Death Song", a terrifying and brilliant tale that draws upon wild hunt mythology, and "Tomahawk Park Survivors Raffle", a story where several familiar and recurring characters reappear as loose ends are tied up, and the violence and horror hinted at in the preceding stories is fully realised and set loose upon our world.
Swift to Chase is, to put it simply, masterful. It is an enthralling and terrifying journey across many different landscapes, from the physical to the mental, through to forays across time and space. It is indicative of Barron's skill that he somehow manages, despite the shifts in time and place, to make this collection one of his most accessible yet, with each and every story relating directly back to his ever-growing mythos. It also represents a new and wonderful direction for Barron in many ways. From the cold and biting harshness of Alaska through to the carnivorous reality that lies just beyond the perception of most, Barron weaves a seductive web that traps readers and makes morsels of them. This book answers some questions, whilst posing even more. It also elevates Barron to a pedestal where few other writers exist. Intoxicating, ambitious, and utterly superb storytelling, Swift to Chase is amongst Barron's finest work to date.
5 out of 5 stars.