Black Mountain by Laird Barron
Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene
Since Laird Barron published Blood Standard, the first novel in the ongoing Isaiah Coleridge saga, I’ve heard it said more than a few times he’s even better at crime than he is at horror. A remarkable thing, given he’s new at it. But nothing could be farther from the truth, I think, especially the “new” part of that statement. The truth is a much deeper well, one that stretches back through what seems like ages but really pans out to only a handful of years in the span of a life. He published “LD50”, featuring recurring character Jessica Mace, back in 2013 and “Screaming Elk Mt.” in 2014. Jessica is a mythos unto herself, an unreliable, sometimes amoral seeming, noir as fuck character, the tales of which can more comfortably be classed as weird crime than weird horror. And yes, he’s goddamn good at it now, but the fact is, he was goddamn good at it then too.
So to say the Coleridge novels are freshman and sophomore efforts on his part is a stretch at best. And to say he’s a better crime than horror writer is simply a misguided, slightly off the mark assumption that can be corrected by saying he’s just a better writer all around than he was six, three, or even one year ago. As I’ve said in the past, good writers produce consistently good material, but great writers blow consistency to the wind by getting better, more nuanced and flavored, as they mature. Barron falls into that second category easily. And Black Mountain, the second Isaiah Coleridge novel, is a shining example of that fact, further proof that the great horror writer is a great crime writer is a great horror writer; a literary ouroboros of the highest caliber. Barron himself said, “Crime, noir, and horror feel as if they operate on parallel and sometimes overlapping tracks.” This new book from G.P. Putnam’s Sons is evidence of that simple yet overarching truth that encompasses most great noir stories today, and nearly all of Barron’s stories, be they crime or horror.
In Black Mountain we encounter a slightly more tempered, if not more temperate, version of Isaiah Coleridge, one still inclined, even sometimes yearning, toward the release that comes with explosive violence, but less likely to act on that impulse. Having evolved from his previous role in Blood Standard, he’s now a private eye/fixer who takes on jobs that a PI with higher moral standards might pass up. His current job: find a serial killer who’s cutting the heads off of mobsters. A serial killer whose abilities border on the supernatural.
But before I get too far into the meat and bones of this story, let me digress a little. At the novel’s onset, we’re presented with this paragraph:
“One lonesome winter, many years ago, I went hunting in the mountains with Gene Kavanaugh, a grandmaster hitman emeritus. Sinister constellations blazed above our camp on the edge of a plateau scaled with ice. The stars are always cold and jagged as smashed glass in the winter in Alaska. Thin air seared my lungs if I inhaled too deeply. Nearby, a herd of caribou rested under the mist of its collected breath.”
We weren’t there for them.”
That tells you a few things right out the gate. For one, you’re in for something dark and menacing. You can feel the danger dripping from words and lines like “sinister”, and “jagged as smashed glass.” Laird Barron makes you know from the beginning that this story is sharp-edged, rough and mean as a rusty straight razor and that promise is delivered on in spades. But that start lets you know something else, something of far greater importance; you’re in for one hell of a great piece of storytelling. You get the sense that you could be sitting around a cozy fire, listening to the author spin mesmerizing yarns that grab you by the short-hairs and refuse to release you until they’ve had their fill of your imagination, of the sense of disbelief that they completely rob you of. Anyone who loves a tale as much for the way it’s told as they do for what it tells them is going to be all in right from that brief opening salvo.
Now, let me tell you what I think is the number one reason so many people are touting Laird Barron so much for his crime writing chops. More so than horror and most other genres, crime noir is always an exercise in character study, and that, at the heart of his work, is what Barron is best at. He’s an avid and astute student of the human condition and his stories and novels reflect that fact and are better than average because of it. In this case, Isaiah Coleridge is a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional character. Like Laird himself, he’s a guy I identify with and who I would like to meet and have a beer with, listen to stories from his history or share the details of his latest case. But he isn’t anyone I’d want to piss off. Bluntly put, he’s a mean motherfucker. He’s tenacious and far from subtle, and when he sets his sights on a goal, anything or anybody in his way is going to get leveled. The author has been practicing his trade and building his talents for years now, with the seemingly singular goal of getting you fully involved, so caught up in the plights of his people that you might as well be experiencing them yourself. You come out the backside feeling like you’ve just been dragged naked down the literary equivalent of a gravel road.
And one of the most remarkable elements of his character building skills is this single, all-important element: backstory. In Barron’s hands, the backstory becomes an ongoing saga in itself. In Blood Standard, he built the foundation through a series of flashbacks on the part of Coleridge, ones that mostly focused on his parents and a beloved dog he once had. The relationships with his father and, oddly enough, with his dog were the most crucial aspects in the act of shoring up the phenomenon that is Isaiah Coleridge. In Black Mountain he once again relies on history to shore up his character, turning to memories of the enigmatic Gene Kavanaugh to further demonstrate what makes Isaiah tick and why he might react to certain situations and people the way he does. But characterization is really just the tip of an iceberg as thick as the Mariana Trench is deep, and the frosting on this wicked cake, as with all this author’s tales, is his setting. Whether seedy little town or Appalachian tourist trap, farm or forest, Barron takes you there and lets you get a visceral sense of place, making of his setting a living, breathing character, as critical to the tale as is any other element in the book. You won’t find a single Barron short or novel that isn’t true of, I promise you.
The darkness in Barron’s crime fiction feels as vast and cosmic as that of his horror, bringing me full circle and back to the one thread that runs through all of the author’s stories, the thing that keeps me coming back to him again and again; he’s a true master of the written word, a storyteller with talents and a work ethic beyond compare or reproach. The Isaiah Coleridge novels are a true magna opera, the new icon in gritty, down-in-the-dirt, hardcore crime noir. Our protagonist is as mean as Richard Stark’s Parker and engaging as Robert Parker’s Spenser, the setting is pitch perfect, dark and brooding as our hero, and there is not a single wasted word in Barron’s stunning narrative. There is this immeasurable depth to the author’s well of creativity, and it is indeed dark water, but he unflinchingly ventures into it. Black Mountain is a stunning, breathtaking tale of epic scope that will almost certainly be on many end-of-year “Best of” lists, including. It’s terrifying in concept, delivered with the author’s signature literary flair, and more satisfying in its conclusion than a smoke after sex. If you haven’t introduced yourself to Isaiah Coleridge and Laird Barron’s brand of crime with a hefty helping of darkness, click those links below and unfuck that now.