To celebrate the landmark tenth volume in the Dark Lane Anthology series, editor Tim Jeffreys invited contributors to write brief personal responses to a classic weird tale. It was a fun and thought-provoking project.
So, this is the text I wrote for Tim in response to Laird Barron’s “The Forest”. Be aware that it contains spoilers.
To read further responses by other volume contributors, and – more importantly – to read a ton of new weird tales, including my story “The Objective”, check out Dark Lane Anthology Volume 10, available in paperback or for Kindle.
Goddamn you, Barron, you make me seethe. The technical mastery, the lushness, the poise. For the reader “The Forest” is a wild ride, but the author is always in control. Not a beat, not an image, not an antenna is out of place. To conjure that out of thin air, pull it out of your head and hurl it into the world, just like that… Damn. I might just implode with envy.
What makes “The Forest” so great – and marks it out from other horror stories, including those in the Occultation collection – is its mise en scène. By this I mean not what the story shows us, or even how, but its wider vision: the way it furnishes its stage, the filters it chooses for the lighting. The protagonist is a filmmaker, and the mise en scène has a cinematic sweep. The claustrophobic backstory, the weight of the characters’ pasts, the emotional desolation that colours it all: it’s palpable, fully present. You can taste that Bengali mud at the back of your throat.
And yet, and yet… something misfires.
As an authorial feat, “The Forest” dazzles and daunts me. But when I put down the book and turn out the lamp, it doesn’t keep me awake at night. It’s as if I’m colour blind. The story’s big reveal just doesn’t hit my retinas right. Not the way it’s supposed to; not the way it does for other readers.
In cosmic horror, the growing dread always culminates in the revelation of human insignificance in the face of a cold, ancient and implacable Other. Often that Other lies beyond the stars; sometimes it writhes at the bottom of the sea, or – as in “The Forest” – beneath the earth on which the human race so precariously stands. At best, the Other regards humanity as a means to an end. At worst it doesn’t acknowledge us at all, any more than we acknowledge the flora that populate our guts. The Other may have antennae and six legs, but we’re the ones that creep and die in meaningless fragments of time.
It’s a vision of the universe that’s bleak and empty. And that’s why I don’t find it frightening. To my mind, there’s even something comforting about it. Struggle and wriggle with all your might, little human; it makes no difference in the end. Well, if none of it matters, why should I worry? The whole history of the human race doesn’t even register down the vast echoing aeons. May as well surrender to the void. Enjoy the voluptuous, narcotic ease of letting go and slipping away.
I’ll tell you what does scare me, though. It’s a single sentence uttered by Zen teacher Brad Warner: you’re alive because someone needs your help.
Not “you” as in the human race in general, but you personally. Me personally.
I’m alive because someone needs my help. That thought scares the shit out of me.
So what keeps me awake at night is not the absence of any meaning to my life. It’s the idea that my life has all too much meaning – a meaning I don’t grasp. That the cosmos is teeming with purpose, that it’s immense and profound and shimmering with sentience, and I’m separated from it by the flimsy membrane of my own incomprehension. And if something grabs me and yanks me through that membrane, I’ll be birthed anew into a pulsing, torrential unknown.
At the end of “The Forest”, Toshi asks Partridge, “Can you imagine gazing upon constellations a hundred million years from this dawn? Can you imagine the wonder of gazing upon those constellations from a hundred million eyes?” It’s a chillingly sublime image, but for me it’s the wrong question. I’ll ask you something else.
Can you imagine a hundred million eyes all gazing at you, right here and now, hanging on your every word and deed, living, suffering and dying in chain reactions you set in motion? Can you imagine the magnitude and majesty of the limitless cosmic organism to which those hundred million eyes – your hundred million eyes – belong? Can you imagine the pain and sorrow, the ecstasy and horror, into which your empathy with that organism will plunge you?
If its cry wakes you in your bed, will you rise and go to it, through the breathing, blood-hot night?
With thanks to Tim Jeffreys for the invitation.
Dark Lane Anthology Volume 10 cover image reproduced under fair use.
Take a peek behind the veil.