ON FATAL FASCINATION
Mr. Connell thought like an animal, unfortunately; he was trapped in the electrochemical web of cognition, wherein curiosity leads into temptation, temptation leads into fear, and fear is considered an impulse to be mastered. He came into the barn against the muffled imprecations of his lizard brain. Curiosity did not kill the cat all by itself. ("Shiva, Open Your Eye")
Fascination is a state of intense interest in something, or a process through which a victim is transfixed and held spellbound by an irresistible power. Mark Fisher, in his essay on the weird and H.P. Lovecraft (found in The Weird and the Eerie, Repeater, 2017), argues that
…it is not horror but fascination – albeit a fascination usually mixed with a certain trepidation – that is integral to Lovecraft’s rendition of the weird. But I would say that it is also integral to the concept of the weird itself – the weird cannot only repel, it must also compel our attention.
Later in the same essay, he writes
It is fascination, above all else, that is the engine of fatality in Lovecraft’s fictions, fascination that draws his bookish characters towards the dissolution, disintegration or degeneration that we, the readers, always foresee.
In this respect, if in no other, Laird Barron’s stories are resolutely Lovecraftian. A fatal (or transformative) fascination is an integral component in a great number of his stories.
It accounts, I think, for some of his stories' widespread appeal in the weird community: Barron’s protagonists are drawn inexorably to seek the answers that we (the readers) crave, and for the most part suffer for it. We are complicit in their murder. We can, as Fisher writes, always foresee the terrible outcome. We doom them by refusing to look away, to stop reading. They are vessels animated by our curiosity, and sacrificed on the altar of fiction for our satisfaction.
Examples of fascination abound in the stories.
There are explicit mentions of fascination:
Her shadow loomed on the wall. A wobbly silhouette that flowed unwholesomely. Floorboards squeaked as she shifted. The thought of rolling over brought sweat to my cheeks, so I lay there and watched her shadow in morbid fascination. (“Old Virginia”)
I hallucinated that Rueben caused a window to open in the bedroom wall, a portal into space. Boggling! Millions of stars blazed inches from my nose, a whole colossal bell-shaped galaxy of exploded gases and cosmic dust. The sight would've driven Copernicus insane. It was a trick, stage magic. Something he'd borrowed from his fellow performers. He asked me what I saw and I told him. His face . . .there was something wrong. Too rigid, too cold. For a moment, I thought he'd put on an extremely clever mask and I was terrified. And his mouth . . .His expression melted almost instantly, and he was just Rueben again. I knew better, though. And, unfortunately, my fascination intensified. (“Bulldozer”)
What were they? Breeding grounds, feeding grounds, shrines? Or something utterly alien, something utterly incomprehensible to match the blighted fascination that dragged me ever closer and consumed my will to flee. (“Proboscis”)
Meanwhile, I spotted the poster-sized photograph upon its easel, fixed in the center of the parlor. Heavy as a black hole, the photograph dragged me forward on wires. Shot on black and white, it detailed a slab of rock, which I assumed was subterranean. Lacking a broader frame of reference, it was impossible to know. The finer aspects of geology escaped me, but I was fascinated by the surreal quality of this glazed wall, its calcified ridges, webbed spirals and bubbles. (The Imago Sequence)
Where Barron differs from Lovecraft, is in having his antagonists weaponize fascination, in order to lure the unwary, and to season them to taste. Exposure to certain weird sights and phenomena effects a change in the viewer. By creating the circumstances necessary for this exposure – by giving the victims enough rope to hang themselves with, in effect – the antagonists ensure themselves a steady supply of culinary delights, self-delivered to the remote location which will make the harvest easiest.
In The Imago Sequence the lure is a set of photographs.
You are aware that he owns the other two in the collection?"
"They're bait. That's why he loans them to galleries, encourages people with lots of friends to buy them and put them on display."
"Yes, bait. The photographs radiate a certain allure; they draw people like flies. He's always hunting for the sweetmeats." She chuckled ruefully. (The Imago Sequence)
In Mysterium Tremendum, the lure is the Moderor de Caliginis, the Black Book, whose enticing entries, full of mystery, draw the unwary. The title of that story is drawn from mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery before which man both trembles and is fascinated, which is Rudolph Otto’s description of the experience of the Other in a numinous encounter.
In Hallucigenia, Kaleb Choate’s barn attracts curious travelers stranded by circumstances calculated to produce that precise situation:
The bonus effect of Kaleb's gizmo's electromagnetic pulse is it's real nifty for shutting off car engines and stranding people near the ol' farm . . .I asked why they wanted to strand people near their property and he just looked at me. Scary, man. He said, Why? Because it gives Him tremendous pleasure to meet new and interesting people. Grandfather always liked people. Now He loves them. Sadly, folks don't drop by too often. We keep Him company as best we can. We're good boys like that.
Knowledge has consequences in both Lovecraft and Barron’s cosmologies. In Lovecraft, the mysteries are stumbled upon and pursued until they threatens to overwhelm the protagonist. In Barron we find the mysteries used to bait a hook. The protagonists are promised enlightenment, offered glimpses in a wider and darker world, and in seeking to know more find that they have entered a trap, that enlightenment itself is often the trap. As Mrs. Chin reminds us in The Imago Sequence:
There are things to be frightened of in that picture. Enlightenment isn't necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.