THE DEEP ONES: "Old Virginia" by Laird Barron
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"Old Virginia" by Laird Barron
Discussion begins June 17.
First published in the February 2003 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection
In a bit of nice synchrony, Laird Barron and John Langan are long fast friends, even collaborating at times. Fun that we're reading them back to back.
Barron is aces at implying the Big Nasty that is actively looking for a chance to hurt you in the most brutal fashion imaginable. Oftentimes there is also a big reveal where something physically awe-inspiring comes on the scene. Here that would be Virginia's return. The cosmically weird is here, but there is a horrid physicality at the forefront that LB makes just as frightening. It's often difficult for writers to get the two concepts on equal ground. For example, the idea of Mother and the rest of her whatever-they-may-be family egging humans on in an insane race to destroy themselves on a planetary scale might be somewhat Lovecraftian in nature, but the horrid - and sexual - implications of Virginia "riding" the mesmerized soldiers is right out of a 1950's science fiction film.
I didn't expect this one to be another Cold War story to go with "The Unthinkable." The mindfuckery of the Cold War (here foregrounded by the references to MK-ULTRA and psychotropics research) as a sequel to the Great Wars of the 20th century is a ripe backdrop for External irruption into human concern. But Barron pulls a neat trick by having his starring monster be a product of the earliest colonial settlement of the area, and thus hearkening back to the 16th century. (Another allusion of the title is to Elizabeth I, the "Virgin" of old for whom the states were named.) Eventually, of course, we get the deep time of the Mother's scheming, to balance and frame the apocalyptic expectations enjoyed by Virginia.
I liked how Barron fit in the lost Roanoke colony too, and the point where Garland begins to scratch the infamous word on the wall is really chilling.
I had forgotten from my first reading that this was Cold War-set. Having Garland be an older, grizzled vet is a novel touch, too. He's not exactly an action hero. I guess that's an understatement!
I liked this story, too. The deep time conspiracy theory was an impressive aspect, linking humanity's atrocities to something else, and not cosmically indifferent but maliciously malevolent!
At first I feared that Barron would link the Old Woman from Garland's WWI France experience to Virginia, which would have been a huge disappointment for me: just too coincidental to be believed. When he didn't (or at least, that's how I read it), at first I just felt relieved. Upon reflection, I think it emblematic of the storycraft here. The emotional impact is so much larger having run through Garland's personal experiences of the wars, and not merely allude to them at story's end. Really a fabulous setup, marred only slightly by the initial confusion as to whether the two old women were the same.
In a different but no less satisfying way than Langan, Barron brings together various strands and themes in this short story, quite an accomplishment.
The way I read Garland's initial mis-identification of Virginia was that she was actively making some solid psychic contact, and in order to make sense of the feeling that gave him, he had to account for it with having known her as someone who had made a profound impression on him.
That makes sense, the psychic contact also accounts for his dreams of people marching into the maw, and of his team leader hanging upside down from a tree, foreshadowing what happens at the end. I think it was well thought out, just required some consideration to know what's going on, and that's appropriate given what ol' Virginia was doing to everyone.
Agreed it's quite good. Lovecraftian enough, without any Mythos namedropping, tho the protagonist is quite unlikely any of HPL's!
An oddity is the implication that Garland fought in Normandy in 1945 - Normandy was well behind the front by then. A mere slip? Or are we supposed to infer he was involved in some shadowy yet gory intelligence work there? (I'm unsure if there was any fighting around Soissons in 1915 - there certainly was in Cuba in 1953.)
That reminds me, I could look this up but then we'd have no discussion on it: Garland is said to having fought against Batista and alongside Castro. Wasn't the CIA on Batista's side, resisting Castro's socialist rebels?
I know there's fodder for all sorts of conspiracy around the Cuban revolution, in fact I find James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy to be a great treatment of this, showing it's not all black-and-white Cold War crap. But it seems interesting that Barron might reference this inverted picture of Cuban black ops without spelling more of it out. Unless, of course, there's something very specific to which he alludes, and of which I'm ignorant!
I assumed Garland on Castro's side was supposed to imply that the CIA was up to some dastardly plot.
>13 AndreasJ: I have found no record of major engagements at Soissons in 1915 ... well, recorded. So, yes, Barron seems to be hinting at covert ops in three separate times.
I liked this one too -- especially the Croatoan link.
Apparently the First Battle of Champagne was centred in Soissons from December 1914 - March 1915, pretty bloody and marked by a flooding river which forces a French retreat, but nothing else I could identify of any particular significance for the story.
Apart from this: there is one remark late in the story about Gaylord's "kill count" including children, which raised an eyebrow at this item:
The shells killed many children. The Germans are keeping men, women, and children in the quarries as hostages, and are forcing the women to go to Soissons and bring back provisions.
But I think the point stills stands: the Americans weren't involved too much here, so Gaylord's appearance suggests nefarious doings.
In 1915, of course, the US were officially neutral in WWI, so any involvement by an American intelligence man would be if not nefarious then at least anomalous.
>18 elenchus:,>19 AndreasJ:
Thanks for the historical background. I'm sure that U.S. military... adventurers... have been poking their noses into troubled global situations since the very beginning, with or without government sanction. Garland is just another, so it's not too surprising where he's been. The fact that he survived those exploits but doesn't even really put up a fight with Virginia says something about the humankind's real chances in the overall scheme of things.
This story visits the now-common trope found in the likes of "Who Goes There?", Alien, etc., with a mixed group of military and civilian-science types in an isolated environment finding themselves being picked of by something utterly alien to their experience. Barron keeps things way above par though. He is able to capture the specific feeling of awe that would by rights have to accompany the extreme terror that these characters experience.
Finally got to this last night. Scary and hard-boiled as hell; i.e., Laird Barron just the way I like him (Joseph Pulver does this sort of thing well, too, but Pulver at his best, good as he is, is not a patch on Barron at his best, imho). So much more satisfying than the in-jokey "More Dark" that we discussed last year* (to my sensibility, at least).
Barron is aces at implying the Big Nasty that is actively looking for a chance to hurt you in the most brutal fashion imaginable.
not cosmically indifferent but maliciously malevolent!
So Mother is actually closer to being a Ellisonian/Ligottian dystheistic entity (a la the former's "The Deathbird" or the latter's "Nethescurial") than a Lovecraftian cosmic one, yes?
>13 AndreasJ: ff.
Good stuff, guys. Thanks for digging into the history on this.
But Barron pulls a neat trick by having his starring monster be a product of the earliest colonial settlement of the area, and thus hearkening back to the 16th century. (Another allusion of the title is to Elizabeth I, the "Virgin" of old for whom the states were named.)
Hmm... I suspect John Dee's hand in this...
Insightful of you. Doctor Dee was, after all, the inventor of the state "intelligence" apparatus.
Didn't know that, but I'm certainly not surprised; Dee had his finger in an awful lot of pies.
I should qualify: for the Anglophone world. Surely there had been others. But Dee promoted and reputedly coined the notion of "British Empire," and supplied tools and efforts to institutionalize espionage under the patronage of the crown. He was the original "007," using that as a personal identifier, and explaining it as an image of the aposkopeuon: the hand (7) shadowing the eyes (00) from the sun in order to sight into the distance. (He extended the horizontal bar of the 7 across the top of the preceding digits.)
Dee was also an enthusiastic proponent of the colonization of America.
Apologies for writing this up late...
I enjoyed this story. The basis premise seemed to me more Nigel Kneale than Lovecraft, though (Quatermass and the Pit, for example). That's an observation and not a criticism.
I wasn't sure of the Black Ops referred to, going back to WW1, were supposed to indicate an alternative history timeline or a secret history pertaining to this world.
I think "Old Virginia" has at least four meanings - the character, the original establishment of the colony, the "Virgin Queen", and the area's prehistory under ice age conditions (which are on course to be recreated).
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