"X's for Eyes" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by JournalStone
Written by Laird Barron
2015, 98 pages, Fiction
Released on December 11th, 2015
On a dreary 1950's evening in Anytown, U.S.A., Macbeth and Drederick Tooms decide to spice things up with a joyride in their father's car for an evening of booze, hookers and mayhem. Their feel-good times are cut short when a spacecraft from their family company, Sword Enterprises, just happens to crash land in some hills nearby. Nothing too strange about that...except that the space probe isn't supposed to launch for another week. This is what sets the scene for X's for Eyes, the latest novella from Laird Barron. Known for dark, weird fiction like The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All and The Croning, Barron is probably one of the best-known contemporary horror authors to incorporate Lovecraftian themes into his work. Even though X's for Eyes may seem like a departure from this kind of writing in the beginning, Barron weaves a well-crafted web of a story incorporating the dry humor of WASPy New England privilege with a crackerjack adventure worthy of Jules Verne, and plenty of eldritch horror along the way.
Even though it's on the short side, X's manages to unpack a lot in terms of world-building and stylistic variety. The storied legacy of the Tooms' father and grandfather, competition with sinister rival corporations, and the real power behind the direction of the characters are released in little bites, snippets that the reader's imagination is more than willing to fill in the gaps. Lovecraft himself often used this to technique to build tension around his "unseen" monsters, but this story more closely resembles the kind of thing you would see on shows like The Venture Brothers. "Mac, are we having an adventure?" Dred laments. "Is someone going to shoot at me? Am I going to be kidnapped again? Locked in a trunk and dropped into the sea? Experimented on with growth hormones? Chased by a lunatic in a mechanical werewolf getup? It sure feels like we're having an adventure." The two boys exist in a shadowy world controlled by organized powers-that-be, which are revealed in little glimpses that reward the reader for noting small details scattered in the prose. The comparison ends there, though – the Toom's brothers are more akin to the ultraviolent Droogs of Burgess' A Clockwork Orange than the squeaky clean Venture boys. But the clues dropped to the bigger picture also works as an exposition buster, condensing the need to expand on subjects that could take up entire chapters by letting the readers connect-the-dots themselves. The characters and subplots of X's for Eyes have the kind of depth that could be expanded into an entire series of books, but that's not what Barron is trying to accomplish here. Instead, he's taking a familiar kind of story – two brothers flung into a mission of danger and uncertainty – and twisting it, developing some very dark and unexpected undertones.
As expected, the crashed space probe spells bad news for the brothers, as it may have accidently collected data from an unspeakable horror deep within the galaxy and been flung forward in time. After their friend is gruesomely killed off (who in turns kills other friends) by the data within the probe, the brothers realize they must make a deal with a bitter corporate rival in order to figure out what's going on. To make things even worse, a bloodthirsty cult also wants to get its mitts on the deadly knowledge, to appease the interdimensional ultimate evil that they worship. Worst of all, there's always the chance that their Dad could find out and blow his top. Their struggle to find out the truth about what the probe found takes the brothers all over the world, in scenes which parody the campy adventures of Johnny Quest and the stiff-upper-lip mentality of English ex-pats. But what really stands out about X's is Barron putting his own unique style within the story. The prose often transitions from jaunty, humorous dialogue to cold, horrific, nightmarish spaces that exist within the minds of the two boys, usually as the dark portent of what waits for them at the end of the road.
Barron also brings situations that are just plain weird and unexpected within a traditional adventure novel or even a horror story. There are theories and creatures that lurk within the pages that could have easily sprung from a particularly abstract Harlan Ellison or Phillip José Farmer story, some personal combination of myth and invention that defies the traditional boundaries of genre. The juxtaposition of these changes in diction – from Indiana Jones-type gallivanting to haunting questions about the nature of good and evil – makes X's for Eyes unique among any of its definitions. Could the story of the boys and their universe be expanded upon, brought to their ultimate conclusion with some worthy stories along the way? Absolutely! But in wishing for that, the point of the story is missed entirely. What X's delivers is a well-written world of parodied tropes with a nuclear payload of plot twists and deliciously unreliable characters. The experience of finishing the book left me dazed, buzzing with questions not about the story, but myself. If evil is something inherent in all of us, has the game already ended? Did it ever matter? And most importantly, when push comes to shove, which side will I choose to embrace?