Pulp Appeal: Blood Standard by Laird Barron (Guest post by Anthony Perconti)

(Editor’s Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums.  His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.  If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters. )

Blood Standard is Laird Barron’s first official foray into the hardboiled crime fiction genre. I first encountered the author’s works several years ago, when I picked up an e-book copy of his Imago Sequence and Other Stories. Soon after, I polished off a longer work, The Croning, followed up by some of his novellas. Up to this point in his career, Barron’s preferred medium of expression has been within the confines of the horror and weird fiction genres. To pigeonhole Barron as merely a horror writer is to do the man a disservice. In addition to being a master craftsman in the discipline of the slow burn sense of dread within his tales, Barron has wide ranging literary influences that he distills into all of his works. To that point, there are several examples of what would be considered hard boiled protagonists within his body of weird fiction. Check out “Bulldozer”, “Black Woods Baby”, “The Men from Porlock” ”, “Frontier Death Song”[1], or especially Man With No Name to see how Barron blends these two genres seamlessly. With Blood Standard, the author stays within a single lane and presents readers with a modern work that could proudly sport a Vintage Crime/Black Lizard logo on it. With one small caveat; the numinous does creep into this novel, but it is relegated to the periphery. This tale works simultaneously as the protagonist’s redemption arc and an origin story; it is also a meditation on the capacity for humans to fundamentally change their natures, as explored through a fallen individual, with a vast propensity for violence.  

Isaiah Coleridge is a mixed race (Maori and Caucasian) mob enforcer for the Chicago Outfit stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. When his boss asks him to relocate temporally to Nome, to keep an eye on things during a working holiday, he runs afoul of the local mob satrap, Vitale Night. In an almost subconscious act, Coleridge does some bodily damage to Night when the man systematically slaughters a herd of walrus for their ivory while on a hunting expedition.  As can be expected, Night’s subordinates give Coleridge some payback, beating and torturing him upon the verge of death. At the last minute, his hide is saved when his capo (and unofficial uncle) Lucius Apollo calls off Night’s goons. During his hospitalization, Coleridge is given an ultimatum by Apollo; he is persona non grata in Alaska. He takes Apollo’s offer and is permanently exiled to one of the don’s holdings, a horse farm located in upstate New York; a fate slightly better than a slow, torturous death. Hawk Mountain Farm is run by the elderly African American couple of Virgil and Jade Walker, along with their troubled granddaughter, Reba.  Coleridge is hired on as a farmhand and is provided basic room and board. What drives the plot forward, the central mystery of the book lies with the disappearance of Reba. Being a teenager of color who has exhibited these bouts of disappearance before, the local police quickly lose interest in the case. This is the fulcrum that Coleridge is provided with, in order to make an attempt at changing his fate.

Barron’s portrayal of the character of Isaiah Coleridge is suffused with nuance. While not the most visually imposing of specimens, nevertheless, this man contains within him deep stores when it comes to taking and dishing out vast amounts of physical abuse. His strength seems to be hovering at the upper limit of human capacity, at least so in small bursts. When he first settles in at the farm, he is able to move an engine block for a short distance. According to one of his eventual friends and co-workers, Lionel Robard, he estimates that the piece of machinery weighs between six and seven hundred pounds. Another interesting facet of Coleridge’s personality that separates him from your typical garden variety thug is the fact that he is a lifelong student of world mythologies, a thinking man; “I have a fondness for the heroic dudes. Hercules, Thor, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, John Henry. That crowd.”(p.99) Blood Standard is chock full of allusions to humanity’s ancient myths; from an ornery old horse named Bacchus to a reference concerning the deepest, darkest cave, the Maori Cave of the Ancestors. These myth cycles inform Coleridge in such a way, that Barron is making the insinuation that this repentant criminal is bound for a greater (albeit violent), fate. While on a date with Meg (short for Megara), a local librarian and part time acrobat, she states that she dreamed about Coleridge in relation to Odysseus. “You put in at several islands. Upon each island, you paid homage to its king. Horrible, vile men who reposed on a throne of bones and whose sandals were caked in the blood of their victims…The palaces, the forests, the grass in the fields, everything around you blazed with fire. You left the islands floating amidst the black like burning jewels and sailed into outer darkness.”(p. 219) This dream (or perhaps, oracle) certainly seems like something pulled from a Greek myth. Mervin Coleridge, retired Air Force officer, current government spook and Isaiah’s estranged father reiterates as much as well. “Someone’s in a bind and you’ve got to save the day. Even at your worst, there was always a glimmer of nobility down deep, under all that shit you’ve covered yourself in.”(p.135)

Although Barron peppers this novel with a myriad of references to our mythic past, that is not to say that this book is a crash course in World Mythology, far from it. Like any good piece of hardboiled fiction, the antagonists, and there are several, make it tough going for our morally compromised hero. In his various attempts to locate the missing Reba, Coleridge runs afoul of several upstate underworld organizations including the white supremacist gang, The Sons of the Iron Knife, Teddy Valens and his group of mercenary contractors in the employ Black Dog and the big bads of the piece, The White Manitou, a Native American tribal gang who utilize extreme terror and torture tactics against anyone dumb enough to cross them. Not to mention local police who are on the take, FBI agents who to put it mildly, distrust Coleridge’s claim of having turned over a new leaf and at the books finale, a Sergio Leone like showdown against the revenge seeking gunfighter Mafioso, Vitale Night.

Like many a hardboiled hero, Isaiah Coleridge has some competent allies in his corner when it comes ferreting out the whereabouts of the missing teen. Mervin Coleridge is able to (begrudgingly) provide some snippets of intelligence using his shadowy government connections. Lionel Robard is an alcoholic Marine suffering from PTSD, from time served in Fallujah and Helmand. Robard is a scrapper through and through who has no qualms about bringing the fight to the bad guys. Rounding out his crew is Calvin Knox, an African American Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and surveillance specialist. “Three men connected tenuously by loose affiliation and camaraderie were headed directly into the belly of the beast on behalf of a young woman none of them called blood. I bore witness to a strange and wondrous event that felt suspiciously like a miracle.” (p.244) Throw in Meg into the mix as Coleridge’s budding romantic interest and you have an eclectic bunch of outsider supporting characters that to me, are reminiscent of Burke’s ‘family of choice’ from the long running series by Andrew Vachss.

Blood Standard grapples with the central question of can a person, who has a natural affinity for and lived within, a subculture of violence for several decades, fundamentally change? In many ways Isaiah Coleridge has much in common with the James Ellroy character of Pete Bondurant, from the Underworld USA Trilogy. Both are seasoned killers who are capable of dispensing vast amounts of bodily harm upon others when pushed over the edge. And yet, with Barron’s character, once he gets sent away from the mob lifestyle in Alaska, he starts exhibiting individual agency. Coleridge starts making decisions on his own behalf; he becomes the sole arbiter of when to dole out punishment, to what degree and when to abstain. And the most telling action of all, Coleridge makes the conscious decision at an attempt to become a more righteous version of himself, as an act of contrition. Not change his fundamental nature mind you, because like Bondurant, Coleridge is very, very good at bloodletting. “As ever, blood was the currency of my existence. Blood was the standard. It would always be this way. Men with guns, men with knives, men with evil intentions. My world, my tribe. My calling.”(p.263)

Laird Barron is a highly talented storyteller who has created a compelling character in Isaiah Coleridge.  Blood Standard is an excellent opening salvo in what I hope becomes a long running, financially successful crime series[2]. Pick up this novel and join Coleridge as he takes his first tentative steps on the violent, bloody and perilous road towards becoming a better man. And if it’s not exactly a hero’s path that he walks on, it’s close enough. Or as Virgil Walker states so succinctly; “Nobody ever truly changes. Not even the heroes in the epics.”(p.269)

[1]An audio version of “Frontier Death Song” is available gratis through the Tales to Terrify podcast (number 40). This is a perfect way to sample Barron’s work, without committing to an entire collection. But I guarantee once you’ve listened to this, you’ll track down and purchase more of his stuff. Wonderfully narrated by David Robison, this road story tells the tale of a man and his dog on the run from the Wild Hunt. This story displays many of Barron’s touchstones as a writer and is as good a place as any to get a feel for his type of short fiction. The stalwart protagonist, the inimical natural landscape (of Alaska) in conflict with humanity and the intrusion of the alien are all accounted for.

[2] The second book in the Isaiah Coleridge sequence, Black Mountain, was released in May of 2019 and has been added to my ever expanding To Be Read pile.

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1 Response to Pulp Appeal: Blood Standard by Laird Barron (Guest post by Anthony Perconti)

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