Laird Barron is one of those authors who I always feel like I should read more of. I have delved, several times, into his Imago Sequence and Other Stories and the first story from that collection, “Old Virginia” ranks somewhere in the upper echelon of my favorites though and is one the more well regarded horror collections released in 21st Century. As I’ve said in the past I am not the best of short fiction readers so when I saw that Barron was slated to have his first full novel released in 2012 I was suitably excited to see what he could do in the long form. While I initially grabbed the publisher’s eARC via Netgalley I was dismayed to note that it was a PDF which I quickly abandoned to wait for the final version to hit shelves. Publishers remember this: PDFs are bad. Seriously, they do not conform well to e-readers unless your goal is annoy readers and give them headaches with tiny print. Thankfully The Croning was released without a hitch in the imminently more readable ePub (or in my case, Nook) format.
The Croning is a languid story about one man’s encounter with the dark, hidden side of the world. A dark, hidden side of the world that is born almost directly from fairy tales we think we know but watered down by years of adaptation. Over the course of the novel the novel’s protagonist Donald Miller incesantment and foolishly scratches away at the gloss that hides the truth not only of his wife and marriage but of the very foundations of the cosmos itself. This is not a happy novel, there is no optimism here, no light at the end of the tunnel. The Croning, in the traditional of supernatural horror writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood (the languid prose in many sections reminded me of the slow build of tension and dread in “The Willows”), is about the uncovering terrible truths sort of like opening Pandora’s box except wherein not even hope remains.
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Croning is the lengths to which Barron goes to establish the mundanity and bland comfort that Donald and his wife Michelle. Early in the novel we get this little tidbit:
When he looked up, Michelle pretended not to be annoyed, and Celeste gave her a patently fake smile, a perfunctory gesture of civility. We both know your husband’s an ass. She might as well have rolled her eyes. Don had that effect on women. Invariably, despite his best efforts at urbanity and charm, the sniffed out his essential oafishness, or so he’d come to believe. There were worse curses. Michelle put up with his occasional bouts of idiocy and that paid for all.
Don and Michelle are the quintessential married couple, enamored with one another yet not unaware of the faults and foibles of their own personalities. Don, later describes Michelle saying: “She was no Jane Goodall, that was for sure. Were a seal hunter to toss her a club, Don suspected she’d cheerfully march towards the beach.” Barron goes a long way at establishing both the comfort of Don and Michelle that exists alongside and intertwined with their difference in personality and lifestyle. The well established mundane nature of their relationship and the feel that they are a real couple plays a steady counter beat to the slow and creeping introduction of horror; horror that while external is also spawned by the mundane and monotonous nature of the long-established couple.
Barron definitely has a way with words. He peppers symbolism through his descriptions that simultaneously paint a vivid and accurate picture and set a particular tone. When meeting a socialite for the first time Donald describes him as follows: “He smelled of good whiskey and fir needles and his entire demeanor was that of Christopher Lee welcoming victims to his castle.” Barron makes a bold assumption about his audience here, relying on what he hopes calls about a familiar visage to cast the scene in a particular light. Barron further excels at twisting the mundane into the unsettling as when describing a cluttered home: “One could scarcely walk in a straight line without tripping over the metastasized lumps and growths in every cavernous room, the benighted accretion of inefable superiority through breeding and fortune….” The description of a life’s worth of possession as a cancerous growth certainly casts that scene in a particular light.
The Croning is an occasionally meandering novel; it draws you in through its use of language, through the slow build of tension and the constant creepy presence of the unnatural amidst the mundane. In true horror tradition it relies less on plot and more on atmosphere and this old school feel might prove difficult for readers more familiar with plot-driven fiction. That isn’t to say there isn’t a plot only that it takes a back seat to the sensations that Barron is attempting to elicit in his readers. Barron proves as effective at the long-form as he is at the short and the story’s atmosphere definitely benefit’s from more space. I’m pleased to see that The Croning is on the 2012 Stoker Reading List and I hope that the novel makes the cut come time for ballots. For fans of the horror genre, particularly those who love the slow burn of cosmic horror espoused by H. P. Lovecraft, The Croning is well worth a look from a man who one day could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greats.