Monday, May 7, 2012

"The Croning" by Laird Barron

The Croning is a stellar book, in many senses of that word. Firmly implanting the cosmic in "cosmic horror," Laird Barron's first novel takes a number of threads started in his short stories and weaves them into a stunning gallows rope.

If you've read any of Mr. Barron's short stories -- many of which are collected in The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2007) and Occultation and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2010) -- then you know he can rapidly set a mood and get down to hallucinatory, nasty business. His first longer-form story was The Light is the Darkness (Infernal House, 2011), a novella published in a very limited edition last year. It is a gorgeous, exquisitely produced volume, and features a story that is just as much weird action pulp as horror. It hits some different beats than his shorter works, but is still unmistakably Barron.

Leather bound with an amazing debossed cover in a custom tray case. Yes, I have a copy.

Having read his short stories multiple times and then the novella, I was confident Mr. Barron would make good use of the longer novel format to further inflict his vision upon the reader. I was not wrong. With The Croning, he has the space to lay out a deep back story and slowly simmer his nightmarish stew, as opposed to the microwave oven necessitated by the short story form.

The Croning tells the story of aged geologist Don Miller and his anthropologist wife Michelle Mock. Jumping around between three different periods in their shared life, we meet their family and associates, as well as government agents and the ancient cult of Old Leech, familiar from some of Mr. Barron's previous stories. Unfolding for the most part in his familiar Pacific Northwest locales, the strange family histories of the Millers and the Mocks slowly but surely crystallizes into a soul-shattering fugue of doom and unthinkable horror.

Mr. Barron includes enough of the mundane and the familiar in the story to give it a good grounding. To his credit, the settings seem very real, even when very unreal things are occurring. As the tension ratchets up and the story starts moving faster and faster, the little details and realistic touches from earlier in the book lay a nice groundwork for the creeping dread and awful realizations to come.

According to a recent interview with Mr. Barron over at the excellent Cosmicomicon, most of his stories take place in a shared reality, and he does a good job of reinforcing that notion with small details; names, places, and a small black guide book make repeated appearances in a number of his tales. Especially relevant to The Croning are his stories The Men from Porlock, available in The Book of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2011), and both The Broadsword and Mysterium Tremendum, published in Occultation and Other Stories. I'd suggest reading all of those before The Croning, although that is certainly not necessary to enjoy the novel.

Mr. Barron's central theme strikes me as an alloy forged from classic Lovecraftian cosmic horror, Thomas Ligotti's idea of The Darkness, and his own unique rare-earth minerals. This overarching mythology has been teased and hinted at in previous stories, and here it is laid bare. If I have any quibble with this book, it would be that the concepts underlying the "Barronic Mythos" (to quote T. E. Grau) are almost too illuminated. The story features some nice twists and reveals right up until the end; when that end is reached, it appears there is little ambiguity left regarding the story of Old Leech and related entities.

Still, at this point I trust Mr. Barron implicitly. I have liked or (more frequently) loved everything he has written to date, and he is a well-reasoned and seasoned writer of exceptional quality. He has another short story collection in the works, and is apparently working on a crime novel. Given that his existing horror fiction mines many noir and pulp tropes, I am excited to read his full-blown take on the genre.

The man himself.

Along those lines, Mr. Barron's personal story is fascinating to the point of almost seeming like good fiction itself. Growing up in poverty in rural Alaska, losing an eye as a young child, training and racing sled dogs, fishing the Bering Sea… Read the aforementioned interview at The Cosmicomicon as well as this revelatory column on the Centipede Press website for more. His hard-earned experience informs his writing to a degree that can only be achieved by living the life.

The Croning is one of the best novels I have read in quite some time, horror or otherwise. Beautiful and brutal, with genuine skin-crawling moments shuffled in with scenes of wide-eyed wonder. I predict you will see this book on many Best of 2012 lists and awards ballots… Laird Barron has proven, definitively, that he can write long stories that are just as effective as his short fiction, and I'm looking forward to reading more, much more, of this unique man's singular and haunting vision.


  1. I've been quoted!

    Great review, Sam, and thanks for the linkage.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.