The Croning (2012, Night Shade Books)
by Laird Barron
Don Miller has a memory problem. Throughout his adult life he has had strange experiences and encounters, yet now an octogenarian, they are only just returning, spurred on by a series of bizarre events occurring at his rural home in Washington state. His wife, Michelle, is an anthropologist who, even though retired, still jets off to attend lectures and academic conferences. His adult children are busy in their own lives, and this all leaves Don time to reflect. He begins to recall conversations with his grandfather, a man seemingly involved in clandestine affairs. He remembers weird encounters with a young man while milling about the home of a recently deceased colleague. Then there was the incident in Mexico back in 1958…
Laird Barron is my favorite horror author. I have read other people’s less than favorable takes on his work, always citing a clash with his particular style of prose, and I can understand why they may not click with the author. However, Barron is right in my wheelhouse and feels like the next step in my exploration of cosmic/weird horror that improves on the Lovecraft model. In Barron’s world, there is no Cthulhu, there is only Old Leech, an even worse cosmic harbinger of ultimate death and subjugation. While the Elder Gods of Lovecraft will rise up out of the ocean, Old Leech will rot you from the inside. The Croning stands as a capstone to the Old Leech stories threaded throughout the first major act of Barron’s career. In his short story collections The Imago Sequence, Occultation, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Barron has laid the groundwork for all the elements that are brought together in The Croning.
The Black Guide from the masterful “Mysterium Tremendum” pops up, including the idea that basements are conduits to the dark, otherworldly power. The exploration of the Mystery Mountain by the loggers of Slango Camp, first chronicled in “The Men From Porlock” is revisited. The wearing of human skin by insidious beings that reduced me to literal tears of fear in “The Broadsword” is heavily leaned upon. Barron manages to infuse pulp horror, elements of “high” literary fiction, and even some conspiracy theory into The Croning.
The story starts in a place I did not expect, hundreds, if not a thousand, years ago to retell the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. In the opening chapter that stands as a great short story of its own, we follow one of the spies the queen from that tale sent out to learn the little man’s name. This spy is her own brother whom she has had an incestuous relationship with. He makes his way to the very fringes of civilization where he finds a small village below a castle on a hill, all the inhabitants of which seem to live in fear of the little man and his children. It does not become apparent for a while into the book how vital this particular opening chapter is to the entirety of the story. When I realized the relevance, it was in the final two chapters of the novel, noticing I’d missed a pretty big detail that had been in my face the whole time.
The Croning is the perfect sort of horror in my opinion. It doesn’t rely on gore, though some is there. It doesn’t rely on cheap fakeouts. Instead, you are given this slow-simmering stew of existential horror, which so incredibly satisfying and unsettling at the same time. Barron writes the sort of stories that leave you laying in bed, bathed in darkness, staring into the black void before you and convinced something stares back.