Laird Barron's first novel has been a long time coming. To great acclaim amongst certain circles, the Alaskan author has spent in excess of a decade contributing short stories to an array of magazines and anthologies. Many of his most notable efforts have been reprinted in year's best collections—all four editions of The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow, feature Barron's distinct fiction—and upon their assembly into The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007), and later Occultation (2010), his dread dialogues were showered with honors and nominations, including but not in the least limited to nods from the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker and the Locus.
One comes to The Croning, then, with great expectations, anticipating horror of the highest order, and indeed, this is delightful dark fantasy, as delicate as it is inevitably devastating.
Fittingly, it begins with a drastic recasting of Rumplestiltskin:
That venerable fairytale of the Miller's daughter and the Dwarf who helped her spin straw into gold has a happy ending in the popular version. The events that inspired the legend, not so much. (p. 1)
Thus, in the opening phrases of The Croning, Barron begins this juxtaposition of the down to earth with what we might describe as out of this world. His iteration of the allegorical chronicle popularized by the Brothers Grimm abandons the Miller's daughter to her courtside shenanigans, concerning itself instead with the Spy she dispatches to discover the Dwarf's true title, whose travels take him to the temple of Old Leech, a terrifying pagan deity as alien to the determined investigator as modern medical science:
Feeling as an actor highlighted upon a stage, an instant of dark epiphany assailed him, permitted him a glimpse of a vast, squamous truth of the universe as it uncoiled. Nay, despite its myriad constituent skeletons this abomination wasn’t a dragon, or a serpent, or the Ouroboros with its jaws come unstuck—this was a colossal worm that had swallowed who villages, cities . . . a leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies. (p. 14)
Duly daunted, the Spy stalks the temple just long enough to descry a grim ritual: the sacrifice of a beautiful woman by the very Dwarf who tricked his mistress. So, in a sense, Rumplestiltskin completes his mission, though the outcome for all this misshapen fairytale's players is no less pleasant for his success.
Beyond The Croning's macabre opening chapter, this crucial contrast—between the fond and familial and the fearfully far-flung—pervades the novel's entire narrative, which spans some sixty years in the life of Don Miller, a corporate geologist whose marriage to the mysterious Michelle Mock is both a blessing and a curse. At the outset, her academic inquiries into the existence of a Fortean species of "little people" (p. 74) are laughable—in fact she ceases to speak of them when her family do exactly that—but in short order Don comes to wonder whether there mightn't be more to this missing tribe than he, and we, had imagined.
Don’s gathering grasp of his wife's arcane interests also serves to open a few old wounds of his own. In recounting these invariably nightmarish memories—of an incident in Mexico City in the early years of our man’s marriage, and a meeting of like minds in the '80s, at the wake of one of Michelle's friends—I warrant the author is in his element.
The pieces were disquieting. Impressionist work; the subjects were deformed humanoids dwarfed by unwholesome man-beast figures and indistinct objects of unremittingly baroque dimensions. These latter struck him as tribal rendering of anthropomorphic gods and the cyclopean ziggurats wherein such beings would naturally dwell, the whole as filtered through the lens of someone possessed of a Western European sensibility. Possibly someone with a psychological disorder or deviant fetish for the grotesque. (p. 77)
Certainly Barron's prowess in the short form shines through the aforementioned interludes, in their nearly immediate evocation of the insignificance of the individual in the maw of the collective cosmos—a recurring theme in this author's body of work, reminiscent as it is of Machen and Lovecraft. And whilst the chapters entitled "One Time In Old Mexico . . ." and "The Exhibit in the Mountain House" do inform The Croning's core story—presaging the final chapters' otherwise outlandish unmaskings, and providing a general framework for an understanding of Don's erratic character, with a specific stress on his gestation as an unreliable narrator—they also enliven the overall experience, delivering exquisite quick hits while Barron winds up a bigger, and abidingly bolder blow. Absent these initially incongruous intervals, the unfolding of The Croning would seem somewhat stunted, but with them, its piecemeal development progresses.
"Moving forward from a past that became more the realm of a shadow life every day," (p. 69) the chapters which take place in the present appear the most pedestrian of The Croning's many sections, but ultimately they prove as powerful. In these, Don seems to be dealing with the early stages of dementia—though the cause of his forgetfulness may not be so straightforward, and in any event he has ways of explaining it away. For instance, he pretends "disinterest in his wife’s endeavour; a disinterest that became more or less reality and the years rolled by and they settled into their respective roles with clearly delineated boundaries. Accommodation had ever been a cornerstone of wedded bliss" (p. 161).
It is not until the cruel conclusion of The Croning, which revolves around the discovery of a dolmen in the woods behind the house, that our protagonist finally faces facts, and Barron successfully elongates the moment of Don's disassembling until the atmosphere becomes taut as an outstretched tentacle. Before this, excepting the episodes discussed above, the author builds tension incrementally: slowly but surely, the familiar becomes uncanny, just as the real intermingles with the weird. A storm metamorphoses into something more, turning an ill-fated family reunion into a long night of hair-raising recollections—ghost stories shared in the last of the dying lantern-light; and whilst settling into the emptiness of the ancient estate after his sons and daughters have departed, a distressed Don feels as much as hears something go bump in the night. Yet at this late stage in the guessing game, given all the horrors he's whole-hog forgotten, the reader realizes that the cause of our protagonist's alarm is as likely his apparent Alzheimer's as anything unearthly. We do not truly know which of these truths to trust in until The Croning's last chapters, which wrap smartly back on the book's beginning, recalling Rumplestiltskin, and even then . . .
The plot, therefore, describes the same tight, bespined circle as the icon of Old Leech: the very circumference, interrupted—of a worm or a snake or something stranger about to devour its own tail or carapace—that adorns The Croning's cover. But surely the most remarkable thing about this first novel is its assiduous attention to little and large alike, a relationship exemplified by the rapport between Michelle and her long-suffering husband. To terrific effect, Barron casually ties the questions and affections that they bat back and forth to grander revelations, imbuing the insignificant with significance, and balancing—as I outlined at the start of this article—the out of this world with the down to earth.
The Croning, then, is an unspeakably intimate novel of cosmic horror. From the darkly fantastic fairytale with which it opens and closes through to a deeply disturbing yet massively satisfying climax, via an assortment of effulgent intermezzos—gratifying in their own right, but also critical to the success of the central thread—it demonstrates Laird Barron is as adept a genre novelist as he is undoubtedly a purveyor of shorter horror. Episodic though it is, The Croning comes together in the end, again and again, making for a tremendous—if altogether disparate—debut, irrespective of its author's experience of the longer form.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) reviews speculative fiction of various shapes and sizes—whether in film, literature, video games, or comics—honestly, the lot—for a number of genre-oriented resources, including Tor.com, Starburst Magazine, and Strange Horizons. Failing all of the above, as is the case most days, he'll happily bend your ear over at his blog, The Speculative Scotsman.