Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Croning (Book Review)

The Croning by Laird Barron (Subterranean Press, 2012)

This long-awaited debut novel reads like a fantastic mix of the Brothers Grimm and H.P. Lovecraft, combining a dark variation on the Rumpelstiltskin tale with a story of an ancient, iniquitous cult that worships a cyclopean nightmare known as "Old Leech."  There's also a dash of The X-Files thrown in, but the various pairs of government investigators who show up on the scene don't fare nearly as well as Agents Scully and Mulder always did.

Perhaps Barron's greatest talent as an author is his ability to create an atmosphere saturated with dread.  No easy task, he accomplishes it time and again here, either via the richly-detailed image (e.g. "Their footsteps crunched on the gravel and Don had a vision of dried yellow finger bones snapping beneath his shoes") or the cryptic hint.  In Barron's skillful hands, simple matters such as something heard bumping inside a car trunk or a cellar door found slightly ajar acquire a frightful aura.  Barron's knack for wringing ominousness out of vagueness is no doubt facilitated by the use of a lead character, Don Miller, who is seemingly battling "incipient dementia."  Don's faulty powers of recall only accentuate the mysteriousness of his beloved, scholarly wife Michele, whose
"inexhaustible fascination with the arcane" might have led her into some sinister research.  The Croning is the kind of book that tantalizes readers before they even turn to the first page: the eponymous unspeakable rite is passingly glossed in the prologue yet remains shadowy throughout (both in terms of its expected
outcome and intended victim).

Barron's mastery of novelistic structure is especially impressive.  Form reflects content in this non-linear narrative that flashes back and forth across the decades (a dynamic that gives eerie significance to one character's early claim that "time is a squirming, hungry ring that wriggles and worms across reality").  Don's chronic forgetfulness, his difficulty in piecing together a coherent account of events (which in turn frames the reader's own experience of uncertainty/unease) is ultimately no mere plot device but integrally related to the horrors that Barron presents.

Some readers might grow frustrated with the passivity and obtuseness of Barron's unreliable, octogenarian protagonist.  Don is less a hero than a hapless, helpless figure battered about by larger forces, but isn't this the very formula of Lovecraftian naturalism?  In any event, the story of Don's lifelong ordeal is meant to be savored for the build-up of suspense and forestalling of revelation.  One is hard-pressed not to linger over Barron's words; in both its quick phrases ("crazed Macbethian crone") and extended descriptions ("Only vines and spongy-moss, and not a rank carcass in a pool of maggot-clabbered blood that his morbid imagination conjured on the spot"), the writer's prose repeatedly makes poetry of the grotesque.

The book's plot unfolds slowly at first, yet arrives at a thrilling dual climax in which villains furnish plenty of disconcerting exposition.  A harrowing portrait of apocalyptic doom is painted, and Don is presented with a diabolical bargain that brings the novel full-circle back to its Grim(m) origins.

Fans of Barron's acclaimed short fiction will take added delight in the nods to other works (such as "Catch Hell," "Blackwood's Baby," and "The Broadsword") in the novel.  In forging such intertextual links, Barron suggests that he is in the process of creating a Mythos to rival the one famously penned by the gentleman from Providence.

The Croning is an instant classic, weird fiction at its terrifying finest.  The only people who won't welcome its arrival are the fellow horror authors who had their hearts set on a Stoker this year, because the chance of anyone else than Barron taking home the award for Best First Novel (or Best Novel, period) now appears as infinitesimal as man's place in the star-speckled cosmos.

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