Book Review : Laird Barron - The Croning (2013)
Most people know Laird Barron for his fantastic short stories. He published, I believe, four collections of them and whenever he’s participating to an anthology, it’s almost guaranteed he’s going to make you forget everybody else. He’s not good, he’s great. I can’t say enough good things about his writing. But I didn’t know whether he could write a novel or not. These are a different animal and the step between short and long form is quite steep. That’s why I kept postponing my reading of Barron’s first novel The Croning, published five years ago.
I turned out to be wrong. Laird Barron doesn’t exactly reinvents himself in The Croning, but it’s as nuanced, intricate and engaging as anything he’s ever written.
There are several timelines intertwined in this novel. It mostly follows the life of Donald Miller, a geologist and academic married to a women who’s way out of his league. And she seems to be living another life away from him and each time Donald closes the gap between who his wife Michelle is and who she pretends to be, something horrible happens to him. Even more worrisome, his memories of these traumatic encounters seem to evaporate each time. As his life is heading toward its natural end, Donald is getting closer and closer to the truth. A truth that will neither bring him redemption of enlightenment.
The Croning reads like the longest and most intricate cosmic horror story Laird Barron’s ever written. Not only it jumps back and forth in time, but it also has smaller narratives within the main narratives, which can be demanding to read at times. It also reads just like his short stories. The Croning requires patience and earnest emotional investment in its characters before engaging in any form of payoff, but these come unexpectedly and in increasing level of intensity along the way. This novel made me appreciate the patience and the craft of Laird Barron. It requires a lot out of its readers, but it engages them in a visceral and intellectual exchange like few books can.
Another thing about The Croning I really liked was its elderly protagonist. It’s not something you come across often in a novel. It works great here because cosmic horror primarily exploits the fear of the unknown and as Donald Miller gets closer and closer to the final curtain, he reevaluates his relationship to it and finds gaps in his life he cannot explain. Not only fear, but regret and incertitude start getting to Miller in a period of his life where he can’t do anything about it. He’s a prisoner of circumstances and that is really fucking scary to me. Miller is not a strong, able bodied man. Even the flashback chapters feel like memories he’s suffering through.
I very much enjoyed The Croning. It might not have surprised me the way Laird Barron did with Swift to Chase for example, but it’s cosmic horror done right. It’s difficult to demand more from a horror novel than what you’ll find here. So many horror writers are obsessed with the great beyond, yet cannot lift the veil on it in a satisfying way. They set up an ominous and terrifying confrontation their imaginary cannot possibly live up to. This is not the case here. Barron doesn’t write checks he can cash. He’ll terrify you by page 100 and it just gets worse and worse (read better and better) from here. If you haven’t read Laird Barron yet, I would recommend starting with short stories first to get acquainted his his peculiar style, but if you’re looking to take that relationship to the next level, The Croning is what you need.