T.E. Grau's Reviews > The Croning

The Croning by Laird Barron
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Apr 12, 2012

it was amazing
Read from April 12 to 26, 2012

Laird Barron made me gain five pounds.

No, he didn’t hold me down and shovel deep fried butter wedges into my gaping yapper (although, dare to dream). What he did was write a colossal piece of fiction that was nearly impossible to put down, even at the gym, where I do much of my reading every morning. As I hazily recall, just before cracking open Barron’s debut novel The Croning some weeks back, I marched my happy ass off to the local garishly lit LA Fitness, eager to absorb a few pages in between moving weighted objects from one place to another. Forty-five minutes later I found myself on the floor, sprawled in some lazy stretching pose, peering at the pages in front of me with wide, slightly twitching eyes while sadly oblivious meatheads preened in front of mirrors around me. I was hooked, boated, and clubbed, and stayed that way until I closed the last page some blurry span of time later. As I became doughier, I also became more willing, suppliant. I was fattened and ready for the provender plate of dear Old Leech. Just like They wanted it.

Barron’s storytelling has that rare power of grip, weaving a particular strain of beautiful, sinewy prose that somehow possesses enough tiny microfibers to pick up the grit and sharp things swept into the corners of forgotten history. Both beautiful and monstrous, his evocative imagery lures you into the forest with the cadence of lost eons, leaves you in expectant silence, and then rips back the shading canopy, exposing you to the terrible realities that lie waiting under the thin veneers of bullshit “civilization”.

Not surprisingly, the writing is a reflection of the writer and his unique experience set. Barron grew up in the wilds of Alaska and spent several years fishing the murderous Bering Sea and racing the Iditarod on arctic tundra like some goddamn throwback to a time of brawnier, more road-tested scribes, who could lay down some poetic verse before laying you out in a pool of your own teeth for spilling his drink. Papa Hemingway. Jack London. Dashiell Hammett in a parka. All sitting in the corner booth of the Bar on the Borderland, waiting for their Weirdling pals from the Pulps to show up and swap stories of the violent and strange.

Indeed, his meaty, imaginative style is an amalgam of all of these rough and smooth elements, taking shape as a barrel-chested ballerina, a professional wrestler moonlighting as an ice skater. A pagan ninja hopped up on blood saki, beautifully weaponizing the sublime and stuffing horror into documented and geological mysteries long buried for a reason. Barron respectfully nods his heads to his forebearers, but is truly his own man, blazing his trail through the wild, untamed places to find the haunted ruins. The cryptic mounds. The dolmens... This is Weird fiction boiled hard.

Unfairly or not, Barron is often compared to (elder)godfather of cosmic horror H.P. Lovecraft, but in many ways, Barron’s work is far more bleak than the Gentleman from Providence. In Lovecraft’s Mythos, profoundly alien Great Old Ones and Outer Gods were mostly oblivious or apathetic to our meaningless existence. The horror often came from the realization of unimaginable truth. Much like Barron, HPL’s protagonists reflected the man, and as such, were bookish and aloof, ghosts in the coal powered machine, sneering strangers in the hated crowd. In Laird’s “Barronic Mythos” (an increasingly legitimate construct that I may or may not have just given a name), the unearthly entities not only know where we are and what we’re doing, they pop in from time for a bite, and/or to continually fuck with us just because they can. His characters ARE the crowd, reflecting all strata of life, from the aristocratic elite to the shithouse dogs. Barron understand them all, and spares none. All are claymation figurines caught up in a Game Unutterable organized before the beginning of time. All of them are doomed, and Barron allows us a front row seat to the slow, excruciating execution.

The Croning, Barron’s first full-length novel after making his bones and racking up accolades as a conjurer of short fiction, is a perfect reflection of what he does as a writer, while serving as a stage one culmination of much of his storytelling from the past decade. Characters, artifacts, and even families that were introduced in such short stories as “Mysterium Tremendum” and “The Men From Porlock” reappear in The Croning ready to cast off their potential and reveal their dreadful destiny. After a prologue of sorts, which serves as more than just a pitch-black origin story of Rumpelstiltskin, we are lead through three life stages of the affable geologist Don Miller, and together, we follow Don as he follows his brilliant and headstrong wife Michelle, forever living in her secretive shadow as she chases arcane anthropological discoveries around the world, when not locked away in her study researching her family tree, obsessing over the hard-to-find root system buried impossibly deep in the antediluvian loam. As Michelle pursues her own path that occasionally intersects with her husband, Don is left to reflect on his own life barely lived, and in doing so, starts to unspool – with the help of off-the-grid intelligence agencies, old money eccentrics, and even his own son – the mind shattering reality of what has been slithering around his ankles and through his home for decades, and his role in ongoing Outer Machinations older than the cosmos and twice as dangerous. Cults and conspiracies. Secret societies and powerful bloodlines with grand designs forged through unwholesome alliances dating back to the Stone Age. Mind snuffing dread born beyond the reach of time and space. This is the world of The Croning, and this is the writing of Laird Barron, who effectively synthesizes science fiction with science fact, creating a New Kind of Truth that can be as mortifying as it is wondrous. And it all works. Perfectly, it works.

Much like Bloch, Carter, Lumley, Campbell, Klein, and even Ligotti before him, and with the curiously scarred crone looming protectively behind him, Laird Barron has emerged as the new poster boy of cosmic horror, thankfully without a shred of pastiche anywhere in the shot. The Croning shows an already masterful writer fully in the throws of his own, unique style somehow getting better, and that bodes well for us, his readership, which grows by the hour. We are the Children of Old Leech, and we love you.

In the end, and after all of this convoluted blather, I supposed the highest compliment I can pay The Croning is that it’s the sort of novel I wish I had written had I not first read it. It’s a gift of cosmic naturalist horror that will force you to re-examine everything and everyone around you, if only slightly. The X-Files in print, only infinitely scarier and hitting far closer to home. It will make you fear the trees. It will make you check for zippers.

I reckon that’s not too shabby for a first novel.
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