THE CRONING, Laird Barron’s powerful, jagged new novel, opens with a variation on the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. If this seems an odd, even whimsical way for a horror novel to begin, Barron’s treatment of the materials sets any concerns swiftly to rest. In a voice bitterly contemporary, his narrative departs the court of the queen who recklessly promised her child’s life to the misshapen dwarf to follow her half-brother, elevated by her previous good fortune from groom to spy, as he attempts to ferret out the dwarf’s secret name. The spy’s investigations lead him first to a local merchant involved in unsavory (to put it mildly) practices, and then to the western wilderness of his unnamed kingdom. There, he discovers the dwarf’s connection to an old, odd temple whose principal deity is someone or something named Old Leech, whose emblem, a broken ring, is made of human bones. It’s also in the temple that the spy meets a woman whose strange mannerisms identify her as hailing from much farther away than the spy guesses. As the chapter continues, the spy secretly witnesses this mysterious woman undergoing a savage ritual involving the very dwarf for whose name he has been questing — the climax to which prompts him to flee his vantage point, horrified. While the chapter concludes with the spy successful in obtaining the object of his long search, it’s anything but a happy result, and this sets the tone for the novel to come. In The Croning, finding what you thought was the knowledge you were seeking only shows you that you never understood the nature of your search in the first place. “There are frightful things,” the strange woman tells — warns — the spy, and many of them masquerade as the monsters in the childhood stories we believed we had outgrown.
The rest of the narrative — the novel proper, as it were — focuses on Donald Miller, a geologist whose long marriage to his wife, Michelle, has been filled with incidents cryptic and terrifying, so much so that they have burned holes in the fabric of his memory. Shuttling back and forth between the present (when Don, an old man, suffers something like the early stages of Alzheimer’s) and 1980 (when Don, much younger, experiences a culmination of weird events — with occasional digressions — such as 1958 Mexico City), the novel consists of its protagonist’s forgotten history. It is a narrative built of lacunae, for which the broken ring in the first chapter is a fitting symbol. It is also a narrative of escalating irony, as, with each chapter that passes, our knowledge of Don’s circumstances grows, while his is constantly reset to zero.
In his brief lexicon of horror, The Darkening Garden, literary critic John Clute lists amnesia among the terms that are constitutive of the horror narrative. The Croning takes this idea and runs with it. For Don Miller, the worst thing that can happen is to remember in full, because to do so is to find himself confronted with an irony of another, even more traumatic kind. It arises from the revelation that our childhood anxieties about the monster in the basement, in the woods, were in fact correct, and, what is more, that the knowledge we have gained as adults — discoveries in the sciences hard and soft — only supports and reinforces those creatures’ existence. Knowledge will not save us.
This irony lies at the heart of the tradition of cosmic horror — exemplified by the work of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and especially H.P. Lovecraft — to which The Croning belongs. It is rooted in a kind of negative sublime, in which human experience is juxtaposed against a universe whose very vastness renders it inimical to us. It is an irony that can risk escaping into the purely abstract, and Barron hedges against this by yoking it to Don and Michelle’s long marriage, so that the novel’s large-scale disclosures occasion revelations of a more intimate nature concerning her steadily-deepening relationship with the monstrous; the abyss of the cosmos paralleled, and perhaps exceeded, by an abyss of the self. If there is one thing with which narratives of cosmic horror have had difficulty, it has been conveying a range of emotions; The Croning is, among other things, a tortured love story, suggesting that the track that leads to the pit might be carved by our deepest desire.
Beyond its themes, the novel’s connections to the horror tradition extend in other directions, to what might be called the narratological. With each chapter of The Croning, Barron experiments with a different way to tell a horror story, from the retold fairy tale to the foreign adventure, from the visit to a sinister house to the fireside story, from the camping trip to the subterranean exploration. It’s a strategy that recalls Lovecraft’s major tales, each of which is a consideration of how a horror narrative might be constructed, as well as more recent novels such as Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, in which the novel incorporates the principal narrative models of its chosen genre within itself.
Prior to The Croning, Laird Barron was best known for his shorter fiction, the majority of which can be found in two collections, The Imago Sequence and Occultation. (There is also a short novel, The Light Is the Darkness.) Following in paths struck by writers ranging from Lovecraft to Stephen King, Barron has established certain links among his stories that suggest a larger, shared context in which they occur. The Croning is also set in this context, and while it is not necessary to have read any of those other stories to enjoy the new novel, for those who have, there is an additional pleasure to be had in watching a writer continue to fill in the map of the country he has discovered.
It’s a rare year in which a superabundance of fine horror novels — novels that reward rereading — appears. That said, most years bring at least a handful of novels whose titles can stand to be mentioned alongside Matheson’s I Am Legend, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and King’s The Shining. To this year’s list, add Laird Barron’s The Croning.