I enjoy Lovecraft, but he’s never frightened me. I’m not sure if this makes me a bad horror fan or a bad reader, but it’s true. Lovecraft and, by extension, the “cosmic” flavor of horror that he’s credited with founding have always lacked a bit of punch with me, even while I can understand the underlying literary merit of these stories. Perhaps it is because I’m too literal minded. I don’t need a story to have plausibly (I rarely check under the bed for monsters anymore), but I also like to be able to put names on my fears.
Acclaimed short story writer Laird Barron has garnered a reputation as a “modern day Lovecraft” but I would contest that this comparison is a disservice to his debut novel The Croning, because The Croning unsettled me in a much more tangible way than an army of Lovecraft’s eldritch gods has ever been able to.
The Croning is a era-jumping (it begins with a sinister retelling of Rumpelstiltskin) tale concerning secret societies worshipping unknowable, all-powerful space beings, but the fears it plays upon are so much more common place. No matter how ethereal his baddies, the ideas that Barron explores are all real-world, fears of betrayal, the deterioration of one’s memory, aging, having kids, and the suspicion that you’ll never truly know the people you love. I don’t know about you, but those are some scary topics for me.
A better corollary might be Lovecraft by way of Peter Straub, as Barron’s prose is elegant and verbose without ever getting in the way of his storytelling.
A slight, concise novel, The Croning is hard to synopsize without spoiling. Our protagonist, Don, finds that there is more to the world than he ever imagined. Octogenarian Don Miller’s getting a notoriously spotty memory in his old age, but as we jump to important moments in his life and learn about his love affair with his wife Michelle, the cause of his forgetfulness begins to look a lot more sinister. Our temporal hopping takes us to creepy family estates, Mexico City, and into the depths of the earth, but what anchors us is Don’s likeability, his struggle to uncovers the mysteries he’s confronted with, and the difficult decisions he has to make.
Academia is a common setting for these types of stories, but having Don and Michelle run in these circles is not just an excuse to have them travelling to archaeological sites and dumping exposition, but is instead one of the central themes of the story. The idea that knowledge is power, and that the power dynamic can shift drastically in a relationship when one partner is much more “in the know” than the other. It’s no coincidence that we never get to see Don be the cave exploring “man’s man” he was in his youth, while his wife is still jet-setting way beyond middle age.
The story may be larger than I’m making it sound, but these two characters are the heart of the tale Barron’s telling. Sure The Croning may be “about” a decades spanning conspiracy, but it is the way Barron limits the scope, giving us only glimpses of the larger picture, that makes the book so compelling. Barron understands that if you’re going to have a story about how insignificant man is in the universe, you’ve got to have a sense of scale.
I loved this book. Highly recommended. I’ve been on such a run of reading great books lately, that I feel like I should be turning this luck to the lottery instead.
A quick–geeky–tip: The Croning is available as an ebook from Baen ebooks(it’s not available through the kindle store-proper, but this file is easy to get onto your reader), but I saw the hardcover edition while browsing Barnes & Noble and kind of regretted going digital with this one. It’s a pretty book.