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 — e...read more