Night Shade Books, 2012, 320 pages
Strange things exist on the periphery of our existence, haunting us from the darkness looming beyond our firelight. Black magic, weird cults and worse things loom in the shadows. The Children of Old Leech have been with us from time immemorial. And they love us...
Donald Miller, geologist and academic, has walked along the edge of a chasm for most of his nearly eighty years, leading a charmed life between endearing absent-mindedness and sanity-shattering realization. Now, all things must converge. Donald will discover the dark secrets along the edges, unearthing savage truths about his wife Michelle, their adult twins, and all he knows and trusts. For Donald is about to stumble on the secret...
...of The Croning.
This is Laird Barron's debut novel, but he's already made an impression in the horror genre, appearing in most contemporary anthologies, and having several collections out, such as The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, which made my highly recommended list.
The Croning revisits the places and milieu seen in several of the stories found in that collection, particularly "The Men from Porlock," an eerie and frightening tale of loggers discovering a hidden community of creepy villagers deep in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest. In The Croning, geologist Donald Miller eventually finds himself in that same creepy village, or what's left of it, or one very much like it, and learns what sorts of dark powers his lovely, adventurous wife Michelle has been consorting with for the entire span of their marriage.
Laird Barron has particular stomping grounds he likes to use as his settings. Stephen King's stories are usually set in Maine, and he makes good use of those deep, dark Indian-haunted woods and the little towns up and down New England, full of both mundane and supernatural horrors. H.P. Lovecraft was also a New Englander, which showed very strongly in his stories as well. But both King and Lovecraft were willing to venture to other places, from the depths of space to Antarctica, and Laird Barron's novel, while mostly taking place in the northwest, has episodes in Mexican back alleys and European valleys. Michelle Miller, an anthropologist who spent much of her career researching the eerie and inexplicable, to the bemusement of her family, has dragged her husband unwittingly into her escapades. When his wife goes missing, Donald gets himself neck deep in trouble and very bad men trying to find her, and discovers everyone from government Men In Black to even more Very Bad Men are also tracking her... and him.
But this isn't a conspiracy thriller, it's a horror novel, so eventually we find out about the Children of Old Leech. Which is where Barron's prose really shines, because he has a knuckle-cracking knack for bloody, grotesque imagery, not just spilling gore for the cheap Saturday matinee gross-outs, but definitely the sort of eyeball-popping, gut-slithering, bone-crunching visceral violence that suits a story like this.
I compare him frequently to Stephen King, one of my favorite writers, who I also think is a very accomplished and underestimated writer's writer. Laird Barron, like King, has writing chops, with a distinctive style and way of handling plot and characters that I think will only get better over time. Likewise, it's impossible to miss the Lovecraft influence in Barron's work, but Barron is not a fussy New England WASP, he's an eyepatch-wearing sled dog racer from Alaska. Man has grizzle.
Which is maybe why his horrific alien things from beyond time and space are even scarier than Lovecraft's. While the Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu mythos were inimical to mankind, they were also cosmically indifferent to us. The monsters in The Croning enjoy tormenting and terrorizing humans. We may be germs, but we're germs who are fun to play with.
This was a good horror novel, but not quite a 10 out of 10. I think Laird Barron is more economical and tight in the short form, and it seemed at times that The Croning was meandering a bit, skipping between time periods and only getting to the good, gruesome stuff at the end. Still, it's definitely a must-read for anyone who likes the influences or genres I have mentioned above, and Laird Barron stays on my "favorite writers" list. 9/10.
Also by Laird Barron: My review of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.
My complete list of book reviews.