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Laird Barron
The Croning

Night Shade Books
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-597-80230-7
Publication Date: 05-01-2012
246 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 01-10-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Horror  Science Fiction  Fantasy  Mystery  General Fiction  

Our lives are so crowded with events and emotions that it is difficult for us to comprehend just how old everything around us is. But in those odd moments alone, at night, staring into the blackness of the shadows in our rooms, or into the starry vault above, we can get intimations of just how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. We can look in the mirror, look in our eyes and in that endless pit, right there in the center, we can plunge, forever falling, never hit bottom, an unheard scream in a silence that swallows our souls. Such thoughts are few and far between. They're unwelcome and uncommon — unless you're reading Laird Barron's novel 'The Croning.'

The unfortunate soul at the center of 'The Croning' is Donald Miller, but he does not start the story. To craft the sensation of deep time that runs like the River Styx though this novel, Barron takes us back to undated antiquity where we see the story of Rumpelstiltskin play out in a gritty, terrorizing manner. We then meet Donald Miller in 1958, with his wife Michelle in Mexico. When she disappears, he ignores a warning to let her return on her own, and sets out to find her. What he finds — and what readers find with him — is a vision of the world, of the universe, of life itself that shrivels the soul and turns shadows into swallowing voids.

Barron's novel is intricately constructed and cunningly plotted. Barron cuts back and forth between the present, when Miller, now on the wrong side of 80 years old, finds his sieve-like memory a blessing and earlier slices of Miller's life that cast shadows with more substance than Miller might prefer. Michelle, his wife, is still youthful. She has apparently given up her search for a "lost tribe" and instead taken up studying her own family history. Knowledge may indeed prove to be power, but as Barron's dark spell takes over, it's the sort of power that happily consumes children to enjoy their fear and crushes human souls with no more care than a man who steps on a parade of ants on the sidewalk.

Barron's power as a storyteller is anchored in his prose, in sentences that make real for the reader historical and contemporary settings. There's a gritty, earthy undertone, and a staccato feel that scratches away the light and replaces it with inimical darkness. Barron seems to have scraped away everything that is unnecessary, leaving behind only the muscles and tendons of a story that is gripping and intense. 'The Croning' feels almost forbidden. One reads it as if it should be censored, even though Barron is a model of restraint with regards to on-the-page violence and its end result. Barron's prose induces the kind of primal unease a rabbit feels when it steps into the shadow of a predator.

'The Croning' benefits from a variety of settings both in time and place, all of them impeccably rendered. As we encounter Miller in all his incarnations, Barron creates a perfectly balanced mystery. Hidden in the tough-as-nails prose there are hints and connections that create a much bigger picture than any single scene; it's a mystery of cosmic and soul-shrinking proportions. Putting the pieces together is a true joy.

But Barron does not just hint — he delivers the goods, and not just in the denouement, but throughout the novel in the historical settings with deep atmosphere, and actual fear as well. Donald Miller's memory may be shattered, but as we read the novel, we do the job for him. Barron manages many truly frightening and disturbing moments, with hints of the haunted house here and revelations to hurt our minds that follow. 'The Croning' is a superb and authentically terrorizing novel that finds a mirror for the darkness in our souls in a cosmos that is, most unfortunately, not at all an empty void.

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