Laird Barron’s The Croning

I love Laird Barron’s writing!  I first came across his work in the horror collection Haunted Legends; Barron’s story, “The Redfield Girls”, really stood out to me above all the others in terms of its eloquence and eeriness. Since then, I’ve read both of Barron’s short story collections, The Imago Sequence (2007) and Occultation (2010), and been mightily impressed with both.

This year, Barron’s first novel was published by Nightshade Books, The Croning (2012):

The Croning is a very dark and modern interpretation of a classic fairy tale (which was already rather dark to begin with).  I found the novel to be a little challenging, for reasons that I will mention below, but it is also an undeniably creepy and potent story and an excellent first novel for Barron.

It is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that The Croning is inspired by the classic tale of Rumpelstiltskin; this is revealed in its first few sentences.  Most of you probably already know the fairy tale, which in short involves a bargain between a queen and a mysterious imp: the queen must guess the imp’s name within three days or surrender her first-born child.  The Brothers Grimm version of the story is creepy enough, but Barron ends up sharing with us the real story, which is even nastier and doesn’t have quite so happy an ending.

The Croning is set for the most part in modern times, however, and focuses on the aftermath and consequences of the unnatural bargain.  We are introduced to Donald Miller, an aging geologist and academic who now spends his semi-retirement with his wife Michelle at her ancestral home, secreted in the remote wilds of Washington state.  As the story begins, life seems quite placid.  However, events in the present and flashbacks to the past suggest that Miller’s serene existence is going to be torn apart, as unfathomable and ancient horrors come to collect their long-delayed payment from him.

The novel starts somewhat unconventionally, as it effectively has three introductions to it! The first chapter retells part of the story of Rumpelstiltskin, introducing us to a secret history that will have great importance later.  The second chapter tells a bizarre and traumatic experience in Miller’s life, when his wife goes missing in a bad part of Mexico and Donald foolishly goes searching for her by himself.  The third chapter introduces us to Donald Miller in modern times, as bad things start to come to a head.

This triple introduction could be a bit daunting to some readers, and those unfamiliar with Barron’s work might feel that things develop rather slowly during the first few chapters.  Barron is a master of building up slow tension and developing subtle horror, however, and many seemingly insignificant events turn out to be of great significance.  Furthermore, the unusual introduction pays off by the end of the book, when the significance of Miller’s early life is revealed and the retelling of Rumpelstiltskin is concluded and tied to Miller with horrifying effect.

One of the things that constantly amazes me with Barron’s writing is his ability to convey a powerful image with an economy of words.  Without giving anything away, there is a story-within-a-story of a haunted department store later in the book.  The ghost is given perhaps two sentences worth of description, all second-hand description from another character, but I immediately had a powerful (and, I might add, disturbing) image of the apparition that stayed with me for the rest of the day.

The Croning is a novel written in a somewhat unconventional style, but it pays off as a chilling and effective tale of terror.  It is a great first novel for Laird Barron, and should be essential reading for anyone with a passion for painstakingly-crafted masterfully-written horror.

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