by Laird Barron
320 pages, Night Shade Books
Review by S.P. Miskowski
Laird Barron’s debut novel, published by Night Shade Books, opens with a fairy tale most readers will recognize: A miller’s daughter spins straw into gold with the help of a strange, misshapen man who demands equally strange payment. When the spinning is done the miller’s daughter marries the king, and must reward her magical benefactor with the gift of her firstborn son. The only escape from the contract is to guess the benefactor’s real name by the time he returns to collect the child.
Assuming reader familiarity with at least one incarnation of this fairy tale, Barron describes the arduous journey undertaken by the queen’s henchman–who is also her brother and lover–to ferret out the name of the benefactor. Barron’s spin includes profane and anachronistic language, a canine sidekick, and a gruesome discovery: The benefactor is not a one-off con artist. He is ancient and mysterious, insinuating himself into the lives and dreams of thousands of people. He is and is not what he appears to be. And he has henchmen of his own.
Following the fairy tale we pick up our main story. Don Miller and Michelle Mock are married and by all appearances madly in love. His area of expertise is geology, hers is anthropology. Over the course of five decades they travel together and separately to remote places all around the globe. They have children. They grow old together. On paper this seems like a perfect marriage. Yet something has happened to cause a permanent, subterranean rift.
Beginning with a bizarre event in Mexico in 1958 Don and Michelle have taken different spiritual paths. Apparently successful and well matched, their surface lives conceal what may be irreconcilable differences. Michelle has grown strong and independent while Don has drifted inward, developing weird phobias and sensing danger just beneath the skin of nearly everyone he meets.
In his two story collections, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Occultation, the author has explored the consequences of ignoring myth and recurring tropes when they emerge in the modern world. The Croning delves deeper into collective consciousness for the underlying themes that bind and separate individuals over the course of a lifetime. The fairy tale that opens the novel is not a diversion. The timeless fears that created the fairy tale form the underpinnings to a much larger myth, incorporating Cthulhu-inspired ancient beings as well as anthropological adventures, geological history, and a dynamic portrait of the war between the sexes.
Setting aside the complexity and weight of the narrative, this novel would still be a must-read for the unique style of the author’s prose. No one anywhere combines two-fisted noir with the best traditions of horror quite like Laird Barron. The result is rich with detail, broad in scope, and often shocking in its implications. In Barron’s universe the flutter of a butterfly’s wing is connected not only to a hurricane but to possible car crashes, probable shady business deals, nightmares emerging from the shadows to demand a seat at the breakfast table, and pretty much everything in the attic and basement of every house you’ve ever occupied. This is a writer who comes closer than any artist I can name in capturing the whole shebang of humanity’s place in the cosmos. If you think that’s a crazy exaggeration, you haven’t read his fiction. Read it.