For all of his influence on a generation of horror writers, there may be no writer who's inspired more lackluster imitations - or whose followers so often miss the point - as H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft specialized in horror on a cosmic, utterly alien scale - a world just beyond ours, where angles didn't align, where colors we had never seen might exist, and where horrific elder gods slumbered - luckily for us. They were stories more about dread and unease than anything else, which has made it more and more difficult for modern writers to mimic his style - we need our payoffs, we need our plotting, we need our confrontations, and Lovecraft had no interest in any of those.
But one of the rare exceptions to that rule lays in the work of Laird Barron, whose work is undeniably Lovecraftian, yes, but also wholly his own, bringing Lovecraft's command of tone and unease into the modern world, telling more "conventional" stories without ever compromising on the alien, malevolent force just beyond the range of our vision. But while Barron cut his teeth on short story collections, the question raised by The Croning - his first novel - is whether he could manage that same feat in a longer, full-length story?
Oh, yes he can. Make no mistake, though: The Croning demands your patience. It will keep you uneasy for a long amount of time, even anxious, but it's going to make you wait for the payoffs - but when they come, there's no holding back. Mind you, the payoffs don't only come at the end of the novel; in keeping with his short story roots, Barron writes The Croning almost as a series of eight connected short stories, albeit ones which tell a single, ongoing story.
None of which, however, will prepare you for the opening chapter, which finds Barron retelling the legend of Rumpelstiltskin as something more haunting, something darker, something more nightmarish and primal in its intentions. It's an odd opening to a book that's otherwise set in the modern day, telling the story of an academic named Don whose relationship with his wife constantly skirts the edge of darker, more sinister mythologies. For Michelle, his wife, is an anthropologist, and her fascination with some ancient tribes seems to have had an impact on Don's whole life - something that he is only beginning to understand. And as Barron leaps back and forth throughout several key incidents in Don's life, we start to understand the wider pattern, but only as we also realize that there won't be much to be done to prevent any of it from unfolding.
Barron's pacing here is a thing of beauty. Yes, for some readers, The Croning may feel slow and lethargic, but for those who can appreciate his work, The Croning unfolds like a nightmare - relentless, uncertain, and indescribable. Barron's patience makes his payoffs and resolutions all the more powerfully effective, giving them an anxiety and a tension they couldn't otherwise have. But helping that along, in no small way, is Barron's incredible writing, which is literate and thoughtful in a way that few genre writers bother with:
"Neither light nor heat could withstand it; to gaze into that nullity and to comprehend its scope was to have one’s humanity snuffed. Only the inhuman thrived in out there in deep black."
"For they were the stuff of nightmares; maggoty abominations possessed of incalculable and vile intellect that donned flesh and spines of men and beasts to shield themselves from the sun and enable themselves to walk upright instead of merely slithering."
Those quotes give you a sense of Barron's writing, but can't quite convey what it's like to lose yourself in his words - and, more importantly, in the nightmarish visions he can convey. More than anything, Barron's prose builds a world - both a real one and one beyond the veil - that has a way of overwhelming you, suffocating you with horrors until there's no escape.
In short, it's horror for horror connoisseurs. It's not for casual readers, and it's not for those who can't handle their horror unflinching, unblinking, and nightmarish. But for those brave enough to handle its pages, you're in for something unforgettable. Just don't plan on having easy dreams for a while.