Monday, May 14, 2012

The Croning

When a writer known and acclaimed for his short fiction releases a first novel, there's a temptation to frame one's response in terms of the writer's command of the "new" form: is she as good at the novel as she is at the short story? The different lengths place different demands on a writer's skill, and devices that work in short fiction may fall flat in long. Some writers are undeniably good at one and not at the other. The trouble with applying this framework to a debut is that there's only the one novel to go by. A single awkward story would not demonstrate a loss of command, and a single awkward novel doesn't demonstrate its absence. You may gather from this lead-in that I didn't find The Croning, the first novel by Laird Barron, fully successful. It takes a while to get going, and doesn't take full advantage of the various types of added complexity that its length allows. But Barron's stylistic virtues-- charged, ironic dialogue, imagery that is cosmically remote yet viscerally disturbing, and an atmospheric world that mixes noir, espionage, and horror-- are intact, and the last quarter of the novel is a tour de force of Lovecraftian cosmicism.

After an opening chapter that blends fantasy and horror in an unusual retelling of a well-known fairy tale, The Croning is the story of Don Miller, a generally mild-mannered geologist, and the rather rowdier and more dangerous existence to which he is intermittently exposed by virtue of his marriage to Michelle Mock, an anthropologist whose interest in hollow earth theories and in the eccentricities of her very old family hasn't prevented her from becoming well-respected and an associate of certain movers and shakers. Different chapters show us Don in youth (a trip to Mexico during which his wife disappears and his efforts to find her lead to one of a few odd lacunae in his memory) and middle age (an unconventional wake and a dangerous excursion in the Pacific Northwest), but the major narrative takes place in the present day, when he's an elderly man, forgetful but, despite his wife's secretive behavior and other quirks, generally content. Until strange things begin to happen...

Which takes a while. The non-linear structure allows for some striking early scenes, but the novel is about half over before any real urgency develops, and some of that material (particularly in the present day chapters) could easily be removed without any loss to plot, character, or atmospheric effect. Because of the way the relationship between Don and Michelle becomes important to the resolution, these chapters might have been used to develop their characterization, making it clear what holds them together as a couple despite certain evident differences in temperament. But there isn't anything like that, and the connection between the two remains thinly drawn, a variation on the femme fatale and the poor schlub who gets caught up in her wake. There's nothing wrong with that-- it's a valid horror trope-- but in a novel a bit more depth in the dynamic would be welcome.

The flip side of the inessential material earlier in the novel is a sense that later events don't provide the tying-together of threads that makes for a fully-satisfying resolution. Barron puts a lot of characters and settings in play, blending different varieties of dark fiction to suggest a dark world of elite decadence, government and scientific intrigue, and malevolent or coldly indifferent alien forces. (The dark sarcasm and depraved indifference with which characters allude to these powers, part of Barron's debt to the cynicism of noir, gives his dialogue its distinctive appeal.) Part of the point of a milieu like this is that it remains allusive only (and alert readers will catch references to other Barron fiction), but the degree to which the climax of The Croning incorporates what has come before is underwhelming, more appropriate perhaps to a novella than a novel. On the other hand, the element that had seemed least relevant comes back with a vengeance, adding a human dimension to the epic terror of the ending.

And that terror is substantial. From time to time I find aspects of Barron's prose awkward, but on the whole he is a master of language that combines the cold awareness of universal vastness and human insignificance that characterizes cosmic horror with cruder details calculated to create visceral discomfort.
Then he was asleep again and dreaming of Michelle. She stood naked and smiling before the entrance of a cave. Strange, bony hands emerged from the shadows and caressed her, drew her into the cave. The moon flared.
The Man in the Moon turned his misshapen head, beamed green cheese eyes upon Don's cocooned form. The Man in the Moon said, It feels good, my boy. A black swarm of insects poured from his chasm mouth, took wing and scattered into the icy void of limitless space.
--the capsule revolved and the Earth slewed below the rim of infinite night and someone's water bottle floated toward the nose of the shuttle, someone's belt, an alabaster string of lower intestine, a wristwatch, the crucifix and rosary end over end. The Lieutenant vomited inside his helmet; window plates turned black as empty sockets and bloody light seeped from somewhere deep within the ticking heart of melted circuitry. One of the others babbled through the headset and beneath that a discordant tone, an animal growling, wires sputtering, a train wreck, an avalanche and who was shrieking, who--
As fine as those passages are for those of us who like this sort of thing, there are some in the final chapter that are even better. And the chapters leading up to that, in which two expeditions in different time periods come to sinister ends, create powerful narrative momentum that make the book difficult to put down. If the beginning and middle were as tightly constructed and disturbing as the end, The Croning would be a modern masterpiece of horror. As it is, it's still a fine novel, easily recommended to admirers of Barron's short fiction, and certainly worth consideration by any reader of hard-edged contemporary horror.

The publisher supplied an electronic review copy of this book.