Don Miller, the protagonist of Laird Barron’s debut novel The Croning, may be dismayed by the “dense and convoluted pattern” of the world in which he finds himself, but when Miller fears that its “fuzzy shapes would resolve into a nightmare image of sufficient potency to smash his mind completely,” this may ultimately affirm our sense of a short story teller who is still only posing as a novelist. The first two chapters of The Croning are undeniably short stories. The first recalls those smart-alecky “modern fairy tales” which were so fashionable in literary circles a few years ago. It submits a clever, trendy “Rumpelstiltskin,” the Miller’s daughter is “no fucking alchemist,” and the Spy is jauntily complaining about the “crap weather.” Barron cannot write a whole novel like this, and so it promises to be only temporary.
Particularly poor writing is waiting under the dolmen, where the Spy glimpses “thirteen” hooded figures – as if he would have actually counted them. The second chapter is a short story set in Mexico, but there is too much brilliance and extravagance to this tale, and everything glides past us without the realism necessary to sustain horror or even a decided sense of atmosphere. The action is slick and only loosely connected, rather like that of a movie trailer. The writing is clipped and perfunctory, as if rifling impatiently through events. When Miller enters a cantina and a dog “tore off a chunk” of his leg, it is too quick, too abrupt, as if somebody had simply collected a ticket from him. Kinder, Ramirez and their henchmen are flimsy paper characters who seem to be blown away by the first puff of wind.
Later, the novel pauses for Miller’s son Kurt to tell a story about seeing a witch at a séance, which has the wholesome quality of a good urban myth. Miller and his wife Michelle venture on a lively road trip to a house party in the country. The Croning may be a lot more than a constellation of short stories, but it is not quite a complete novel. Yet beyond the bumpy, uneven surface, its faults are not merely structural but aesthetic.
Barron is best at realism and observational writing, and The Croning is most successful when it sets up home in Miller’s farmhouse, observing Miller’s marriage. The writing often seems to collect its wits at these points. After crying, Michelle is described as looking “scrubbed and cheerful in a runner-up at the beauty pageant kind of way.” A neighbouring mansion is steeped in history “like an old blackened tea bag left to wither at the edge of a saucer.” In old photographs from the war “everyone was armed and smiling like movie stars between takes in a historical production.” When Miller remembers how his grandfather’s delicate hands had “hardened into the knotty, blunt-fingered hands of the elderly, the spent,” we may agree that ageing is ten times more horrible than any interplanetary attack.
The Millers and their kin are often described in a chatty, gossipy tone, which renders The Croning unusually pleasant to read for a horror novel. Perhaps Barron should just abandon horror altogether and author something along the lines of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. But in Barron’s world, human existence is one of perpetual discomfort. By day, Barron’s protagonists are either drunk or painfully hungover; at night, their sleep is restless and raided by nightmares. Both indicate the fundamental suspense of the human condition, which, we will later learn, amounts to the anxiety of something which is vaguely aware that it is waiting to be eaten.
As characters, Barron’s humans may not have much meat on them. If Don was a narrator, he would have “unreliable narrator” written on his passport, but his dementia is otherwise only formally declared, rather like a potential conflict of interest. He is adamant that his son Kurt has an “eminently prosaic” mind, whilst Kurt assumes that he may be susceptible to hallucinations. It may be merely that the father does not know his son very well, but the problem is that neither do we. Kurt’s narrative voice turns out to be the same as everybody else’s in this novel.
Barron invests in the characters of Don and his wife with a greater ambition. In contrast to the supercool youngsters of the Twilight generation (who incidentally live on the other side of Washington’s Olympic National Park) the stars of The Croning are like a cranky, faintly disreputable uncle and aunt. Both in their eighties, they could nevertheless drink and party the whole of Forks High School under the table. Although he now keeps his dentures in a jar beside the bed, Don can still hold down a triple Glenlivet. In chapter five, we observe his (then) middle-aged wife dancing on the tables in a redneck bar and greedily rolling a joint.
In our world, this pair would be the life and soul of any party, but in Barron’s extravagant reality, Don forever worries that he is slowing down, wondering “how much more of this getting-old stuff he could take.” He admits that his “phantasmagoria” may not be the product of aliens or even dementia, but “exhaustion or heavy drinking or payback for prior indiscretions.” If the writing was more realistic, we may be inclined to believe him.
The horror is most functional when it pops up within the Millers’ marriage. It seems that Old Leech has found a juicy spot in the male of the species in the distance between them and their womenfolk. Don and Michelle are an old married couple who have uneasily “settled into their respective roles with clearly delineated boundaries.” The conspiracy against the Miller family will be partly orchestrated by its own females, with Don’s wife and daughter-in-law exchanging secret messages in the dead of night. However much we may admire Michelle, we end up taking Don’s side. We are suspicious of Michelle’s life outside of the marriage, her trips, and her strange friends, and we watch over Don whilst his wife is absent. The paranoia twinges pleasantly throughout the novel like a slight flesh wound.
The male characters eventually band together, along with the male readers of the novel, in a brotherhood which wobbles at a certain point between a reluctant misogyny and an obscure, possibly misplaced homophobia. Because, of course, those invading extraterrestrials are as gay as a daffodil. Michelle may remain fond of Don, and she can still surprise him by trying to suck his cock whilst he is behind the wheel of his sedan, but our universe can offer a lot more than Michelle. Don learns this lesson when, “the tongue of a colossal, putrefying worm murmured and cajoled and offered to enter his anus and lodge in his cerebral cortex, to inject him with a love greater than the Milky Way.” The nightly hump with Michelle can hardly hope to compare, surely?
The first disadvantage of this horror is that it is too complicated and it thereby lacks the mystery of real horror. Real horror has the purity of moonlight. As automatically as Kantean beauty, it reaches into the heart and plucks a chord which will keep on ringing. The flesh begins to creep just as we are aware that it is creeping. In keeping with their cosmic status as food, Barron’s protagonists stand no chance against Old Leech and they are defeated from the very beginning. Our job should be merely to observe how these people will be garnished. Yet we find ourselves being gradually sucked into an intricate cosmic puzzle rather than simply following a recipe.
Whilst the dopey Don staggers through the novel, from one crisis to the next, we can cultivate the detached curiosity of detectives. Eventually, an explanation will emerge which will explain every detail of the inexplicable. Yet this involves too much hard work to qualify as real horror, particularly if one is longing to be frightened by the story rather than to understand it. By the time that Don demands from his nemesis Bronson Ford, “I say again, who are you?,” we are surely beyond caring, having long gained a sufficient idea of the conspiracy.
One comments, by way of explaining this novel through its context, that The Croning is the latest stage in the troubled history of Weird Fiction, an initially promising genre which has wandered off into long-lasting disreputability due to the execrable prose of its most famous practitioner, H.P. Lovecraft. Barron is by no means desperate enough to match Lovecraft’s outrages against English Literature. At some level of consciousness, perhaps Barron’s light, peppy narration compensates for the cumbersome direness of Lovecraft’s own writing. As with Lovecraft, standardised references reappear throughout Barron’s fiction. Barron’s fans will undoubtedly spot a certain dolmen in the woods, that black guide, and a grand old hotel called The Broadsword. These allusions add up to a secret pattern of supposedly deeper meaning for members of any prospective literary cult to appreciate. This box-ticking is, however, hardly conducive to horror.
Yet perhaps The Croning was never supposed to be frightening in the first place. It may be all an unfortunate misunderstanding.
The second disadvantage of Barron’s horror is that everything is sumptuous and over the top, absolutely fabulous in its dreariness and squalour and dread. The dungeons in Mock Castle are equipped with “rack and iron maiden and dissecting table.” The limbless ones “squirmed from the darkness to join the fun.” Half of the sentences in this novel seem to be incomplete without the word “darling!” at the end of them. Corny stage whispers cross the cosmos: “They watch. They watch you, Donald. They love you.” The fambly cat Boris chuckles and croons “I’m a good kitty.” Miller’s neighbour returns from the darkness to whisper bitchily, “I’ve got something very important to tell you. It’s about Michelle.” The arch-fiend Bronson Ford first appears dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy.
When Uncle Argyle suggests a round of ghost stories, we may wonder whether ghosts are truly flamboyant enough to be dreamt of in Barron’s philosophy. Kurt’s story is advertised as being “very frightening,” but we may know Barron well enough by now to guess that this will not be true. The story turns out to be not frightening, but merely conventional, without the gaudy flourishes and shrill histrionics of Barron’s regular mayhem.
It should be frightening to reflect upon the possibility of aliens discreetly descending upon planet Earth, to inflict excruciating and unending tortures upon largely random human beings for the sheer hell of it. Somehow it is not. The Mexican cult members will suffer “a thousand-thousand deaths in a pit that Dante couldn’t have imagined in a dozen lifetimes.” But this may strike us as being merely sensational, or even faintly inviting. That torture pit is probably like a bad trip or a wild party, with its human occupants relishing each extreme sadomasochistic, flesh-melting thrill. Naughty, fruity Uncle Argyle will by now be a veteran of the torture pit, rolling his eyes at the next spanking.
Seriously, what is Barron thinking? Has he not the remotest instinct or competence for horror? Or is his eye on a completely different prize? This is the question at the heart of The Croning. Is our dark stranger lurking in the literary undergrowth with the intention of throttling us or making a grab for our balls?
As Tychy has previously pontificated, Barron typically conceives of a drearily heterosexual reality which is gradually encroached upon by “forces which are extravagant, gorgeous, gaudy and – if not necessarily homosexual (which is in itself a depressingly human concept) – then quite definitely camp.” These otherworldly powers offer an escape from a humdrum humanity which turns out to be “as worth saving as virginity.”
In her landmark 1964 essay “Notes on “Camp”,” the feminist Susan Sontag remarked in passing that the “origins of Camp taste” could be found in 18th century Gothic novels. Sontag had defined the “essence of Camp” as “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” and such extravagant artificiality is often evident in the more ludicrous examples of Gothic horror, those stunning thunderstorms and outrageous castles. Perhaps The Croning provides an ultimate literary destination, where human “nature” will be completely overshadowed by a synthetic alien glamour. The Camp and the Gothic finally achieve a perfect marriage and set up their dream home under Barron’s dolmen.
[On the Weird front, Tychy previously reviewed Thomas Ligotti’s short fiction. Ed.]