In this debut novel by award-winning short fiction author Laird Barron, nothing is quite what it seems. A Lovecraftian mélange of passion and hidden powers, the story of The Croning is told through the eyes of septuagenarian geologist Donald Miller who, given his advanced age and frequent memory lapses, makes for a pleasingly unreliable narrator.
After a series of unsettling and occasionally horrific set pieces, the narrative flits backwards and forwards through time as Donald recalls various expeditions to far-flung corners of the world, where strange encounters may – or may not – have happened. Donald’s memories reveal the secrets of his curious life one patient step at a time. At their heart is a series of strange truths about his wife Michelle and their twin children. Once completed, the jigsaw puzzle of their intertwined lives proves to be one of cosmic proportions.
The great strength of this novel is Barron’s ability to spend many pages building a detailed real world for his complex characters to inhabit, then to skew it deftly sideways with sudden flashes of macabre invention that show an altogether inhuman otherworld skulking scratch-deep beneath its surface. For this reason, to read The Croning is to experience a slow burn, but it’s one worth succumbing to as all those apparently untrustworthy threads weave themselves into coherence.
Barron’s considerable success with short fiction to some extent informs the novel’s structure. The prologue – an irreverent retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that manages to be simultaneously witty and chilling – might almost stand alone, as might some of the later vignettes. Everything here is ultimately relevant, however, from the meticulously interlocked narrative to the well-developed characters (in particular the extraordinarily sensual eighty-something Michelle) and the vivid prose, all of which combine to create a novel which is more than the sum of its parts … and which promises to linger long after reading.
Laird Barron is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of The Imago Sequence and Occultation. His first novel, The Croning, will be published by Nightshade Books on 8th May 2012.