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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Croning - Laird Barron

I'm not a horror consumer, generally speaking. I've never seen what I would call a "scary movie" and authors like Stephen King or Dean Koontz or (dare I say it) H.P. Lovecraft have rarely done it for me. They rely heavily on ambiance and tone, oftentimes leave me wanting more when it comes to plot. Thus, I fully admit to not being Laird Barron's target audience. Once again in an effort to push the boundaries of what I read, I delved into The Croning with vigor. What I found was an accomplished piece of fiction that never quite coalesced, succeeding scene by scene, but not as a novel in its entire.

The novel begins with a re-imagining of a the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. Already one of the darker Brothers Grimm stories, Barron takes it up another notch melding a creepy dwarf (er.. little person?) with occult sacrifice rituals. Things then jump to Donald Miller and his wife Michelle, in 1950's Mexico. Some bad shit happens, and we rejoin the couple in the present where Donald is a doddering semi-retiree whose mind sees threats in every shadow. But as I always say (not really), just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.

How well The Croning connects these disparate times in the Miller family history (the Miller is a character in the Rumpelstiltskin myth you may recall) determined its success as a novel. The truth is, they don't connect all that well. The first section is overly long and adds very little to the story other than setting up a thoroughly disturbing milieu. As a story of its own, it's perfection, lending itself perfectly to novelette format, somewhat comparable to Don DeLillo's genius Pafko at the Wall, which was the prologue to his opus, Underworld. Likewise, the Mexican post-prologue-but-not-quite-the-main-narrative, has its own beginning, middle, and end, telling a compelling and haunting story of a husband desperate to find his missing spouse.

The main narrative then is where the bulk of the plot takes place, following Miller in his old age as he comes to grips with the occult. Barron riffs on senility, pondering what might happen if Miller's confusion was the result of outside intervention and not merely his advanced age. He calls into question his family, his friends, and his memory. In short, Donald Miller is tortured a page at a time, and done so with a master's sense for suspense.

By the end I'd realized Barron wasn't trying to create a densely layered plot, but to build tension over time. It works, but I also realized that horror as a subgenre may not be for me. Despite exceptional prose, masterful pacing, and incredible ability to create motif, I constantly kept asking myself, "Where's this going?" In effect, I struggled to grasp the plot or theme that The Croning was designed to accomplish. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't necessarily trying to do either.  Instead, Laird Barron was trying to scare the shit out of me. Repeatedly.

Scene by scene he raised the hair on my arms. He had me looking over my shoulder and leaving lights on. He set the tone from the first page and carried it through to the last. For this reader though, it just wasn't enough. I wanted something more from The Croning. I kept waiting for the twist to come that connected it all together. It never came.

I suspect that horror adherents will find more to love than I did.

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