The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning by Laird Barron
The Croning by Laird Barron

Something amazing happens in Laird Barron’s The Croning.

The hero saves the day simply by forgetting to act. He agrees to let his mind rot away (perhaps the most terrifying fate of all) while his witchy woman makes off with their newborn grandchild.

That’s the happiest ending possible in this twisted tale that combines the legend of Rumplestilskin, Ira Levin’s secret satanic societies, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mythos.

Laird Barron is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His stuff is way out there, there’s a palpable sense of the strange in his prose, and he uses cools words like sybarites and decorticate.

Protagonist Don Miller is the last to learn he’s a pawn in an ancient game. His wife is a witch hell-bent on double-crossing a race of demons that long to suck humanity dry and wipe the Earth clean.

Every smart husband knows when to back off, and Miller has learned not to pry into his wife’s affairs or ask too many questions.

She’d given him a long, wintry look, the coldest he’d ever received prior or since. Then she said, Leave a girl her secrets, Don.

Miller willfully turns a blind eye, and maybe that’s the secret to their successful marriage. That, and the long absences Don and Michelle take from one another. A nosey federal agent points out what Miller refuses to see about himself:

I’m guessing you’re exactly the rube she needs to maintain her cover as a cute little lady scientist. Who’d suspect her of anything with Gomer Pyle hanging around?

The Ancient Evil at work here is called Old Leech, and it’s straight outta Stoker, yo.

This was a colossal worm that had swallowed whole villages, cities… A leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies.

There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Hollow Earth Theory. Toothy, limbless creatures that live inside ancient trees. Sacrificial dolmens, like Stonehenge, in the middle of the Washington State. Vortexes to other dimensions.

The conspiracy is everywhere, as Don learns, and his own daughter is not immune. Don’s turncoat boss gives a glimpse into the vastness of the enemy:

“They worship a deity that ate the fucking dinosaurs, several species of advanced hominids and the Mayans. Opened a gate and slurped them through a funnel.”

And as Old Leech’s human servant puts it:

We venerate the Great Dark, the things that dwell there… Our cult is monolithic with tentacles in every human enterprise throughout history, into prehistory.”

“Ah, like Amway,” Don notes.

Barron’s language is equal parts noir and poetry.

You are a mosquito trapped in the sap of a sundew.

And later:

You’re a flea on the belly of a mastodon.

Barron’s writing makes you feel small and frightened, which is all you can ask from good horror fiction.

The Croning can trace its literary roots back to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. But Leiber’s “classic” novel is dated and quaint (and more than a little paranoid) by today’s standards. The Croning is a more wholly realized tale that digs deeper into the fertile soil of myth and fairy-tale, and employs more believable characters to deliver its message.

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The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron
Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron

Laird Barron writes weird.

Barron is a good writer, but the stories contained in his collection, The Imago Sequence  and Other Stories, are sometimes hard to figure. You’ll need a dictionary, good map skills, and a working knowledge of mythology, world religions, philosophy, horror fiction, and crime pulps to make heads or tails of these tales.

Don’t get me wrong; just because Barron’s style is strange doesn’t mean his fiction isn’t enjoyable. The stories in The Imago Sequence are rich with interesting characters and concepts, and practically drip with atmosphere.

Barron is a skilled writer and you can see his toil on every page. He blends Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, in ways both good and bad. Tough guys stumble through the underworld of crime and the Old West against a backdrop of ancient horrors, cosmic interference, and unreliable narrators. At its best, Barron’s gritty prose conjures Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, gut-punching like a trench-coated henchman in an old black-and-white film. Check out these savory one-liners:

“Somebody slapped a bottle of whiskey in my hand and lost the cork…I tumbled off the wagon and got crushed under its wheels.”

“If the best revenge is living well, second best has to be watching your enemy shrivel like a worm on the end of a hook.”

“Underdog and Popeye couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag until they’d had their fix.”

“Karma, brothers and sisters, has a mouth as big as the world.”

Occasionally Barron’s work is undone by his word choice. Just because you’ve got a big vocabulary is no reason to use phrases like, “great chthonian depths,” “uxoricidal brute,” or “compensation for your temerity.”

The title story is the best in the collection. “The Imago Sequence” follows the pursuit of an ultra-rare trio of photographs that drive viewers insane and/or reveal the secrets of existence, perhaps even the very face of God Hisownself. The crime noir vibe builds to a climax that’s equal parts Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and John Carpenter’s The Thing, imbued with meaty philosophical musings:

“Enlightenment isn’t necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.”

Barron’s reoccurring themes include religion, philosophy, and the meaning of existence, all of which are rendered masterfully in “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”

“Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil , just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It’s too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs , and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech’s anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.”

Damn, Laird! That’s the kind of writing that can “turn your bowels to soup!”

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