Monday, 14 January 2013

Laird Barron, the Croning

Laird Barron's two story collections The Imago Sequence and Occultation have made him my favourite horror author next to Lovecraft; However, I hesitated to read his first full-length novel, The Croning, for a while; I felt that in some of Barron's last few stories some of the recurring motives were wearing thin, and I wasn't quite sure if the mythology he has established could carry the weight of a whole novel.

The Croning put these fears at rest (while awakening a few older, darker ones); it is a brillant novel, perhaps Barron's best work to date, even though it is not as relentless as most of his short fiction. It has a much slower pace, but not in the sense that the narrative is stretched out - The Croning is a relatively short novel of about 250 pages -, but in the sense that it really is the story of a sinister truth unfolding over the course of more than 60 years. I think what Barron sets out here to reformulate a fundamental concept of cosmic horror - the notion that the universe is alien to us, and that a true understanding of its alienness can only come at the expense of our humanity - on a very personal level. Lovecraft with his technique of suggesting the unspeakable by a sort of frenetic loquaciousness couldn't do that.

 [From here on, beware of spoilers]

The Croning's narrative about the not quite normal, but basically good life of it's protagonist Don Miller, which is peppered with events that hint at abject terror that he either forgots or dismisses - until, in the very end, they coalesce to a fearful picture that undermines everything he ever believed and trusted in. The main storyline concerns octogenarian Don and his wife Michelle, happily married, who live in a house that has belonged to Michelle's family for generations and in which Don has never felt quite at home. Several flashbacks show both of them in their younger, wilder years and suggest that secrecy and violence have played a bigger role in their life than the older Don remembers.
Using a protagonist with a unreliable memory to construct a narrativeabout fearful revelations might seem like a cop-out, but Barron utilizes this device in a very effective and above all, believable way. His short stories are full of moments in which relatively normal situations tilt sideways, and suddenly everything seems to slide towards the abyss of the abject - and, as opposed to Lovecraft, Barron is usually highly economic in describing such moments. Take, for example, a passage from The Croning where Don, who is already slightly off kilter, enters an extremely shady drinking den somewehre in Mexico:

"A yellow dog missing an eye snapped at him, all rotten teeth and lolling tongue, and tore of a chunk of his leg, putting action to the crowd's voiceless intent. People laughed and guitars and horns kicked back to life. He had paid the cover charge of flesh."

The passage manages not only to suggest the danger of sickness and death that are implicit in something that can happen to any of us on the street, namely being bitten by a dog; it also implies that this mortal assault is an exemplification of the hostility of the world around Don, and even in a way part of a ritual.
Due to the hallucinatory character of such moments, it is easy for Don to dismiss the revelation of a hostile universe implicit in them. And while we as readers can easily identify with this dismissal, we also know that we are reading a horror novel and that such moments are in fact relevations of the true nature of the book's reality.
The Croning hops from one of these moments to the next and thereby paints a picture of the dark, repressed underside of Don's life. It skirts the border between the conscious and the unconscious, never quite revealing what is really going on down there in the regions of his life he cannot access. However, a Lovecraftian inversion of psychoanalysis is at work here, for the unconscious is not the internal realm of the protagonist, but the external, objective truth of the universe he is living in. The darkness is outside of Don, while the idea that it is only inside, that it is just an expression of his childish fears (he suffers from an irrational fear of the dark, for example) is the soothing lie he tells himself.

The Croning is also a story about childhood; even as an octogenarian, Don seems very much like a child who is protected, but also dominated by his wife Michelle, who clearly knows more about the dark secrets of his past he can't quite access. His awakening to the dark truth behind the strange occurances throughout his life is also a kind of awakening to the realm of harsh reality. In his mid-eighties, Don is still a child who finally has to learn that one day, he will die; That one day, everyone has to die. It is "the beautiful thing that awaits us all", because death in The Croning is also highly sexualized (the imagery of Don's revelation in the end is basically that of a perverse returning to the womb - a ziggurat with a vaginal abyss that swallos a degenerated humankind). Don is offered a chance to cheat death, but only at the price of sacrificing his "inner child" - which, in the inverted psychoanalytic logic of the novel, is of course an external child. One way of the other, accepting the truth of death means that, in a way, you have already died; your only choice is to cynically embrace this truth or to impotently deny it (there is no option to come to terms with death peacefully in The Croning, for it is, after all, a horror novel).

Finally, The Croning might also be called a misgynist novel, as its horror relies heavily not only on vaginal imagery, but also on the archetype of the witch and on the notion of female sexual power. This is obviously a very conscious decision by the author, and I'm not sure if I would level this as a critque against the book; in the end, the motive of a male protagonist living in a world that is dominated by a dark power conceptualised as female, who not only threatens to obliterate the protagonist but also deeply and sincerely loves him (albeit in a quite horrific way) is just so damn effective. After all, most horror fiction is dependant on gendered archetypes, and The Croning at least knows what it does by employing them to their best effect.

In the revealing dialogue towards the end of the book, Barron admits a certain triteness within the concept of cosmic horror, an inherent inability to live up to its promise; it shows how well he knows what he does, and maybe he knows it a little too well, because without this confession, the immediate effect of the novel might have been even more powerful. However, it is also an invitation to re-think the concepts of cosmic horror. I think this thorough re-thinking is what Barron has been doing since The Imago Sequence.

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