I’ve hit both Laird Barron’s collections, of course — if you’re going to play in the horror fields, his bloody square of grass goes for an acre or two — and, in the way of disclosure, he was kind enough to pen the intro for my first horror collection, and I know and respect him as a quality human besides, so of course I was going to hit The Croning, first chance I got. As for that first chance, though, it got lost in the void, evidently; not even a month before the book hit, one of my other publishers finally forwarded a longago request from Nightshade, to look at The Croning early. At which point it was already printed, ready to ship. So there was all that instant regret, the raging at the gods, I could have hit it then, wouldn’t have had to wait, but, still and all, that wait, it was so worth it. And, as a gauge: the book I read immediately before The Croning was the first in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Which, Charles McCarry’s Paul Christopher series aside — and maybe not aside — is looking to be my favorite series ever in the history of anything, also counting the future. Reading Martin, I don’t want to do anything else. Like eat, or move. Just Kindle me another, please, and it better get here in thirty seconds or less or I’m buying it again, and again.
So, yeah, book 2 of that, it’s what I pushed aside. To hit The Croning.
And it was completely worth it. The Croning flat-out blew me away. And, I’ll be honest: I’ve seen a lot of competent short-story writers go all novel for a book (editors can market a novel, but a collection has to seduce), and kick out a two-hundred pager that’s still at heart a short story. The forms, they’re radically different. They’re both made of prose, but that’s about where the similarities stop. That’s not the case with Laird Barron. I don’t know if he’s studied on the form of the novel for years now or if he’s just got a storyteller instinct or if he just got lucky or what, but The Croning, it’s not at all a hesitant step into something full-length. Rather, it kind of owns the form. For a much better write-up than I’m going to pull off here, hit T.E. Grau’s Cosmicomicon. It’s a review, an interview, an essay, maybe the longest blurb ever — it’s solid, and, for me, just coming off a semester teaching from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, man, it (The Croning, Grau’s write-up) resonated. For eons. Every last Weird suspicion we had over the course of our fifteen weeks, it’s like Laird was hiding in the room, listening, taking notes then tunneling back in time, making The Croning to fit, to challenge, to undercut, to extend. A lot of people are always comparing Laird to Grandaddy Lovecraft, of course, and, HPL’s sticky-fingered prose aside, yeah, that makes sense. The scope of their fiction and all. How it slithers. What it leaves behind. However, for me, if Laird’s from any tradition, it’s more Algernon Blackwood. Really, in The Croning, there seemed to be some very conscious allusions to Blackwood. But of course if all you’ve got’s a Blackwood hammer, all you see are Blackwood nails . . .
One thing I will say about The Croning that nobody else is, though, is that there’s a new element, here: the whimsical. Not quite slapstick, not any clutch-your-gut humor, and nothing quite so easy as absurdism. But, the whole time peeling through The Croning — I think it took me a day and half? — I kept hearing these longago echoes. Not like I’d read this before, but like this narrative lope, this confidence to plunge ahead into the ridiculous, this heedless sureness, if that can even be a thing, all that coupled with a vocabulary and erudition and prose-chisel that’s more a single-hair brush, and, and a sense of, I don’t know, the sweep and gurgle of history . . . do you see where I’m going? Thomas the man Pynchon. It hit me so hard on p.193:
She only perked up when he mentioned Holly called and immediately wanted to know if he’d gotten a number. He’d failed to do so, as per usual, and her glower became truly and awesomely terrible to behold.
Don fled the kitchen. He retreated to the armchair across from Kurt, who eyed him with the suspicion of a magpie.
What I keyed on specially was that ‘fled’ — that’s pure Pynchon. That’s Tyrone Slothrop falling down the toilet of WWII, that’s Benny Profane slouching toward some place definitely not Bethlehem. And Laird rings this bell over and over, just way in the background, and it’s a trick HPL and Blackwood and Machen and all them never had: the ability to maintain a kind of consonance with our running objections that this really can’t be happening, that, c’mon, get serious, Cthulhu’s just some innerspace plush toy. But, by building that knee-jerk response in, by making it the background noise, maybe even the delivery system, what the text is then arguing is that we’ve acknowledged that. And we’ve moved on. Into the real. Into this.
Such a canny move, or instinct, or roll of the dice. With Laird, you never can tell. Also: it hardly matters. What we’ve got, it’s the product, the artifact, the story. And, believe me, it’s plug-n-play. I’ve only ever had two novels completely invade my dreams. Breakfast of Champions and Lunar Park. Last night, though, The Croning cued up when I least wanted it to. Not as something I’d read, but as something I was lost in, trying to claw my way out of. And we can’t ask more of our horror stories than that.