The Croning by Laird Barron (2012): Laird Barron has fairly quickly made a name for himself in horror fiction with a unique blend of cosmic horror, graphic depictions of horrific violence, and a constant concern with masculinity and its discontents, satisfactions, and challenges when faced by maggot-like, child-eating horrors from beyond the rim of conventional space-time. Some of Barron’s male protagonists (sort of) break even in their confrontations with gibbering, capering, nigh-omnipotent horrors, though generally only through escape or death. Most of them are either destroyed or subverted.
Many of Barron’s stories share the same mythology, in which a race of cosmic horrors collectively known as the Children of Old Leech lurk in the lost places of the Earth, spiritually and physically feasting on humans while occasionally offering a small handful of people the “honour” of joining them. Technically speaking, the Leech are both endo- and exocolonists: they conquer from without and within, all in preparation for the day Old Leech itself wakes up hungry and devours the populations of whole planets. Which is what happened to the dinosaurs, among other lost Earth populations.
Yes, he’s the feel-good writer of 2012!
The Croning is Barron’s first novel, and it’s a doozy. For the most part, the narrative follows hapless geologist Don Miller who, in the present day, is in his 80’s and plagued by gaps in his memory that, when encountered, his mind scrambles to either explain or forget that such a discovery ever happened (he’s even forgotten that he ever knew Spanish well enough to translate Spanish documents).
Don’s uncannily young-looking wife of more than 50 years, Michelle Mock, has always pursued the anthropology and archaeology of “lost” tribes, periodically leaving Don for weeks or even months at a time. And as the narrative swings back and forth in time and space, we begin to see why Don’s mind is so screwed up — and why, despite his great love for Michelle, he also occasionally fears her.
The horrors here are indeed horrible, the worst coming from the failures of human morality when confronted by terrible tests. Barron weaves history and mythology and legend (including a crackerjack origin for the story of Rumplestiltskin) into this backwards-and-forwards-looking opus, presents the horrors of the flesh and the soul, and gives us scant light in the face of world-annihilating darkness. It’s a brilliant debut, but not for the physically or philosophically squeamish. Highly recommended.