The Croning by Laird Barron (2012): On second reading, Laird Barron’s The Croning yields up more frights and more depth, along with a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all of his fiction. What a frightful universe Barron conjures up, one in which the existential terror of his particular form of cosmic horror manifests itself in the simplest of human emotions and actions.

This terrific first novel touches upon almost everything Barron had written to this point, and on many things he hadn’t written yet, but the novel doesn’t require knowledge of those other works — though knowing of The Black Guide or the events of “The Men of Porlock” certainly deepens one’s understanding of the events related here.

There’s tragedy here in the story of Don Miller, who in the present day lives in a rambling old house in small-town Washington state, is 80-something and still devoted to his curiously youthful wife, Michelle Mock, and their adult children, fraternal twins Holly and Kurt. But Miller has become almost paralyzed by fear of the dark, especially when Michelle is away on one of her curious, frequent anthropological expeditions. The very house Miller lives in is a source of recurring terrors, the cellar most of all. But they must be the nightmares of an aging man with the attendant mental-health problems of old age. Right?

Barron’s concern with identity is a career-long one, and Miller represents a study in the limits of the continuity of human character. Don’s memory is failing, possibly the result of incipient dementia or Alzheimer’s. But it’s been failing almost as long as Miller can remember. When he remembers. There are holes in his mind almost too many to count, and Don gets through the day by avoiding the most basic questions about his own past.

But memories sometimes flare up, in nightmares forgotten upon waking. And the absence of memories must also be dealt with or ignored. How, Don wonders at one point, can a person forget not only an entire language (Spanish, in this case), but that he ever knew that language at all?

Well, he’s going to find out. And as we travel back and forth across the history of Don and the history of these strange, powerful monsters known collectively as the Children of Old Leech, we find out too. Barron’s prose is brutal and beautiful. He links the cosmic and the personal and the visceral in fascinating and rewarding ways, in this tragedy of the losing and finding and losing of memory.

Besides the terror, there’s sorrow for humanity here, as a whole and in its constituent parts. Don’s a fascinating character, mentally wounded but pushing onwards towards knowledge that he knows at every step he probably doesn’t want to possess. And the various manifestations of evil, human and otherwise, ring true. The humans who collaborate with the Children of Old Leech do so for power and money and immortality. The cost of these things is exceedingly high, but as in our world, people can do the most frightful things for the most basic of reasons. Highly recommended.

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