With Laird Barron's new book, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, due out soon, I decided to try out his debut novel The Croning. While horror may be my favorite type of movie, I generally don't gravitate toward that genre when it comes to books. Also, in today's literature, it is hard to get away from zombies and vampires, two things I have very little interest in. Since The Croning didn't seem to have either, I figured it was worth a try.
The Situation: Donald Miller and his wife Michelle are living out their final years in a house they used to treat as their summer home, but has now become their permanent residence. While Don has more or less retired as a geologist, Michelle's research and anthropological studies continue, as does her desire for travel and adventure. Throughout their years together the couple have raised twin children, and seen the world...including parts of it that most people either ignore or genuinely have no clue are there. Don looks on most of the memories he shares with Michelle with fondness, although he has been struggling with his memory since the early fifties. Some memories come through clearly, while others drift away right as he tries to recall them. And still other memories, mostly bad ones, will come upon him suddenly, sometimes in a dream when his sleeping. It is these memories or dreams that will show Don what is actually happening in the world around him.
The Problem: No matter how much Don tries to ignore the obvious, things just aren't quite right in his life. Situations and events surrounding Michelle, both past and present, have never been right, and many people have attempted to tell him this throughout the years. She's incredibly secretive about some aspects of her work, some of her former colleagues have died under incredibly suspicious circumstances, and even her family history is full of questions. And now, at the age of 80, things seem to be spinning out of control again and Michelle is once more at the center of focus. Terrible memories Don had somehow forgotten are starting to resurface, and they offer up only one horrifying explanation for what is going on around him. While it would be awful enough for he and his wife to be affected, it turns out that his children, and their children, may end up as victims as well. One fateful trip into the forest surrounding the house may be all that is necessary to end Don's living nightmare, but will it be the ending he hopes for?
Genre, Themes, History: This is horror fiction that deals specifically with the occult, with a little bit of fairy tale mixed in. The novel starts off with a sort of alternate version of Rumpelstiltskin, and the events in that story eventually lead up to what has been happening throughout Don's lifetime. Instead of going with vampires or zombies as the creature of choice, Barron sticks with, for lack of a better term, the boogeyman. What unnerves Don so frequently are the things that go bump in the night...the kind of stuff that sets a person on edge when you're lying in bed and attempting to convince yourself that that creepy looking shadow on the wall is only a shadow, and that surely you didn't shut the door to the cellar all of the way, because if you did, it wouldn't still be open right now. Many aspects of what Don goes through feels a lot like a nightmare the poor guy just can't seem to wake up from. Anthropology and the study of indigenous cultures also plays a heavy role as that is Michelle's field and many of her adventures lend to the events of the story.
My Verdict: Meh. Sure, it's scary and all. And I appreciate a decent piece of modern horror fiction that stays away from vampire and zombies. But even so, I guess I expected more from this. I'll go ahead and spare you (spoiler alert!): in this particular story, evil wins. And you can see it coming from about 200 pages away. It may not have been so obvious if Don wasn't such a clueless, bumbling idiot most of the time with absolutely no ability to assert himself in any way when it comes to his wife. Granted, his lack of memory doesn't help, but he has been warned multiples times, and has also lived through a few of his own awful adventures, which have seemingly only helped turn him into the cowering man we now read about, instead of helping to enlighten him to what the world around him is actually like. It is an excellent premise and for the most part extremely well-written, but somewhere the plot just falls short. And the ending, while pretty epic, fails to fully satisfy.
Favorite Moment: When a group consisting of Don, his son Kurt, his friend Argyle, and Argyle's friend Hank decides to split-up while wandering the woods. I only picked it because of its absolute absurdity and the fact that every horror movie ever has used it and it never, ever, ends well. It just further illustrated just how clueless the characters in this book are.
Favorite Character: I couldn't make a call here. Don is clueless, Michelle is unsettling, and everyone else is either evil or useless.
Recommended Reading: Once again, much like the last time I covered a horror novel, I can't think of anything to recommend. I have yet to meet a horror novel I really liked. Although, to be fair, I really haven't read that many.