The Croning Laird Barron (2012).
Donald Miller is unstuck in time. At the whim of memories from different periods in his life, he struggles to assemble a big picture: that he is only the latest in his lineage whose fate is in the crosshairs of cosmic horror.
Glimpses are provided to Don, but initial insights quickly fade.
As an old man, taking the dog for a walk near a rural tree farm:
....Today, he spotted a couple of the younger men near the road, and instantly knew something was different, wrong somehow. Thick and broad, their coveralls caked in dust and sap. Flat, sallow faces already alight with sweat, they muttered and hacked at dead limbs, dropped them into wheelbarrows like tangled stacks of deformed arms and legs. Yes, there was a difference in their movements, a queer, vaguely inimical aura radiating from them and their half smiles that resembled sneers. He glanced down and noted that Thule's fur was ridged and ruffled as when he was pointing toward a threat such as a hostile dog or an unknown critter in the bushes.
The pair gradually became aware of Don's presence and ceased their labors to study
him and converse furtively. One called out in a shrill, fluting voice to his brethren hidden among the deep rows and the eerie cry was immediately returned from several, widely scattered locations.
His mouth, my God! Don gasped and averted his gaze from the man uttering the strange bird cry; the fellow's mouth shuttered like an iris, a toothless hole as big as a fist. The other man licked his lips and slid his machete against his pants leg in the manner of a barber stropping a razor.
Don nodded with a sickly smile, pretending obliviousness of this most palpable unwelcome and ambled onward as fast as dignity permitted. Their deadly obsidian eyes swiveled to track him until a curve of the road intervened. He spasmodically gripped the pepper spray in his pocket. His teeth chattered.
Too many joints in their necks. He hadn't noticed that during his previous encounters with the crew. Both of thesemen had possessed the same deformity, and a crazy, paranoid thought occurred to him—the pair were actors, doubles in a film who stand in for the name actor, always filmed from behind, or in soft focus. Put a uniform on someone and that person could pass as your best friend from a distance. Crazy and paranoid in spades. Who the hell would bother to impersonate migrant laborers on a country tree farm? Why did he have a sneaking suspicion he'd seen them before under different circumstances?
They watch. They watch you, Donald. They love you.
Barron's ability to present the reader with seemingly arbitrary menace in an everyday context is the great strength of The Croning. Don Miller realizes eventually, when the collage of his life is assembled, that he is wed to one of the secret cadet royalty in a subterranean history of the world.
Familiarity with Barron's other work offers depth. At one point in the story Don Miller heads to Slango, an abandoned logging camp on Mystery Mountain, as part of his job as a geologist in private industry. Echoes reverb: a previous Slango story was the epic "The Men from Porlock." (The fire-gutted village and its leaning tower are featured in both "Porlock" and another epic multi-character into-the-woods story: "Mysterium Tremendum.")
The Black Guide also makes a nefarious cameo.
I hesitate to say more about The Croning. Its strength lies in corner-of-the-eye shocks to the reader as Don Miller comes to understand the mysteries which are the hidden narrative of his life.
22 April 2019