Laird Barron's TheCroning is filled with creeping dread. It comes out in little pieces and little moments, through little cracks in reality. As the novel progresses, those cracks get incrementally bigger and bigger until Barron finally pulls the veil (mostly) back and reveals what's trying to wriggle through.
And, my God, is it ever unpleasant.
The Croning is the story of Donald and his wife Michelle. Donald is in his twilight years, looking back on an adventurous marriage with the larger-than-life Michelle, a tireless anthropologist. But Don soon discovers that his memories have been tampered with. Bits and pieces here. Whole chunks there. Along the way, we're treated to shadowy government agents, glimpses of some cosmic horror, a strange encounter in a stockroom, a terribly unsettling Asian woman married to Don's son, and geographic abnormalities in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest. At the center of it all is Michelle and the increasingly likely possibility of her involvement in an obscure cult.
The Croning feels a lot like Barron's short fiction. The formal prose. The layered reality. But it's also different in that—for the first time—we get to see Barron's talent at creating a detailed and mostly real world for his characters. Fully fleshed out lives. Complex relationships. Meaningful interactions. With The Croning, Barron proves he isn't a one trick pony. Sure, he can dole out the cosmic horror with the best of them. But he can also create compelling characters and honest relationships. I never had any real reason to doubt he couldn't do that, but his short fiction never really afforded him the opportunity to do so on this scale.
Speaking of Barron's short stories, The Croning is overtly connected to several: "Mysterium Tremendum", "Occultation", "The Forest", and "The Men From Porlock". If I'm not mistaken, I think The Broadsword Hotel is mentioned, and there's probably some connection to Blackwood's Baby (which I haven't yet read). And that's just off the top of my head. It makes me wonder what a wholesale rereading of Barron's work to date would reveal.