Bone Tomahawk / ****

bone_tomahawk_xlgBy the time I got around to Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler’s horror-Western-70’s drama hybrid, its reputation was quite ahead of it. The best way to see it undoubtedly would have been to jump in cold, not even knowing the weird genre bends to come; as it was, I knew a few things to expect. I knew the film took its time; I knew it started as a relatively talky, 70’s-esque western before turning into a nightmare; and I knew that the film involved a cannibalistic tribe of natives, who brought with them into the film some heavy gore.

And yet, none of that really robbed Bone Tomahawk of any of its myriad pleasures, nor did it prepare me for the shaggy, lived-in feel of the performances, nor the way its languid tone is used to great effect before it’s yanked away from you in that nightmarish final act. I’ve read comparisons between Bone Tomahawk and the films of Quentin Tarantino, and while I can see where they come from – both take a dialogue-heavy approach to evoking those character studies of the 1970’s; both enjoy a writerly turn of phrase; both (and I’m leaning here particularly on The Hateful Eight as a comparison point) manage to create a vibrant Western environment while still leaning into a revisionist take on the genre – ultimately, Bone Tomahawk feels more like its own wonderful, odd film.

Much of that has to be laid at the feet of some of the great performances, from a welcome turn by a grindhouse icon in the opening scene to the wonderful partnership of Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, each playing a fascinating take on the “western sheriff and his deputy” trope. Russell is phenomenal, playing an icon of decency who manages to both clearly evoke strains of John Wayne (it’s not a coincidence, I think, that Bone Tomahawk plays out like a horrifying take on The Searchers) and yet also brings a decency and sense of justice that was often lost in Wayne’s bravado and machismo. And then there’s Jenkins, playing the part of a fiercely loyal deputy whose best days are behind him, and yet nonetheless is the kind of friend you would want with you until the bitter end. Add to that Matthew Fox playing as a violent manhunter with upper-class sensibilities and Patrick Wilson as the doting but helpless husband, and you’ve got a pretty powerhouse cast for your posse.

The plot couldn’t be simpler – a townswoman goes missing, and a group of men go to find her, even though the “tribe” that’s taken her is only whispered of amongst true natives, and then with a sense of horror. And trust me – by the time you meet the clan of cannibalistic, brutal cave dwellers, they live up to the buildup, with Zahler creating something so fundamentally nightmarish and almost alien that it defies logic and plunges you into a nightmare. It’s a weird gearshift for any movie, but Bone Tomahawk makes it work simply by virtue of how hard it goes for it, with all hell breaking loose within seconds and no sense of hesitation. And that final act is relentless, bloody fare, with one already (in)famous scene that’s earned the film a following among gorehounds, and rightfully so.

And yet, for as memorable as that final act is, Bone Tomahawk is as watchable and enjoyable for its patter, for its engaging with Western tropes and archetypes, and for its devotion to this mission into the heart of the West. Anyone can do a horror sequence, but Zahler’s first two acts show a man with more on his mind, investing us in the characters and immersing us in their time, and lulling us into a false sense of security by keeping its mind in the “real world” at all times. Even without the final act, Bone Tomahawk would be great; it’s just that the final act transforms the film into something else (though what exactly that something else is is up for debate, I think) and creates a hybrid that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Bone Tomahawk is a little overlong; the ending is a little abrupt; some of the shagginess could be cut; there are a couple of characters that feel underdeveloped or underused; and there’s a sense that Wilson’s role is only about half of a character at times. But for all of that, it also feels like the work of a director with a unique and compelling vision, one that’s not easily hemmed in by genre boundaries, and one that’s eager to both embrace the grindhouse roots of his films and modern methods, uniting them in a way that feels both old-fashioned and exciting. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a damn good one, and one that leaves me excited thinking that this is just the start for Zahler’s career.

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Fiend, by Peter Stenson / **** ½

9780770436322You could easily be forgiven for passing on Fiend as soon as I tell you that, yes, it’s a zombie novel. And yet, Fiend is the reason we never write off genres: because there’s always a chance that someone can do something wonderful, new, and fresh with it. Because while Peter Stenson has, nominally, given us a zombie novel, Fiend is also a novel about drug addicts – specifically, it’s a novel about meth addiction, with all the bluntness, black comedy, and unapologetically awful behavior of something like Trainspotting, married with the nightmarish reality of a world in which anything even close to “normal” society is gone.

Indeed, it takes a little bit to realize that Fiend isn’t just a drug novel in which our characters are hallucinating the horrors as a result of their meth habits. But very quickly, it becomes obvious that Fiend is a marriage of books: it’s a bleak, unrelenting portrait of addiction and what it does to people and their relationships; it’s a twisted, broken love story between two irrevocably damaged human beings; and it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story, full of zombies that emit mad chuckles instead of groans. And if you’re wondering exactly how Stenson ties all of these things together, it won’t take long to realize that Stenson is using the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for the devastation of addiction, which turns you away from other human beings and into a self-destructive spiral in which all you care about is the next big score.

And make no mistake here: Fiend pulls no punches in its recounting of the methhead lifestyle. Stenson is a recovering addict himself, and every page of Fiend feels like the voice of experience is pushing through, depicting addiction with honesty, a certain black humor and self-reflection, and a refusal to pretty up any of the details. The result is a book with absolutely abhorrent characters, ones with whom it’s almost impossible to empathize, even as we recognize the poor choices that led them down this path. Again, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Trainspotting, which does so much of what Fiend does – depicts both the appeal and the bleak reality of addiction, all without judgment being passed except by the characters themselves…except that Stenson plunges these characters into a world where their drug habits might just be the only thing worth living for anymore, and where the pockmarked skin and rotting teeth of the addicts pale in comparison to the cackling dead outside in the dark.

In other words, Fiend is two books in one, and lets them play off of each other beautifully, letting the horrors be underlined by the selfishness (and self-destructiveness) of the characters, just as the realities of addiction are played out on operatic scale in the background as the world crumbles. And best of all, Fiend finds a grounding, investing us in our main character’s last grasp at a healthy relationship in the midst of all of this – and giving us one thing to actually hope for in the midst of all of the awfulness.

Let’s be blunt: Fiend is full of unsympathetic characters, lots of profanity, graphic violence, explicit drug use, and unblinking looks at how far people will go for drugs. It’s scary, violent, brutal, nasty, and incredibly bleak. It’s also darkly funny, incredibly thoughtful, reflective, unapologetic, and beautifully literate in a counter-culture sort of way. It’s a book that is undeniably not for everyone. But if you’re open to what it offers, it’s a fascinating read, one that tells an honest story about addiction by fictionalizing it, and one that finds a new window on a classic horror by turning it into something even scarier. I absolutely loved it; it’s not like anything else, and that’s undeniably a good thing.

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Two Novellas by Laird Barron

Before The Croning, his first novel-length effort, Laird Barron was known for his short work, with a number of award-winning short fiction collections that demonstrated his gift for literate, inventive, nightmarish, Lovecraftian horrors. So it’s not really a surprise to find that two novellas Barron has released, Man With No Name and X’s For Eyes, are probably even better and stronger than The Croning in many ways. They’re tighter, more focused, and no less terrifying and surreal when they want to be. What is surprising, though, is how much they each find Barron dabbling in other genres, all while never leaving behind his horror roots.

28604328Man With No Name is subtitled “A Nanashi Novella,” a line that certainly implies this is the first in a series. Exactly how that will work is something I’m quite curious about, because, without spoiling anything, to say that this doesn’t exactly lend itself to a traditional sequel is an understatement. That being said, the setup here undeniably feels like the first in a long-running crime series, revolving around a man named Nanashi, a loner adopted into the Japanese Yakuza. Nanashi is a man of action, and a valued employee, but little more; he often feels more like a mascot than a made man, despite the fact that he’s more controlled, and more dangerous, than many of those he works for.

That’s a good, pulpy setup, and Barron continues that feeling as the men get orders to kidnap a once-famed wrestler with ties to another gang and hold him hostage. Then the wrestler shows Nanashi his famous magic trick, one that allows the viewer to see the face of a deity – or perhaps, something darker. And then things start to go off the rails, as time becomes unhinged, and reality begins to fold up around Nanashi…

Man With No Name is deliberately confounding, often leaving the reader a bit in the dark intentionally, since Nanashi is left equally confused. It’s an effective technique, but one that can make the story sometimes difficult to parse, as we try to piece together what’s happening from our knowledge of horror tropes, elliptical clues, and late revelations. The idea that Barron might be setting up some longer story here is fascinating, although I’m not certain that he is; it’s quite possible that this is just a standalone horror tale, one whose weirdness will never be satisfactorily explained. As it is, though, Man With No Name is compelling, weird stuff; it’s crime fiction that becomes a surreal nightmare, all without losing its crime roots, and all while being told in Barron’s solid, craftsman-like prose. If it’s a little confusing and strange, well, it earns that strangeness and makes it work for the mood of the whole thing. (Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s a pretty great bonus story attached to the ebook of Man With No Name that finds Barron playing around with Frankenstein in ways both funny and truly original. It’s a great capper to the book.) Rating: ****

81k0wkleemlBut even better than Man With No Name is X’s For Eyes, which finds Barron writing an elaborate homage to Jonny Quest and/or The Venture Bros. that also manages to dabble in his usual cosmic horrors. Now, if you’re thinking that that sounds like an uneasy marriage, or one that might lead to some weirdly comic juxtapositions…well, you’re right. X’s For Eyes is offbeat and funny even before things beyond the veil of sleep start appearing, and even then, Barron makes his horrors wholly more entertaining and odd than you would expect from a traditional story.

Of course, it goes without saying that X’s For Eyes has all the usual writerly craft and astonishing prose that you normally expect from Barron; what works so well about X’s, though, is that he marries that to the tale of two brothers raised by a brilliant father, taught by educational pods, protected by wisecracking explorers, and constantly immersed in corporate espionage. Indeed, for a bit, it’s not even clear that X’s For Eyes is going to become a horror story; for a while, it’s about these boys and a confusing rocket experiment gone wrong. But Barron is just throwing you off balance, because when he kicks off the horror elements, trust me, he does so quickly, brutally, and nastily.

From there, things get stranger indeed, in typical Barron fashion. But, again, what makes X’s work is that it never feels like his other works; yes, there may be nightmarish beings beyond our own dimension, but the creatures of X’s feel…more human, somehow. Or, perhaps, just less inscrutable – but no less horrifying. Then again, things have a way of sneaking in under the surface…

Whatever the case, none of it keeps X’s from being a blast – it’s fun, then it’s unsettling, then it’s horrifying, and yet somehow always feels of a piece. And that it does all of this while never losing its grip on that Venture Bros. feel? Just fantastic. Rating: *****

Amazon: Man With No Name | X’s For Eyes

Strange Weather, by Joe Hill / **** ½

34066621I’m not sure why it is that Joe Hill has become so thought of as horror fiction by so many people, myself included. Yes, his novels and stories undoubtedly dip their toes into horror, sometimes wholeheartedly embracing it. Yes, he’s the son of America’s most famous writer, a man who has become synonymous with the horror genre. But to categorize Joe Hill’s work as simply “horror” fiction is to do it a disservice, something that his collection of novellas Strange Weather reminds us. Yes, Hill can scare us…but it says something that the most horrifying, disturbing story here is entirely realistic and set within the everyday world, without a single supernatural element at all. Yes, he loves to push the boundaries of what’s “normal,” and dives into the trappings of genre fiction, including a great horror tale…but when your collection also contains stories about a man trapped on the outside of a UFO in the sky, a sobering look at American gun culture, and a thoroughly unusual apocalyptic tale that doesn’t fit into any sort of sort of conventional box, it’s hard to look at Hill as anything less than a genre writer who’s uninterested in writing stories that neatly compartmentalize themselves. And that’s all the better for us as readers.

As its subtitle suggests, Strange Weather is a collection of four short novels, each of which is engrossing in its own way, while also managing to remind the reader of Hill’s incredible range. The collection’s opener, “Snapshot,” for instance, is ostensibly a standard horror story, following a young boy as he becomes aware of a sinister figure in his neighborhood whose camera seems to capture more than just images of those in its viewfinder. And, yes, Hill lets this unfold in typical horror fashion, building its unease and then delivering a disturbing payoff. And yet, that’s not where the story ends. Indeed, Hill lets “Snapshot” go on longer than you expect, slowly turning the story into something more heartfelt and effective than just a standard horror tale, and one that surprises you by having more to it than just some creepy ideas.

Much the same could be said for “Aloft,” the third story here, which tells the story of a young man skydiving both to commemorate the life of a late friend and to impress the girl he’s been in love with for years. But his jump goes awry, not in the leaping, but in the landing – because he lands on what appears to be a UFO. What’s stranger?The UFO seems to react to his presence, giving him the things he needs, all while never allowing him a way down. “Aloft” is utterly strange throughout, feeling utterly unpredictable throughout, because we have little frame of reference. What results is part brush with death, part inexplicable alien encounter, and part paranormal story, all resulting in a satisfying ending more focused on its character than its plotting (though I loved the ultimate answers as to the nature of this craft). Similarly, the collection’s closer, “Rain,” is an apocalyptic tale, giving us a world where rain is no longer water, but instead hard, needle-like crystals wreaking havoc on what’s below. Following its lesbian protagonist (a nice move away from “white straight male” as the default hero for a story) as she makes her way across the state to convey the message of her girlfriend’s death to her family, “Rain” trades in the traditional post-apocalyptic tropes – panics in the street, martial warfare, paranoia – but in a uniquely 21st century way, with MMA fighters mourning their kittens, Russians spreading propaganda, government officials tweeting their threats, and more. It would all almost be a black comedy at times if it weren’t so bleak and haunting in its devastation.

But, in many ways, the most important – and the most affecting – tale in the collection is “Loaded,” in which Hill dives headfirst into America’s complicated, toxic relationship with guns. From loners who fetishize military equipment to racist snap judgments, from the links between abusers and gun violence to the pervasive and noxious myth of the “good guy with a gun,” “Loaded” makes no apologies for its stances and never backs down from the painful realities it’s depicting. No, “Loaded” doesn’t have a character spell out its messages, but it’s not necessary; the points are impossible to miss, and Hill makes them hurt as much as possible. It’s a viscerally, emotionally upsetting story, one that’s even more so in the wake of yet another shooting – but after all, when aren’t we these days? That “Loaded” is so potent, so upsetting, so powerful is maybe the best testament yet to Hill’s skill – and a reminder that, far from only being a horror novelist, Hill is something far more capable, surprising, and broadly talented – and if you doubt it, well, Strange Weather should be a welcome reminder.

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HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt / *****

81rrbeveeilThere’s a real joy in reading a horror novel that feels unlike much else out there. This is a genre that depends on familiarity and tropes, on finding ways to breathe fresh life into variations on monsters that we’ve seen countless times – the creation of Frankenstein, the vampire, the ghost, and in the case of HEX, the witch. And while there’s much to be said for executing a classic trope in a classic way, there’s even more to be said for finding a fresh approach to it, and doing something unique. And man, does HEX ever come through on that front, giving us a nightmarish modern take on a witch that incorporates technology, social media, paranoia, and the darkness of human nature into a complex, disturbing tale that never backs down.

HEX takes place in Black Spring, New York, a small town that’s wired to the gills with cameras and citizen-run surveillance programs (there’s even a new app that’s much loved by the more tech-savvy town members). The reason for all of this isn’t paranoia, or some sort of government tracking program watching the town; indeed, it’s all about watching a single figure: Katherine van Wyler, the town’s witch…who has lived in this town since her death in 1664. Katherine’s eyes and mouth are sewn up, mind you; nonetheless, she appears all over the town, a strange and unsettling figure who’s lost almost all of her ominous nature simply by virtue of her familiarity. (She’s so common by now that one family simply drapes a cloth over her while she stands in their living room, simply so they don’t have to see her.) And yet, there’s little denying the unease that Katherine can generate – the danger in listening to her whispers, the deaths that can happen when she’s threatened. Even so, she’s part of living in Black Spring – a responsibility that prevents its town members from ever leaving, and find them discouraging newcomers.

But by the time we enter Black Spring, there’s a lot brewing under the surface. There’s a growing discontent among the younger citizens, who know that they’ll never be allowed to leave this town, and want so much more. There are damaged citizens who are starting to hope that Katherine might be able to help them in their lot in life. There’s a town councilman whose control over the town is only tightening. And there’s at least one citizen whose fear of the witch is abating to dangerous levels, to the point where he sees her as a toy, not a horrifying force of nature.

I don’t want to say much about the plot of HEX beyond that; watching as author Thomas Olde Heuvelt dives in and out of lives, keeps Katherine a constant figure of unease, and slowly tightens his plot threads is a joy, and that goes double once you realize just how far he can take this story. Because, rest assured, HEX is a horror novel that gets nightmarish in its payoffs; while Olde Heuvelt never takes the story anywhere that you’re expecting, his willingness to bring out not only supernatural darkness but human cruelty makes this one pack a vicious punch on all sorts of levels. It’s truly scary at times, heartbreaking at others, and brutally disturbing at others. And at all times, it’s riveting, giving us interesting characters and a story that draws us in with them.

It would be easy for HEX to feel overstuffed; this is, after all, the story of a whole town, with a cast of characters that fits that ambition. From a plot perspective, though, Olde Heuvelt nicely juggles everything, keeping all of the action clear, the motivations understandable, and all of the connections and interpersonal dynamics always in focus and used to build the tone and anticipation/dread. From a thematic point of view, he’s sometimes a little less successful; it’s not clear, by book’s end, if this is a book about a supernatural force of evil or about the evil within humanity – or maybe both.

(Sidebar on this: HEX was originally published in Dutch, and set in the Netherlands. When Tor Books decided to translate and publish the book in English, Olde Heuvelt decided to rewrite the book and set it in New York to make it easier for American audiences to lose themselves in its world. He also decided to rewrite the book’s ending greatly, and while he doesn’t explain the original ending in HEX’s afterword, I’ve been able to find out enough to say that the English ending does feel more focused thematically, and gives a sense of what message Olde Heuvelt was attempting to convey. I would be curious to read the original ending, though, which sounds far more unhinged and nightmarish than what we got – and honestly, that’s saying something.)

But honestly, little of that matters while you’re reading HEX, because all you’ll be thinking is that this book moves with all the force and unease of a strange nightmare, mixing in its details in a way that maximizes unease while delaying its payoffs until they’ll hit their hardest. It does what the best horror should do: sets the scene and invests you in its world and characters, so that when things go bad, we’re not only scared, but all the more uneasy for the fate of this community. And trust me, when things go bad here? They go very, very bad.

All in all, HEX is one of my favorite horror novels in a long time – it’s utterly original, fascinatingly told, genuinely scary and disturbing, and just moves like a rocket. It’s got me hoping that there’s a lot more of Olde Heuvelt’s work to come on this side of the pond, because I definitely want to read a lot more of it.

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The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp / *****

2016-06-29-1467216519-3739835-28765598I am a complete sucker for unreliable narrators in books. There’s something so exciting about realizing that what you’re getting is a subjective account of things, not an objective one; it tells you that not only are you in the hands of a talented author who’s managed to fully create a rich voice that’s drawn you in, it sets you up to engage with the book more, questioning its conclusions and events, which only makes the book more gripping and interesting. And even better is when the unreliable narrator combines with an antihero or a deeply flawed hero; the English teacher part of me finds complex, morally gray (or even dark) characters fascinating, if only for the burst of interest and uncertainty they add to a story.

So it’s really not a surprise that I loved The Last Days of Jack Sparks, which gives us a thoroughly subjective account of its title character’s final days, as written in his posthumously published manuscript Jack Sparks On the Supernatural. Jack Sparks is a larger than life figure – a bit of Richard Dawkins, a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, a bit of Russell Brand – you get the picture. He’s a journalist, but one who thrives on his cult of personality; at their core, every story Jack writes is more about him than the nominal subject. And so, as Jack started writing On the Supernatural, it should be clear: this book was more about Jack bringing his skepticism and doubt to bear, mocking everyone involved in the process.

But given the fact that Jack died while writing the book – and given how…unusual…the second half of the book gets, it’s safe to say that things didn’t go as planned. But, as Jack’s brother Alistair explains in his foreword to the book, publishing the book seems like the best way to deal with all of the questions raised by Jack’s death, and the doubts that people have raised about what happened. Not only that, but Alistair has added in some footnotes that allow him to add some “context” to things that Jack says, as well as a number of interviews with people from Jack’s book that re-tell the stories he told from a very, very different perspective.

In other words, what we’re getting is a book written by an author who’s got a personality to sell and a grudge to work out, edited by a brother who’s protecting his own reputation, and with characters from the book constantly undercutting what we’re being told.

And did I mention that it’s a) often very funny and b) scary as all hell? Because, man, is it ever both of those things and then some, particularly in the book’s wilder, less contained second half.

So much of the joy of The Last Days of Jack Sparks comes from author Jason Arnopp’s conception of Jack’s voice. Admittedly, more than a few people have commented that Jack’s ego and obnoxious attitude can make him hard to take, and that’s undeniably true; on the other hand, Arnopp’s decision to constantly undercut Jack by showing us different perspectives after each chapter gives us a hint early on that not all should be taken as literal truth here, and that Jack is far less cocky – and far more troubled – than he’s letting on in his book. More than that, it forces us to filter everything we’re reading, and question how much of Jack’s running monologue is fact, how much is bias, and how much is willful self-delusion, as Jack constantly tries to wave away things that are clearly terrifying him.

And all of that is before the book takes some seriously wild turns in the back half, as Arnopp starts twisting and turning the narrative in on itself, making connections I had never guessed, hinting at conclusions that he never explicitly draws, and making you realize just how densely plotted this book has been from the get-go, even when you didn’t think it was. Add to that some genuinely nightmarish, disturbing scares – there’s a seance in a recording studio that’s one of the scariest sequences of its type I’ve read in a long time, and that’s nothing compared to a hellish vision granted to Jack near the story’s end – and you’ve got a book that’s wild, unpredictable, hard to categorize, incredibly inventive, and so well-told. In other words, all things that I couldn’t love more if I tried.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks isn’t, as you can probably tell, anything close to a conventional horror novel. It’s postmodern in some ways, telling a version of ghost stories and demonic possession for a modern age, and using some of the tropes of “found fiction” stories in novel form. (In so many ways, it’s a great counterpart to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I read recently, and engages with similar concepts in very, very different ways.) It hinges on an obnoxious, unlikable hero, and forces you to constantly assess how much truth there is in anything you’re reading. And it goes to dark places, but finds something wholly new and odd there to do, telling a ghost story with a ghost that’s very unlike almost any other one that I know. That it does all this while moving like a rocket, being generally funny and light, and creating such a rich character, and scaring the crap out of you? That’s more than enough for any one book, and it makes for an incredible debut novel. I’m sold, Jason Arnopp – bring on whatever else you’ve got.

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The Croning, by Laird Barron / *****

thecroningFor all of his influence on a generation of horror writers, there may be no writer who’s inspired more lackluster imitations – or whose followers so often miss the point – as H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft specialized in horror on a cosmic, utterly alien scale – a world just beyond ours, where angles didn’t align, where colors we had never seen might exist, and where horrific elder gods slumbered – luckily for us. They were stories more about dread and unease than anything else, which has made it more and more difficult for modern writers to mimic his style – we need our payoffs, we need our plotting, we need our confrontations, and Lovecraft had no interest in any of those.

But one of the rare exceptions to that rule lays in the work of Laird Barron, whose work is undeniably Lovecraftian, yes, but also wholly his own, bringing Lovecraft’s command of tone and unease into the modern world, telling more “conventional” stories without ever compromising on the alien, malevolent force just beyond the range of our vision. But while Barron cut his teeth on short story collections, the question raised by The Croning – his first novel – is whether he could manage that same feat in a longer, full-length story?

Oh, yes he can. Make no mistake, though: The Croning demands your patience. It will keep you uneasy for a long amount of time, even anxious, but it’s going to make you wait for the payoffs – but when they come, there’s no holding back. Mind you, the payoffs don’t only come at the end of the novel; in keeping with his short story roots, Barron writes The Croning almost as a series of eight connected short stories, albeit ones which tell a single, ongoing story.

None of which, however, will prepare you for the opening chapter, which finds Barron retelling the legend of Rumpelstiltskin as something more haunting, something darker, something more nightmarish and primal in its intentions. It’s an odd opening to a book that’s otherwise set in the modern day, telling the story of an academic named Don whose relationship with his wife constantly skirts the edge of darker, more sinister mythologies. For Michelle, his wife, is an anthropologist, and her fascination with some ancient tribes seems to have had an impact on Don’s whole life – something that he is only beginning to understand. And as Barron leaps back and forth throughout several key incidents in Don’s life, we start to understand the wider pattern, but only as we also realize that there won’t be much to be done to prevent any of it from unfolding.

Barron’s pacing here is a thing of beauty. Yes, for some readers, The Croning may feel slow and lethargic, but for those who can appreciate his work, The Croning unfolds like a nightmare – relentless, uncertain, and indescribable. Barron’s patience makes his payoffs and resolutions all the more powerfully effective, giving them an anxiety and a tension they couldn’t otherwise have. But helping that along, in no small way, is Barron’s incredible writing, which is literate and thoughtful in a way that few genre writers bother with:

Neither light nor heat could withstand it; to gaze into that nullity and to comprehend its scope was to have one’s humanity snuffed. Only the inhuman thrived in out there in deep black.

For they were the stuff of nightmares; maggoty abominations possessed of incalculable and vile intellect that donned flesh and spines of men and beasts to shield themselves from the sun and enable themselves to walk upright instead of merely slithering.

Those quotes give you a sense of Barron’s writing, but can’t quite convey what it’s like to lose yourself in his words – and, more importantly, in the nightmarish visions he can convey. More than anything, Barron’s prose builds a world – both a real one and one beyond the veil – that has a way of overwhelming you, suffocating you with horrors until there’s no escape.

In short, it’s horror for horror connoisseurs. It’s not for casual readers, and it’s not for those who can’t handle their horror unflinching, unblinking, and nightmarish. But for those brave enough to handle its pages, you’re in for something unforgettable. Just don’t plan on having easy dreams for a while.

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