by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)
In the late 1980s, John Paul Langan was pursuing a master’s degree at the State University of New York at New Paltz. At the time, he seemed to be nothing more than a bright young graduate student, deeply versed in literary theory and with a somewhat unusual interest in weird fiction—but purely as a field of scholarly study. He did publish a few articles at the time; but then, at the turn of the millennium, he turned his attention to writing weird tales. The result, so far, has been three collections of short stories—Mr. Gaunt and Other Uncanny Encounters (2008), The Wide, Carnivorous Sky (2013), and Sefira and Other Betrayals (2018), and two novels, House of Windows (2009) and The Fisherman (2016).
A great deal of Langan’s fiction retains its author’s origins in academic literary study. The number of professors in his novels and tales is very high, and a great many of his stories take place somewhat monotonously in the region where he studied and now teaches—New Paltz (disguised as the town of Huguenot, a name derived from its most celebrated street, Huguenot Street, where several historic Dutch homes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries remain) and neighbouring areas, such as the fictional town of Wiltwyck (the original name for the town of Kingston). But more than the locale, Langan’s tales are about the act of storytelling itself, and they thereby become self-referential and metafictional to an unusual degree. His stories contain all manner of overt and covert references to Melville, Lovecraft, Henry James, and other authors of “writerly” fiction, whose works are themselves laden with narratives within narratives, found documents, and the like.
It is therefore not surprising that, within Langan’s three collections of tales, we find few short stories but an assemblage of novelettes and novellas; for Langan needs this expansive space to expound his nested narratives in a suitably detailed manner. His first collection, Mr. Gaunt, contains only five stories, the shortest of which is 30 pages. It is an interesting but uneven volume, and Langan would have been well advised to omit the nearly unreadable “Episode Seven: Last Stand against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers,” an incoherent pseudo-screenplay or movie treatment dealing with some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario. Also smelling far too much of the study (or, rather, the classroom) is “Tutorial,” in which a college student in a creative writing class is chastised for writing florid tales of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and is required to see a tutor in a foreboding basement level of the humanities building, then compelled to see some baleful entity called the Editor, who reveals that he is part of a worldwide conspiracy to preserve order and eliminate similes, metaphors, and other elements of flamboyant prose. As an instance of literary revenge on those academicians who see little virtue in weird fiction, the tale was no doubt highly satisfying to its author; but as a story it amounts to little.
More engaging are two lengthy narratives that tell their tales full of action, suspense, and supernatural terror. “On Skua Island” takes us to a remote island north of Scotland, where an archaeologist is asked by members of the British security service, MI5 (!), to investigate some peculiar Viking runes. The expedition discovers the leathery remains of an ancient woman, her throat cut, presumably by the sword that was lying on top of her. The archaeologist translates the runes, which tell of a plague afflicting the area and a wizard who chose a young woman, Frigga, as a sacrifice who would take the plague into herself. She is buried under an obelisk with the sword on top of her; the latter must never be moved. Well, of course the predictable occurs: once the sword is removed by the expedition, Frigga comes to life and creates havoc. The archaeologist subdues her with the sword, but cannot be certain she is dead. The story contains some entertaining images of grue (at one point Frigga seizes upon one hapless fellow and peels his face off), and overall it has a kind of H. Rider Haggard supernatural-adventure feel to it.
“Mr. Gaunt” is a more imposing specimen, and it initiates Langan’s penchant for telling stories within stories. We are here introduced to Henry Farange, whose father has just died. The father (whose name, oddly enough, is never provided) has left a recording for his son telling the long, bizarre tale of his brother George, ten years older than himself, who settled in a house in Edinburgh with his young son, Peter—whose custody he had secured after his divorce from his wife, Clarissa—and a saturnine butler, Mr. Gaunt. One day, when George is away, Peter finds himself able to satisfy his fascination with his father’s study, which is always kept locked: now it is open—has it been deliberately left open by Mr. Gaunt? It would seem so; for Peter first finds a skeleton standing in one corner of the room, then the outer form of Mr. Gaunt (“a coat, and pants, and hands, and a face: Mr. Gaunt’s hands and face” [76; emphasis in original]). Peter flees, but Mr. Gaunt captures him and stuffs him in an ancient sarcophagus; and we are reminded that the very word sarcophagus means “flesh-eating.” George, returning, discovers what Mr. Gaunt has done; as his brother remarks cryptically, “he punished…Mr. Gaunt suitably” (81). Later, George tells his brother the full story: Mr. Gaunt was George’s former teacher at Oxford, and George had put him in a sarcophagus—just long enough for him to become an animated skeleton. Gaunt had long waited to gain his revenge. The tale is again an entertainment, even if many of the events are pretty implausible; but there is not the slightest profundity or human interest about it.
The longest tale in Mr. Gaunt is the unfortunately titled “Laocöon, or, The Singularity”: Langan should have had enough scholarship (or his copy editor should have) to recognise that the diaresis on the proper name goes on the second o: Laocoön (as indicating a separate syllable). But no matter. A man named Dennis finds a statue in an alley next to his apartment building; finding it of interest (it reminds him of the work of H. R. Giger), he brings it into his apartment. Dennis himself is a sculptor, although he currently works in a video store while also being an adjunct professor. A co-worker at the store talks to him about the Singularity: “the moment when computers were supposed to exceed their creators, become conscious or something approximating it” (189–90). What this concept actually has to do with the story is not at all clear; for the main narrative concerns the apparent animation of the statue—or at least its ability to infect those who come into contact with it. For after Dennis inadvertently cuts himself with a piece of the statue, he finds that a hideous snakelike entity emerges from his shoulder, “raising itself up a good three or four inches, swaying slightly, as if testing the air. It was thin as electrical wire, streaked with blood and pus, beneath which it looked grey, almost silver” (214). All this is charmingly gruesome, and later other snakelike creatures crawl all over Dennis’s face and place on it a metallic face that he had made for the statue; Dennis becomes the statue.
“Laocöon” is a staggeringly verbose novella, full of inessential features that have no bearing on the crux of the story. In particular, long scenes depicting Dennis’s bitter divorce from his wife, Kelly, and his custody battles over his two small sons, Liam and Brian, pad the story beyond all reasonable length but do not contribute anything vital to the narrative. This is, regrettably, a failing that afflicts a number of Langan’s tales.
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky—its title, as Langan belatedly acknowledged, taken from a blogpost by Caitlín R. Kiernan—is also a highly uneven collection, although its final novella comes close to redeeming its weaknesses. Some tales are slight but nonetheless effective. “How the Day Runs Down” is an alternately grisly and plangent tale of how zombies are plaguing a small-town community. The story is written in the form of a play, with a Stage Manager introducing and commenting on the (implausibly long) monologues of various townspeople. The end seems near, not just for the town but our entire species: “It’s how Homo sapiens sapiens departs the scene, carried off a bite at a time in the teeth of the undead” (54). Also adhering to well-worn supernatural tropes is “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky,” which takes us to Iraq, where US soldiers seem to detect a vampire whose coffin (or perhaps it is a chrysalis) spends “its nights in low-Earth orbit” (90). Later, one soldier has a hallucination of becoming a vampire himself. There is speculation that the vampire is an extraterrestrial. Four soldiers gang up on the creature and apparently dispose of him, although two of their number are killed in the process.
“City of the Dog” is long and intermittently powerful narrative that deftly fuses supernatural terror with emotional poignancy. We are dealing with a love triangle involving a woman, Kaitlyn Bertolozzi, and two men who love her, the first-person narrator (name not provided) and Chris Garofalo. When Kaitlyn goes missing, Chris tells the fantastic tale that, in his opinion, she has been kidnapped by some hideous individual called the Keeper, who controls doglike creatures called a Ghûls. (The notion of ghouls—doglike entities who eat the dead—originated in weird fiction in William Beckford’s Vathek  and was used by H. P. Lovecraft in numerous stories.) In the end, Chris offers himself to the Keeper in exchange for Kaitlyn and becomes a Ghûl.
But these meritorious tales are confounded by others that are painfully pretentious or meandering. One such specimen is “Technicolor,” written for an anthology of Poe-inspired stories. Here we are purportedly given the real-life source for Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” It appears that Poe read a book written by one Prosper Vauglais, a French soldier who survived Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and came to a monastery occupied by seven brothers (like the seven rooms in Poe’s story). Later Vauglais comes to Paris, where he seems to become something akin to the walking dead. The professor telling this story now wanders off on a disquisition about Poe and his child bride Virginia. Overall, aside from being intolerably prolix, the story seems to have no point.
“The Revel” purports to be a kind of analysis of a werewolf story or film, but is painfully stilted and academic: “Is it necessary to say that the Police Chief is the narrative’s representative of order? In a horror narrative, it is rare for there not to be such a figure, either institutionally sanctioned or self-appointed” (202). “June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris” is about a young man, Laird, who hitches a ride with a Mr. Norris, who tries to subdue him with chloroform; but Laird fights back and cuts Norris’s hamstrings. Norris is terrified of being left alone, because he suspects that some nameless “attendant” (230) will smell his blood. Sure enough, Laird sees “tall, spindly things” (230) approaching from a nearby wood. This is more of a sketch, even a synopsis, rather than an actual story.
But the capstone of The Wide, Carnivorous Sky is its final novella, “Mother of Stone.” Written in a somewhat annoying second-person narration that only seems intended to convey the author’s cleverness, it focuses on a female professor (name once again not provided) who is investigating the case of Rachel Torino, who died in a car accident: she was decapitated while nine months pregnant. What of the fact that a statue was found sometime earlier near the Wynkoop Inn in Stonington? Skilfully done, this statue depicts a headless, pregnant woman. When the statue is set up in the dining room of the inn, all manner of bizarre occurrences follow, including blood spraying out of it. At a later point, the statue is brought into the Episcopal church; a rabbi (!), Phil Singer, believes it to be a representation of Cybele, the Great Mother. He urges the Episcopal pastor, Marie Au Claire, to perform an exorcism according to the Anglican rite. She does so, although in the process she hears Singer speaking in a horrible guttural language: “The language…clawed at her ears, as if each syllable were covered in barbs” (286). Singer takes the statue away, presumably to bury it again.
“Mother of Stone” is a richly textured and powerful story, but a number of plot elements do not seem properly accounted for. And, as I have remarked, the second-person narration is needless and irritating. Langan attempts to justify it at the end by remarking: “After having lived your life for—for years, really, as if it were being told to you, as if you were a character being pushed through it by a middling writer’s inexpert hand, suddenly, finally, you are on the verge of moving from second- to first-person, of taking on the telling of your life” (299). But this disquisition does not in fact seem validated by the course of the narrative, for the unnamed professor does not appear to have grown or progressed in any meaningful fashion after conducting her laborious investigation.
Langan’s third collection is just as uneven as his previous two, perhaps more so. It is marred by a number of weak stories, including “In Paris in the Mount of Kronos,” a long-winded narrative written in a manner highly unsuited to Langan—the plebeian action-adventure style of Robert Ludlum—and recounting the implausible story that the torture practiced by the CIA in Iraq has resurrected some Kronos-like monster that eats human beings. Not much better is “Renfrew’s Course,” about two gay men in Scotland, one of whom has flashes of both his past and his future. The story is poorly developed, and random mentions of The Mysteries of the Worm (an imaginary tome of eldritch lore created by Robert Bloch and cited frequently in Lovecraft’s later tales) serve no evident purpose.
Substantially better is “The Third Always Beside You,” a poignant tale of a husband who has a long-term affair with another woman who then dies. At the end, the man’s adult daughter comes into her parents’ room and sees them making love—but with the ghost of the dead woman between them, participating in the lovemaking. Even better is “Bloom,” perhaps Langan’s most accomplished non-novel-length story. This mesmerising novella fuses Lovecraftian cosmicism with domestic conflict. A man ingests an alien entity (which will then “bloom” in him), then secretly infects a bottle of vodka so that his wife will become his “consort” after their transformation. This bald synopsis cannot begin convey the gradualness with which each element of the revelation augments both the terror and the emotional power of the overall narrative. “Bos Uros” is a complex narrative about a man who is fascinated by storms. At one point he appears to see a huge monster in a storm, and later this creature (two or three times the size of a bull) chases him. Langan suggests that this supernatural phenomenon is a symbol for the freedom from domestic responsibilities that the protagonist apparently yearns for.
Langan’s two novels are much superior, in general, to his short stories; indeed, House of Windows, blandly titled as it is, would alone be enough to give Langan a place in contemporary weird fiction. The Fisherman is somewhat less accomplished but nonetheless contains much merit. Both novels are written in a fluid, quietly elegant prose that enhances their readability and vivifies every incident.
House of Windows is constructed on a somewhat improbable premise—Veronica Croydon, the second wife of Roger Croydon, recounts to the unnamed first-person narrator at enormous length over several nights the strange circumstances surrounding Roger’s disappearance—but the tale that Veronica tells is enormously compelling for its emotive depth and its gradually increasing doses of weirdness. Veronica was a graduate student working with Roger, a professor of English at SUNY Huguenot, and she lured him away from his longtime wife, Joann. After a bitter divorce, Roger and Veronica married, but there remained problems with Roger and Joann’s adult son, Ted, who spoke harshly to his father about Veronica (“This is about you leaving my mother for some teenaged slut. This is about you breaking up a thirty-eight-year marriage so you could get your dick wet” ). A grotesque fight broke out between father and son, with the result that both were arrested. After they are released, Roger delivers a kind of curse on his son: “As of this moment, I am no longer your father; you are no longer my son. I disown you; I cast you from me. All bonds between us are sundered; let our blood no longer be true. And when you die, may you know fitting torment; may you not escape your failure” (33). Around the same time, in what seems an implausible coincidence, Veronica has a miscarriage and Roger has a mild heart attack.
After the terrorist attacks on the US on 9/11, Ted, a Special Forces soldier, is sent to Afghanistan, where he dies in Kabul from a rocket-propelled grenade. Roger takes Ted’s death very hard; his teaching suffers, and he is persuaded to take a leave of absence. Roger, who had left the house he had lived in for many years with his wife, Belvedere House, now decides—without consulting Veronica—to move back into the house. He becomes convinced that Ted is trying to reach him, and so he undertakes a fanatical quest to reconstruct the events that led to Ted’s death in Afghanistan. He also begins sleepwalking. Veronica, who has been experiencing possibly supernatural incidents herself, comes to the conclusion that, far from seeking reconciliation, “Ted was actively hostile, if not outright malevolent” (151)—and she feels that this hostility is a direct result of Roger’s “curse” on Ted. Revisiting the scene of the curse, she has a terrifying vision of Roger stabbing her with a knife (thereby causing her miscarriage), stabbing himself (thereby causing his heart attack), and stabbing Ted (thereby causing his later death). “From above, the three of us make up the sides of a bloody triangle” (159).
Is there something in Belvedere House that is somehow triggering these visions? She learns that an artist, Thomas Belvedere, had spent the summer of 1953 alone at the house and produced a striking series of bizarre paintings, collectively referred to as the “Dark Feast” series. Is it possible that there is some entity at the house that urged Roger to make that curse, and did Belvedere attempt to paint it? Belvedere had been a colleague of a young man named Rudolph de Castries, who had evolved a curious theory called “locimancy” (place magic). This is a direct allusion to Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (1977), in which de Castries appears as the author of a book called Megapolisomancy, which proposed the idea that large cities become strangely animate and conscious. The notion is a working out of Leiber’s many powerful tales of urban horror. The allusion is not quite fully developed in House of Windows, but it adds a layer of historical depth and supernatural menace to the overall scenario.
But the scenario is terrifying enough on its own. In a new vision, Veronica now sees Ted taking the role of Roger’s own father, who was himself abusive toward his son. Roger continually defies her pleas to lift the “curse,” and now she begins to sense that he does not “want to lift the curse because you’re afraid that it’ll make Ted go away” (234). And she utters the most cutting remark she could level against her husband: “You’re just like your father, that’s all” (235). In a riveting climactic scene, Veronica now sees the ghost of Ted in the back yard of Belvedere House and urges Roger to go out there, perhaps to effect some kind of reconciliation. Roger refuses; Veronica, enraged, begins hitting Roger, causing him to fall down the stairs. She demands that Roger meet Ted, or “I will claw your eyes out” (238). Roger hesitantly approaches Ted, and Veronica knows that he had “walked toward what had to be his death” (239). The next morning Roger is nowhere to be found.
The first-person narrator now asks Veronica what she thinks happened to Roger. She wonders if some bizarre warping of time might have occurred. Roger’s obsessive investigation of the circumstances leading to Ted’s death in Afghanistan may have led him to believe that he could somehow go back in time and save his son: perhaps he had done so, rushing at him to warn him away from the approaching grenade (eyewitnesses had seen an elderly man engaging in just such an action prior to the explosion); but of course the tactic had not worked, and Ted had died anyway. Veronica ultimately rejects this solution as “too Twilight Zone—ironic, but not necessarily logical” (252). After proposing other reconstructions, she simply wonders whether Roger’s spirit is just lost in endless solitude. She recalls a passage from a book on Dickens that Roger had written: “dead, Dickens’s fathers have a much greater effect on their sons’ lives than ever they could have hoped for during life, for worse and for better” (260).
There are times when House of Windows achieves an almost unbearable emotional intensity, as readers find themselves in an anguished triangle (or perhaps quadrangle) in which Roger, Ted, Roger’s father, and Veronica are all wrestling with the psychological effects of the cruelties they have inflicted upon one another. Langan’s portrayal of the three central figures—Roger, the distinguished professor who arrogantly refuses to acknowledge any error in his treatment of his son; Ted, the hot-headed youth who had attempted to gain control of his life by joining the military, much to his father’s disdain; and Veronica, a young wife who already has to bear the stigma of being a homewrecker and then has to deal with a conflict between father and son that transcends death—is impeccable, with each passing page revealing greater depths to each character’s personality and making the ultimately destructive encounter between father and son tragically inevitable.
Whether the various supernatural incidents in the novel truly cohere as an aesthetic unity is a matter of debate. Throughout House of Windows we are faced with all manner of bizarre visions that do not seem fully accounted for. The significance of the title itself remains a matter of doubt. At the outset we are told of Belvedere House: “Its upper storeys were full of windows, most of them long rectangles, with a few circles and half-circles in amongst them” (7). What this architectural feature has to do with the unfolding of events is unclear. Some individual supernatural episodes—most notably, a scene where Ted appears “looming over Roger’s shoulder” (220), although unseen by him, after which Ted pursues Veronica into a closet, which magically expands into a long corridor—are riveting, but they are not always fully enmeshed into the narrative. Nevertheless, House of Windows stands as one of the premier weird novels of the early years of the twenty-first century; it alone would be sufficient to grant John Langan a significance place in the field.
The Fisherman is also about stories—a good many of them. This novel also takes place in upstate New York, specifically a place called Dutchman’s Creek, near Woodstock. The novel is narrated in the first person by Abe Samuelson, whose wife Marie died of cancer after only two years of marriage. As a solace, Abe takes up fishing; he is later joined by a colleague from his office, Dan Drescher, whose wife and children were killed in a car accident in which he managed to survive. It is on Dan’s suggestion that they go to Dutchman’s Creek to fish. At Herman’s Diner, the proprietor, a man named Howard, notes ominously that several people have drowned in that creek; in answer to Abe’s query, he tells the long, convoluted story—which he heard from a Reverend Mapple, who himself heard it from an aged woman, Lottie Schmidt—to Abe and Dan. (Langan states that the story took an hour to tell, although in reality it would probably have taken seven to eight hours, as it consists of thirty-three chapters filling nearly 150 pages.)
The tale Howard has to tell is extremely odd. The creek was originally named Deutschman’s Creek, or Der Platz das [sic] Fischer (“the place of the fisherman” ). (The proper German would be Der Platz der Fischer.) Lottie had come to the region from Germany as a child along with her parents, Rainer and Clara, to work on the construction of a reservoir in the area. Rainer had actually been a professor in Germany, but had suffered some unspecified disgrace. Lottie hears tales of one of the founders of the town, Cornelius Dort. In the 1840s he had received a strange-looking man, called only the Guest, into his house; two days later, his young wife Beatrice died. The Guest curiously remains in the house. Decades pass; Dort, now more than a hundred years old, objects strenuously to the building of the reservoir, but the plan is nonetheless approved. Whole towns are moved or destroyed to make way for it. Dort finally dies at the age of 107; the Guest remains in his house, as he produces a will from Dort bestowing the property to him.
A woman named Helen living next to the Dort house dies suddenly. Later her husband, George, seemingly driven insane by grief, says that a miracle has occurred and Helen has been restored to life by the Guest, adding cryptically: “He’s a fisherman” (76). True enough, other townsfolk see Helen—and, worse still, Helen appears to know intimate secrets of the people she encounters. Lottie herself has a hideous encounter with Helen in the storage room of the bakery where she works, but manages to fight her way out. Rainer traps Lottie in her house, possibly by the use of incantations. He interrogates Helen, who declares that her master is “The Fisherman” (125). After Rainer makes a strange motion with his hand, she dissolves into a pool of water.
Rainer believes the Guest (or the Fisherman) is a Schwartzkunstler (black magician) from Hungary who is seeking the entity the Bible calls Leviathan. As Rainer and a small band of men enter the Dort house to confront the Fisherman, they seem to see a vast expanse of trees, rivers, and so on. They come upon a lake or ocean where an immense entity emerges:
For a moment, Jacob’s mind insists that what arcs out of the water is an island, because there is no living creature that big in all of creation. Then it moves, first rising even higher, into a more severe arch, then subsiding, lifting itself from the waves at both ends while relaxing its middle into a gradual curve, the whole of its dull surface traversed by the ripples of what Jacob understands are great muscles flexing and releasing, and there’s no doubt this is alive. (145)
The Fisherman is standing in the water: he appears to have come close to capturing the creature with fishhooks. Rainer appears to subdue the Fisherman, as he is dragged into the water by one of the ropes. But is he dead? The creature now rises up out of the water; the men flee and return to town.
Years later, Rainer (now working for the Water Authority), hears odd stories about Dutchman’s Creek. No one seems to know where its headwaters are. Rainer now admits to his son-in-law, Jacob, that he had been exiled from Germany because of his own occult studies, undertaken in collaboration with one Wilhelm Vanderwort. Rainer tells a long, involved story about Vanderwort, who finally “collapsed in a shower of dust and darkness” (188).
After Howard finishes his incredible tale, Abe and Dan go fishing in Dutchman’s Creek. Abe hooks something with “a body thick as the trunk of a small tree” (207). Dan helps Abe reel it in—its body “was less solid than gelid” (210). It is a fish with a human skull attached. Dan now admits that in his grandfather’s fishing journal there was a mention of him coming to the creek and seeing his dead wife. It was because of that story that Dan wanted to come to the creek himself, in the hope that he might see his own dead wife and children. Abe now thinks he sees Marie at the top of a ridge. He comes to her; she seems solid, not insubstantial like a ghost. They make love; but afterwards, she turns into a monster: “Its nose was flat, the nostrils a pair of slits over a broad mouth whose lower jaw jutted forward, exposing the row of daggered teeth lining it. Its hair was stringy, a mane of tendrils. The hand it rested on my chest was webbed, each thick finger capped by a heavy claw” (221).
Nevertheless, Abe accepts Marie’s offer to lead him to Dan. They come to an apparent ocean, where hundreds of people are holding ropes cast into the water. Dan is there—with his wife and children, now restored to life. A man is also there, chained to a boulder. Is he the Fisherman? He too had, it transpires, lost his family to a hideous death, but “he has learned how to retrieve them” (234). And he has caught Leviathan again (his name for it is Apophis), decades after Rainer and his friends had cut the ropes that had held it. Dan now wants to lend the Fisherman his “strength” to complete the job of capture, and he urges Abe to do so also. But Abe knows that the Marie he has met is not the woman he knew in life, so he refuses. Dan, enraged, tries to hit Abe with a rock; Abe in turn cuts him with a knife. Dan’s family, now turned into monsters, attack him. Abe flees, runs back to the creek, fights off Marie, and reaches dry land.
The Fisherman is, as is obvious, a series of tales within tales—so many, indeed, that there is some confusion as to how these tales are all supposed to fit together. Some of the literary allusions that Langan makes throughout the novel are fairly transparent. The Reverend Mapple is an obvious reference to Father Mapple of Moby-Dick (note also the name of Herman’s Diner). We are evidently to assume that, in this novel, fishing takes the place of whaling as some sort of metaphor for life; or, at a minimum, that the Fisherman is Langan’s Ahab, seeking to catch Leviathan (or Apophis) rather than the white whale. But exactly what the Fisherman’s purpose in doing so is never clarified; and the apparent fact that he can, after a fashion, resurrect the dead does not seem well integrated with his overarching goal of harnessing Apophis.
The fact that the diner’s proprietor, Howard, is himself a frustrated writer from Providence, R.I. (49) is a plain reference to H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraftian echoes in The Fisherman come in the form of the reservoir and the towns that have to be moved or abandoned to make way for it, a clear allusion to “The Colour out of Space.” The fact that the resurrected Marie’s hands are webbed is a nod to “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” And the overall cosmic scope of the book (encapsulated by a throwaway line toward the end that the emerging monster’s “eye [was] the size of a stadium” ) is also indebted to Lovecraft.
But The Fisherman does not cohere as a unity. In the midst of all the tales that are being told, it is hard to focus on the core of the narrative—the quest of the Fisherman to snare Apophis—especially since this aspect of the novel has itself not been envisioned in a focused manner. As in House of Windows, Langan does well in portraying the anguish of losing loved ones, either suddenly or in a slow, lingering fashion; but this element becomes submerged beneath the bewildering chaos of supernatural phenomena he throws out to the reader. And Langan errs by having a bathetic scene at the very end whereby, years after the climactic scene at Dutchman’s Creek, the ghost of Dan appears to Abe in the midst of a storm—whereupon Dan wards him off with some cooking spray.
John Langan has distinguished himself with some stellar works of supernatural terror, in both the novel and the short story (or, more properly, the novella). The chief merit of these works is a focus on the effects of horror and tragedy upon human emotions, and the complex interplay of familial relations that can engender trauma, heartbreak, and psychosis. His prose is crisp, elegant, and smooth-flowing, and his most successful works feature a narrative skill that carries readers along inexorably to a satisfying denouement. His work remains uneven, and occasionally slipshod prose mars even his best tales; but he is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary weird fiction.