I enjoy perusing reviews of whatever I’m planning on reading next–not always the wisest choice, as it sometimes ends up spoiling plot surprises–which is how I stumbled on a Strange Horizons review of John Langan’s collection. The review was brutal, including several lines like this one: “…as a work in its own right it isn’t worth a reader’s time and money.” The reviewer felt that Langan was not ready to publish a collection, even if his most recent work gave indications he was a writer to watch. After reading Langan’s collection, I feel like the Strange Horizons reviewer and I read two different books. While the stories in Mr Gaunt may reveal Langan was still growing as a writer, they also showcase his considerable strengths.
The first two stories in Mr Gaunt, “On Skua Island” and “Mr Gaunt,” are fairly traditional horror tales. What makes them stand out is Langan’s use of neglected monsters in these narratives. Instead of giving us yet another zombie or vampire tale (and Langan is more than capable of breathing life into a tired archetype like the vampire, as his “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky” attests), he gives us stories about mummies and skeletons. Langan also manages to make these ho-hum members of the supernatural pantheon more than a little creepy, not an easy task (when you say skeletons and mummies, I think science class and Scooby Doo). Both stories accomplish this by balancing Gothic elements with gory bits, creating an enjoyable mix of the antiquarian and the contemporary. The Strange Horizons reviewer disliked both the “club story” frames Langan used for these tales and the gore he employs in their climaxes, but I thought the combination of the two made the stories more appealing. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to employ familiar elements in an unfamiliar fashion. Langan does this well. Yes, there are some clunky snatches of dialogue and a little too much showing over telling (which actually makes me feel better, because it’s one of my problems, too), but the stories work for me.
“Tutorial” is a writer’s story. It’s about writing, the main character is a writer, it appeals to writers. Langan is catering to my prejudices here–I love stories about writers, music, art, and film, and have written a few myself. “Tutorial” is both smart and funny, and effectively skewers all of those writing teachers who don’t like non-mimetic fiction. I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it (even if it does feature both evil writing tutors and intimations of Lovecraft), but not all stories are supposed to have universal appeal. Niche stories aren’t a bad thing…just a limited thing.
“Episode Seven” is the only story in the collection the Strange Horizons reviewer liked. It’s an audacious story, which makes me happy; I like audacious stories, biting off as much as I can chew. “Episode Seven” is an apocalyptic story, which isn’t new. It’s also one of those stories where you don’t know exactly what the hell is going on, which, while intriguing, also isn’t new. But what is more unique is Langan’s style: “Episode Seven” is essentially one thirty-two page sentence. A story written in this fashion can easily become labored, but Langan manages to use his style almost as a poet would, to add a level of drama and intensity to an already tense narrative (as well as emphasize the disconnectedness the protagonists feel to their strange new world). I feel that fantastic fiction (encompassing all manners of speculative fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, what have you) is particularly open to invention, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. I especially like writers who can use invention as well as Langan does.
The last story in the collection, “Laocoon, or The Singularity,” is my favorite story of the bunch. It’s long (82 pages), has lots of back story, and spills a lot of ink on mundane topics (our protagonist’s college lectures, his job at the video store). These were all reasons our naysayer reviewer disliked this story, but are all pluses for me. The attention to mundane events reminded me of Nate Ballingrud, and made the supernatural elements all the more distinctive. The back story touched heavily on Greek myth, aesthetics and the nature of art, which were essential to understanding both the main character and the otherworldly intrusion he experiences. And the length gave us time to get to know the characters and care about them. Langan did a nice job of moving between action and recollection, something I labor over while writing. The horrific imagery Langan uses in this story was particularly queasy, and shared some resemblance to Nate Ballingrud’s excellent novella The Visible Filth, which was published earlier this year. Both stories feature doomed protagonists who acquire items that transform them, a story frame I find of considerable interest.
Since this collection was published seven years ago, John Langan has gone on to better things. “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky” is one of my all-time favorite stories, and other tales of his in recent collections have been almost equally as good. But Mr. Gaunt is not a collection of ugly baby photos. It presents the first work of a new writer, yes, but also a very talented writer, a very entertaining writer. I find nothing lackluster or embarrassing about this collection. And, considering his current web presence is named after this book, I don’t think John Langan does either.