Friday, 6 November 2009

MR. GAUNT AND OTHER UNEASY ENCOUNTERS by John Langan

This is John Langan's first short story collection (by now he also has a debut novel out). It contains 4 short stories of varying lengths and one previously unpublished novella.

Langan has an excellent prose style and a great grasp of atmosphere and character. However, he often stumbles when it comes to introducing the element of the horrific into his stories. The most effective story here, 'On Skua Island' nods to Henry James' 'The Turn Of The Screw' in its structure, and for the most part Langan's tale, strong on atmosphere, pacing and character, is worthy of its model. The horrific element is presented in a manner reminiscent of that other James, Montague Rhodes, with a wealth of archaeological detail. It's the actual eruption of the numinous into the story that broke with all this subtlety and restraint. Stepping swiftly into Robert E. Howard mode (an association that was immediately suggested to me while reading this story and confirmed in the author's Story Notes), the end of the story plays itself out in a rush of mad action, an uncomfortable shift of gears that still holds up because of the strong narrative voice and sense of place.

The next story, 'Mr. Gaunt', manages that shift a lot less smoothly. Henry James is alluded to more explicitly as the point of view character's dead father, a James scholar, narrates a message from beyond the grave, via a tape recording made shortly before his demise. Again, tone of voice, characterisation and atmosphere are rich and satisfying. Mr. Gaunt was the dead father's brother's butler - a very creepy man who apparently did something very terrible. The dead man has framed this family secret in a sort of fable that he used to tell his son as a cautionary tale. Fragments of this tale are told to us through the story, helping to build a wonderful sense of suspense. This time though, I felt incredulous when all this subtly sustained suspense culminates in a scene from a pulp horror tale, almost laughable in its hokey trappings. The author avers that the real climax of the story is a little further along,and there is a scene of subtle, effective unease a page or two later, but the damage has been done. Langan has failed to learn one of the most important lessons a horror writer can learn from the ghostly tales of both Jameses: a little suggestion and a lot of atmosphere can go a longer way than explicit descriptions, especially since your phobia might be someone else's laughable cliche.

The collection goes further downhill with the next tale, the execrable 'Tutorial', which attempts to parlay a fledgling horror writer's frustration at having his choice of genre mocked and his stylistic choices greeted with an injunction to study Strunk & White. It's nothing more than a temper tantrum at not being loved by everyone, and the typical rapid descent from intriguing suggestion to disappointing explicitness doesn't help this tale any.

By now, I was predisposed to dislike 'Episode Seven', a cliched post-apocalyptic chase sequence with its only notable feature seeming to be an interesting if ultimately pointless formal experiment. However, this story did redeem itself by eventually finding the ultimate source of it's horror not in the ravening, wolflike pack that has somehow taken over the world, or the large purple flowers that are sprouting everywhere (I told you Langan had a fatal fondness for hokey plot elements) but in the focus character's companion, who seems to be becoming something other than human in order to survive. What exactly he is becoming, and whether it is something real, symbolic or just imagined by his traumatised companion is never made clear. I think that ambiguity is why this tale succeeds in the end.

The concluding novella, 'Laocoon, or the singularity' is a somewhat brilliant character study of a man who has failed to fulfill his artistic potential and is watching his family and his life spin out of his control. It is overlaid with a bizarre element that serves to focus and bring out his disintegration, but the end is rather predictable. Langan's incorporation of modern pop cultural elements like comic books and science fiction stories in the last couple of stories make an interesting contrast to the antiquarian tendencies of the first two, but I am not particularly impressed by the manner in which they are handled. They seem to reduce the tales to the sort of referential characterisation you get in web comics or tv shows targeted at hipsters.

In conclusion, a collection that shows more promise than brilliance. The quality of Langan's literary style and his grasp of character and atmosphere make me expect more from him than these tawdry horror-theme-park trappings.

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