Full review at Bookgasm
When John Langan’s first collection, MR. GAUNT AND OTHER UNEASY ENCOUNTERS, came out in 2008, he quickly became a writer’s favorite — the kind of artisan who knows the genre inside and out, whose every story displays a deep understanding of where horror comes from and what it can do.
As he put it in his incisive afterword, he set out to take all these horror tropes that seemed somewhat exhausted and see if he could make them snarl again. Drawing from Poe, Jameses (M.R. and Henry) and Lovecraft, the stories in GAUNT are precision-tooled beauties, elegant and haunting.
No wonder his fellow writers fell over themselves with praise. And perhaps no great surprise that, at least for this reader, the work seemed a tad chilly. The kind of art that is so very well-made, I step back to “ooh” and “ah” but, at that distance, never get walloped, never lose myself in the telling. I enjoyed the book the way I enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, but not like the way as a small boy I devoured (and lost sleep because of) Stephen King’s THE SHINING.
Whatever qualifications I had about him before are decisively dispelled by Langan’s newest book, THE WIDE, CARNIVOROUS SKY & OTHER MONSTROUS GEOGRAPHIES. Without sacrificing any of that aesthetic razzle-dazzle, he also produces visceral storytelling bliss. It’s the finest single-author collection of horror literature I’ve read in some time (knocking Laird Barron off that throne), and it’s some of the best damn literature, period, I’ve read in the last few years.
As with his previous collection, each story riffs on some new trope and tries out some new technical trickery. For instance, “How the Day Runs Down” is a mash-up of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN and the zombie apocalypse. And it is amazing. The wit and care of the pastiche would be sufficient pleasure, but there are moments (as in the play) where the spectacle of death and the fuzzy solace of some salvation (here or hereafter) are superseded by a deep, thoughtful, open-ended grief.
The next story couldn’t be more different. “Technicolor” looks like an academic lecture, a prof blathering on to a class about Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” — carefully teasing out the import of the color scheme, contextualizing the work in terms of Poe’s life and some contemporary phenomena … until after a while, we readers are sucked into the tale, seduced by the way analysis shades into action — and Langan springs his trap. Fans of Poe will be astonished at the intelligence of this design, but you don’t have to be a prof to lose yourself in the pleasures of this text.
I could keep going: The next story is a brilliant revision of vampire mythology told in straightforward action-adventure mode, and subsequent tales riff on werewolves, the state of humankind after the Old Gods have taken dominion, and (in the second-person perspective) an exorcism of a statue in upstate New York. The weaker stories are still top-notch, but the three (or four) stand-outs are flat-out masterpieces.