Paging Henry James. . .
The Wide Carnivorous Sky
& Other Monstrous Geographies
By John Langan
322 pgs, Trade Paper ($20), April 2013
I was prepared to hate this book. It seemed pretentious—story notes, foreword and afterword by two better-known writers (Laird Barron and Jeffery Ford), an untranslated line from Voltaire as a story tag . . . . Then I read the first story, a seemingly pointless vignette called “Kids.” I put the book down by the toilet in the master bath.
Nevertheless, having no other reading material available a few days hence, I read the novella that followed “How the Day Runes Down.” It was then that I realized I was dealing with a major stylist: Langan wrote a zombie story in the pitch-perfect voice of the stage manager of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Unlike some silly zombie pastiches that mock literary classics, this was the perfect voice. It also contained a reasonable critique of what’s wrong with other zombie tales. I will re-read this piece if I ever try to write another zombie story.
The third tale “Technicolor” is a riff on Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Langan has cast the story in a lecture about Poe’s—a narrative distancing device worthy of James or Ligotti. As the professor lectures, spooky things are happening in the lecture hall, and we, the audience are slowly trapped in a horrible situation both metaphysically and physically.
Then the fourth story “The Wide Carnivorous Sky” was an excellent monster tale told with the panache of A. E. van Vogt and with the skill of characterization that reminded me of Stephen King at his best. Again I made a note to myself to re-read the tale in order to learn craft. The following novella “City of the Dog” had a series of narrative distancing devices that were worthy of Henry James. This story was inspired by Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” and “The Hound.” But the blend of exquisite telling and true blood-cuddling horror far surpasses its roots. This will be a story read for many, many years.
I’d seen and read “The Shallows” before. It was in Darrell Schweitzer’s Cthulhu’s Reign—a collection of stories about what happens after R’lyeh rises. . . After my own story in that collection this was the best. OK this was the best. Again, Langan accomplishes what Stephen King does so well—mixes truly human, well-rounded characters with disturbing Otherness. King does this in middlebrow prose, making him our Dickens. Langan does it in gorgeous prose making him our Machen.
I was beginning to understand. Langan was taking on clichés and proving that in the hands of a master any story can be made to sing. We’ve got the vampire story (“The Wide Carnivorous Sky”), the zombie story, the Poe story, and the Cthulhu Mythos piece—and then to complete the pattern “The Revel.” This is perhaps the only werewolf story I’ve ever read and totally enjoyed. This piece is both highbrow metafiction—discussing werewolf stories and their psychology and a truly suspenseful tale about a werewolf. Like “The Wide Carnivorous Sky”, this piece demands film.
I was not as taken by the last novella “Mother of Stone.” It relies heavily on the disproved theories of Marija Gimbutas, which are used to explain a hidden sculptural tradition of making cursed headless statues that make waitresses drop plates, and pregnant women lose their heads. Langan handles his female protagonist well and has spot-on narrative strategy, but I feel this story falls short of some of the excellence in the rest of the book.
It is clear that Langan is raising the bar of writerly craft in horror writing. He is taking a popular form and giving the benefit of prose techniques in recent English literature. The book left my bathroom and is now in the bookcase with the glass doors. For those of you that have been to my home—the cases in the loft library. No you can’t borrow it.