We are living in a Golden Age of the short story of the fantastic, as is ably demonstrated by John Langan in his first collection of short stories, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. Langan writes the sort of psychological horror that reminds one of both Henry James and M.R. James, as Elizabeth Hand points out in her introduction to this collection. Each story is elegantly written, with craft evident in every sentence.
Langan’s Jamesian heritage is especially clear in the first story in the book, “On Skua Island,” which uses a plot device that should be worn past using by now, though Langan shows us it is not: the tale told to a group of friends during a social gathering. This particular gathering is in a house on the coast of an unnamed ocean during a strong February storm. Those gathered, who appear to be mostly academics and writers (or at least individuals very well versed in the tropes of horror fiction), pass some time talking about vampires, werewolves, zombies and mummies, concluding early in their discussion that nothing new can be said about mummies.
Until Nicholas speak up, that is. Nicholas, who has been largely silent during the party, tells his story of an archeological dig on Skua Island, located north-northwest of the Shetland Islands. This island, located far from any human habitation, is apparently of some interest to MI-5, Britain’s intelligence agency, and the dig is a cover; but Nicholas doesn’t care, because photographs of the area show that he might well make a discovery on the island crucial to his own particular theories about the Vikings. Nicholas’s time on the island is limited by the needs of MI-5. He must move quickly. So, when he discovers runes on a column that stands above his site, he cannot wait to translate them before proceeding to find what lies underneath. Nicholas discovers, to his regret, that one should always read the instructions first – and thereby hangs his tale.
“Mr. Gaunt” has an equally venerable storyline: the family member who enters the private space of a superior family member, only to find something he or she does not wish to see. The classic tale is “Bluebeard,” of course, in which a wife opens a room she’s been told never to enter, only to find the dead bodies of her husband’s previous wives. This tale, again told in a frame (a man who discovers an audiotape left to him when his father dies), is of a boy who enters his father’s study when his father is away. There the boy discovers the true nature of his father’s servant, Mr. Gaunt – and, it might well be said, of his father as well. The story, even with its ancient heritage, is altogether new here, and Langan tells it with grace and terror.
“Tutorial” is the weakest story in the collection, but it relieves the tension Langan has built up in his first two stories. It tells of James, a creative writing student who longs to write but is an atrociously bad writer. He doesn’t quite know this; he thinks he’s merely writing great horror fiction that his instructor can’t appreciate because he disapproves of genre writing. When his instructor sends him to a tutor, he and the tutor argue about the usefulness of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and whether Samuel Delany is a writer of any worth (“He writes science fiction,” James says; “Which explains why I’ve never heard of him,” the tutor responds). The tutor gives up and passes James on to another tutor, further downstairs in the Humanities Building, who goes through much the same process. “Omit needless words” from Strunk & White makes another appearance, and James again snorts with disgust at the advice. This tutor, too, sends him on, further downstairs, this time to a man known only as The Editor. The Editor has some, well, interesting ways of making fledgling writers behave. The story is clearly intended to be self-mocking, at least to an extent; but it ultimately fails because of the inconsistent ending. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the in-joke, because I did, but this story really is one that The Editor probably should have had a good crack at.
“Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers” is as science fictional as Langan’s writing gets, and is a strange experiment in imagination. It is the oddest love story I’ve ever read, or at least the oddest story of seemingly romantic obsession. No explanations are offered for anything that happens in this story; as one might expect from the title, it seems to start in the middle. All we know is that two humans are traversing a world gone awry, where cars are stopped in the middle of the road and populated by purple flowers. It reads like a particularly bad nightmare, and one I hope never to experience for myself.
In “Laocoon, or The Singularity,” the final and best story in the book, Langan returns to more traditional storytelling. The protagonist is Dennis, an artist still struggling to finish his master’s degree in fine arts. He has little patience for the classes he teaches as part of his work, even though he is in line for a tenure track position should he ever complete his degree. And he has lost his family, including his two sons, because he is simply too much of a loner, lost in his appreciation of art for art’s sake, to pay sufficient attention to getting anything accomplished. Not that he is a dreamer, exactly; Langan paints him as more of a stubborn ideologue who enjoys being contrary.
The story begins when Dennis discovers what appears to be an artwork of an alien creature in the trash, and hauls it back to his apartment. He is not satisfied with the face the creature has been given, and devotes much thought to how to craft something new, something exactly right. But from the start, this “artwork” has exercised a strange power over him, not even counting the wound he suffered in hauling the thing up his stairs – a wound that won’t heal, that has become strangely infected. When inspiration for the Face does strike, it strikes with a vengeance. “Laocoon” is an accomplished story that you won’t forget, no matter how hard you try.