John Langan
Prime Books ($24.95)

by Charlie Broderick

One of the most important factors of the horror story is atmosphere. For this reason one should wait to read John Langan’s Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters until the ripest moment of the day—dusk. Begin the ritual by locking the doors, checking under the bed, and starting a fire in the hearth. Settle into the couch, and take a deep breath. Hope that the makings of a storm are in the air, and, as suggested by Elizabeth Hand in the introduction, leave a light on.

Hand wastes no time in adding to the tone of the collection by evoking the spirit of all the horror greats, from Lovecraft to King. One expects the atmosphere to escalate after such a promising introduction, but unfortunately the opening of “On Suka Island” feels off pace; one can’t help feeling Langan is like a kid in a costume shop trying on outfits for Halloween. Werewolf? Vampire? Mummy? Readers spend the first six pages of this thirty-five page story waiting around while the characters trade inside jokes on which monster will finally win the author’s devotion—but they’ll spend the next twenty-nine pages glad he did. “On Suka Island” demonstrates Langan’s narrative control by unexpectedly mixing mummy lore with a shifting point of view narration.

Like this story’s weatherworn protagonist, Nick, readers may find themselves wanting to avoid the sea, but they will not want to avoid the collection’s second story, “Mr. Gaunt.” Here Langan takes his established tone and mummy theme even further by sharing the story of Henry, a man who finds a tape his dead father recorded for him which explains his family’s terrible secret. Langan artfully maintains the intense atmosphere captured from “On Suka Island,” beginning with the line, “It was not until five weeks after his father’s funeral that Henry Farange was able to remove the plastic milk crate containing the old man’s final effects from the garage.” Langan’s ability to speak directly to his readers is so apparent that they feel as if they are experiencing the story right alongside Henry.

In the third story, “Tutorial,” Langan abandons mummies for something much more frightening—editors. Langan may overestimate how interested readers are in the writing process, but he does not abandon his craft or attention to detail. This quirky story makes us work through long yet somehow funny sentences, such as, “He would have elaborated on the tutor’s white button-down shirt, the black plastic wristwatch tournniquetting his left wrist; all in all, James reckoned he could have spent a good page or two of single-spaced, ten point type on this man, whose name he thought was Sean but wasn’t sure.” It’s deftly written, although the little laugh that results may erode the spooky atmosphere Langan has worked so hard to establish in the previous stories.

Readers will forgive Langan for the indulgent joke a few pages into “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against The Pack In The Kingdom Of The Purple Flowers.” Langan picks up the pace as we are introduced to Jackie, a very pregnant protagonist, evading a pack of beasts amidst what could likely be Armageddon. In what seems to be the author’s version of a Werewolf story, pop culture comic book references abound; the experimental structure of the story also creates the feeling that “Episode Seven” is a comic book without the pictures. The sometimes bolded, sometimes italicized text suggests visual margins for the story, as do the names of colors which are italicized and set at the beginnings of paragraphs.

Langan’s unique artistic vision is carried out further in “Laocoon, Or The Singularity,” the final story of the collection. Readers will sense that the sometimes up and sometimes down protagonist, Dennis, is going to take them along for a ride on his emotional roller coaster to hell when the lonely art professor becomes obsessed with a discarded statue he finds behind his apartment and his life is forever changed. It’s no short read, at eighty-one pages, but it definitely gives rise to that Twilight Zone feeling Langan has captured throughout the collection.

After spending time with Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, readers may find it hard to sleep at night. Perhaps to account for this, Langan offers a section of story notes that give insight to the author’s inspirations and intentions, and offer suggestions about authors and topics for further reading. At the very least, these notes can provide a good excuse to keep the light on a bit longer.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009