Book review: The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, by John Langan, Hippocampus Press
June 15, 2014 | 12:25 pm
I’m a Scot, and cheapass as it comes, even when buying books. And as a regular reviewer, I’m usually able to obtain review copies on request, especially dark fiction and horror. But there was one recent title I felt I had to go out and buy with my own money, because it’s so well regarded and so often cited by the very best writers in the genre. That’s John Langan‘s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky. The collection comes with an introduction from Jeffrey Ford and an afterword by Laird Barron, two other writers Higher Than Whom It’s Barely Possible To Get. What more imposing credentials could there be?
And was I disappointed? Exasperated at times, yes. Awed, yes. Humbled, yes. Frequently horrified – which happens all too rarely with supposed horror fiction these days. But not disappointed.
That said, this is not the right horror fiction for everybody. If you prefer horror tales (maybe a wee bit Stephen King-esque?) where both characters and readers come to the narratives like dumb fang-fodder in horror B-movies who have apparently never learned a thing about vampires or werewolves, this is not for you. When I was exasperated by Langan, it was when he seemed almost too arch, too knowing and self-regarding, until, just at the moment when my patience was almost exhausted, he pulled it together and delivered another gut-punch of horrific brilliance. Langan may know how to deconstruct, but he also knows how to reconstruct, or simply to construct: The stories here are often masterpieces of pacing and progessive introduction of elements and ideas.
This also makes his stories very hard to summarize, which gets me off the usual guilt over spoilers, because a straightforward plot breakdown would miss so much of the real point. But as one example, “Technicolor” is a brilliant analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s”The Masque of the Red Death” in the guise of a literature seminar, with a homage thrown in to the wonderful Roger Corman Vincent Price film versions of Poe. And yes, the seminar eventually develops into a horrorshow in itself. And yes, John Langan is a literature teacher as well as author. And yes, after reading this, I would be Very Very Afraid ever to attend one of his classes.
John Langan succeeds in what so much post-modern fiction in any genre so often aspires to, but so rarely manages to do with any conviction at all. He writes self-conscious, self-referential, self-aware stories that all the same succeed when read totally straight as shining examples of their genre. I haven’t read any horror stories in a long while that are as flat-out horrifying as “The Wide Carnivorous Sky” itself or as “Mother of Stone,” the final tale in this collection. And that’s despite, for instance, the extended data dump at the start of “TWCS” where the chief protagonists wheel out reams of pseudo-scientific explanations for the characteristics of the pseudo-vampire that haunts and hunts them.
I’m lucky that TeleRead enables me to recoup part of the purchase price of The Wide Carnivorous Sky, because otherwise I’m going to be in John Langan’s debt for a very long time. Horror may never be the same again; any horror writer or fan certainly won’t be after reading this book. Indispensable.