Saw the Sublime: John Langan’s The Fisherman (Review)

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John Langan is a major player in the weird fiction renaissance that bloomed over a decade ago and is only getting stronger. He’s previously released two collections and one novel. Of this work, I’ve only yet read – I want to use another word here that really encapsulates the experience, like injected or devoured or rubbed all over my naked body like goose fat, but you might get the wrong idea – the most recent collection, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. On top of that excellent riff on the “and other stories” addendum, it’s a quietly mind-blowing collection that treads startling new ground with some familiar monsters, and brings us some entirely new ones as well.

So on the strength of this already impressive body of work, news of Langan releasing a new, novel-length piece of cosmic horror through the always reliable Word Horde Press, was met by me with an eager pre-order. That book is The Fisherman, and the short version of this review is: it’s amazing, go buy it immediately, here’s a link.

And the long version? I’ll try not to give too much away here plot-wise, because the fewer details you know going into this, the better the experience. Just some broad, impressionistic strokes.

Langan is a marvellous storyteller in the most literal sense; The Fisherman is structured like a beautiful set of Russian nesting dolls, stories within stories within stories. The framing device, set in the present and narrated by widower and latent fisherman Abe, bookends the meaty “Der Fischer: A Tale of Terror,” which takes us back before the First World War. Abe’s sections are much more than bookends, though. Every element here is so carefully constructed and feels like a tangible part of the world.

There’s this great interplay in the novel between the sting of the beautifully executed horror, the vibrant setting, and the honest, at times heartbreaking human element, all of which are caught in the story’s current.

The Fisherman is set in upstate New York – a place whose name alone, for me anyway, conjures images of autumnal wilderness and sleepy towns (sleepy hollows, even, eh?). I’ve never been to upstate New York but in my head there’s this clear juxtaposition between vibrancy and decay; a place where humanity is a hopeful footnote or semicolon and the rest is just nature, along with perhaps a sliver or more of… something else.

The characters that inhabit this place are just as tangible. There’s a sense of familiarity about them, even the minor players. Langan digs his fingers into the grime of humanity, crafting their guilt and grief and fallibility with the care of a master.

Langan’s prose has a soothing quality to it, a cosy story-time warmth like a crackling open fire on a cold day. He writes in long, languid paragraphs that aren’t in any hurry, but there’s never a sense that he’s padding anything out or taking too long to get to the point. Every sentence belongs where he places it. The pacing is precise, and an absolute pleasure to keep up with.

So the prose is comforting, sure, but that doesn’t make it soft. When the horror swivels its gaze toward us, what do we do? We freeze, but we can’t look away.

I felt, for most of the book, that I was blind to the next step, unaware of what might come next and eager as anything to find out. This was especially true of the story’s final third, which, without spoiling things, bit me with many teeth. Some cosmic horror novels can be a slow burn followed by a brief glimpse of whatever awful truth the author is peddling, which, to be clear, I thoroughly enjoy. The understated approach can be extremely effective. The Fisherman, however, does not fall into this category. Both stories here throw the curtains wide in their respective climaxes, and the view is not only beautiful, violent and exhilarating, but bright. I had a real sense of the scenery while reading this. The only way I can think to describe it is that everything feels so well-lit. There’s a grand scale at work here, an almost operatic feel to proceedings. Langan has created a blend of fairy tale and cosmic horror that feels truly sublime; a unique portrayal of the magical vastness of things and our flickering place on the edge of it all.

We’re not bogged down in needless exposition, though; there’s still a nice level of ambiguity and the unknown here. We see a lot of this incredible universe Langan has crafted (and which makes references to his previous short story, “Mother of Stone”), but said universe is a huge one and the spectacle on offer here amounts to a tantalising glimpse.

I couldn’t find a thing wrong with The Fisherman. It’s the kind of book you want to get right back into the moment you finish the last line (which, as much as I love something, is not a sentiment I often have). There’s so much detail here, so much careful world- and character-building in Langan’s work that you could find something new in it every time you revisited it. I’d go as far as to call it a masterpiece, and definitely one of the best works of cosmic horror, or any horror, or, hell, any fiction, I’ve read in the past however many years I’ve been alive. That probably sounds gratuitous, but you only think that because you haven’t read it.

At one point, Abe ponders the question, “Can a story haunt you? Possess you?” This one did. It’s been a week or so since I finished it, but I can still feel its barbs under my skin, the sharp grain of its legacy rubbing between eyelid and eyeball, lingering obstinately in my peripherals.

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