Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan

Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum

Mr Gaunt cover

There's a logical progression that shapes the early careers of many genre writers. It goes: write short stories, submit to genre magazines, get published, get nominated for a couple of awards, get some name recognition, publish a collection. Whether the author in question goes on to concentrate on novels or stays in the realm of short fiction, their debut collection is a glimpse at the early development of their voice and favorite subjects, and as such will inevitably include journeyman works, experiments in style, and thematic dead ends, alongside the more accomplished examples of their unique contribution to the field. John Langan's first short story collection, which presents four long stories, in order of their original publication in Fantasy & Science Fiction, plus a previously unpublished novella, delivers just such a mixture. Unfortunately, the ratio of worthwhile stories to underbaked ones is so low that, though Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters gives every indication that Langan is becoming an intriguing and accomplished writer, as a work in its own right it isn't worth a reader's time and money.

The two stories with which Mr. Gaunt opens, "On Skua Island" and the title piece, are both club stories, with the former also heavily referencing (and name-checking—Langan is not shy about citing his sources) The Turn of the Screw. In "On Skua Island" the narrator and his friends are vacationing at a beach house, and have spent the evening telling ghost stories, when a previously-taciturn member of the group speaks up to say that he has a story about a mummy. It's an interesting variant on the form because, as the friends themselves had previously noted, mummies don't get nearly as much play as vampires and werewolves in horror fiction, and because the mummy in question isn't Egyptian but Viking, discovered on the titular island off the coast of Scotland. But the story itself takes much the form we'd expect. The storyteller was an archeologist excavating an unusual tomb on Skua Island, and dug up something best left buried, with predictably hilarious results. Meanwhile, Egyptology shows up in "Mr. Gaunt," whose protagonist listens to a recording discovered among his recently-deceased father's effects, in which is told the story of the father's older brother George, his mysterious servant Mr. Gaunt, and the equally mysterious disappearance of George's son Peter.

By its very nature, the club story is plotless. It is a recollection of a single event in the narrator's life—often one which has left them physically or psychologically scarred—for which they seldom have an explanation. They impart the uncertainty and existential dread their experience bred in them to their audience, and through that audience, to us. That, at least, is the plan, but neither "On Skua Island" nor "Mr. Gaunt" arouse much in the way of dread. It is at first perplexing, given the prominent James references in both stories (in "Mr. Gaunt," a story driven by a father's neglect of his son and the son's desperate desire for approval, the narrator is a James scholar whose favorite work by the Master is What Maisie Knew) that both veer towards gothic, over the top horror, since The Turn of the Screw, written as a response to such stories, is a work of psychological horror whose narrative leaves it in doubt whether the protagonist is even sane. It soon becomes apparent, however, that such delicate manipulation of the reader's emotions was beyond Langan's skill. Where other writers can draw horror out of a banging screen door or a blinking light on an answering machine, he has to resort to an animated skeleton, a face-eating mummy, and a sarcophagus that devours its still-living contents before eliciting so much as a shudder.

The language in "On Skua Island" and "Mr. Gaunt" is stiff and overly formal. Both stories are supposed to be spoken utterances, but both read like the written confessions of people not used to expressing themselves with language—too full of belabored sentences and out of place five dollar words. "On Skua Island" makes for a more successful narrative, slowly building tension as members of the team unearthing the mummy's tomb are killed off one by one, but it breaks down where it should be arousing emotion, usually because it resorts to telling the readers how they ought to feel. "You may be surprised to hear that not once did I doubt these pictures' authenticity, but that was the case" (p. 24). "You might think I would have experienced some trepidation, some anxiety, over what I had brought to light, but you would be mistaken" (p. 38). As the story builds up to its climax, the narrator reports feeling fear, frustration, and rage, but never makes us feel them, and when the mummy is finally seen Langan doesn't try to elicit horror so much as he simply describes gore.

As Bruce struggled to free her hand from his throat, she dug the thumb of her other hand into his skin and began drawing it along his jaw, blood squirting out as she split his flesh. . . . There was a tearing sound, like a shirt caught on a nail, and Bruce's screams became a wet, choked gurgle. I looked up, the sword in my hand, and saw that I was too late: Frigga had taken Bruce's face, peeled it off him the way you might peel an orange, and draped it over her own ruined face. (p. 46)

Similarly, the narrative in "Mr. Gaunt," though allegedly a message from a father to a son with whom he was reasonably close, feels like a letter written to whom it may concern, full of "as you know, Bob" infodumps and completely missing the private jokes, cryptic allusions to shared experiences, and palpable affection one would expect from a father's last, desperate warning to his only child. It is also, though the narrator is describing the circumstances of the death of his nephew, of whom he was quite fond, completely lacking in sorrow, guilt—the narrator goads Peter into investigating his father's locked, forbidden study, with predictable results—or sympathetic horror for Peter's suffering. Instead, when the narrator describes Peter's reaction to what he finds in his father's story, we get the following sentences, which encapsulate everything that's wrong with "On Skua Island" and "Mr. Gaunt": "He must have been terrified; there would have been no way for him not to have been terrified. Imagine your own response to such a thing" (p. 77).

It is therefore particularly unfortunate that the next story in Mr. Gaunt is "Tutorial," in which an aspiring writer is sent for mandatory tutorials or risk failing a creative writing class. Stories about writers are a tough needle to thread, since they tend to vastly overestimate the interest most readers have in reading about the writing life. Stories by genre writers about their kind are even trickier, as they often fall into the self-aggrandizing trap of bemoaning the genre writer's fate in the unappreciative world of mainstream fiction, and particularly in university writing seminars, in such a whiny, self-indulgent manner that what sympathy readers may have had usually evaporates quite quickly. "Tutorial" doesn't so much fall into this trap as make an olympic gold medal winning dive into it when it pits James, the author protagonist with a penchant for genre and tortured, belabored sentences (two attributes which for some reason are treated, by James and his teachers, as inextricably linked) against a series of Strunk & White-obsessed, plotless-realism peddling tutors who turn out to be monsters in disguise, intent on crushing the forces of human imagination through New Yorker-style stories.

In vain did I search "Tutorial" for any hint that Langan was aware of how puffed-up and arrogant he was making himself seem, or any sign that he was trying to puncture either James's or the narrative's self-importance by poking fun at James's plight (as Neil Gaiman so playfully did in "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire," whose protagonist lives in a dilapidated castle riddled with secret passages, haunted by the wailing ghosts of pale-skinned maidens in lacy nightgowns, and whose writing instructors keep telling him that his stories about infidelity and mid-life crises in the suburbs are escapist fantasies with no literary merit). In the end—in which James weakens his tormentors by writing stories about them—I simply had to conclude that the story was in earnest, and that James's unwavering defense of such limpid pieces of composition as "Slowly, with the care you would expend withdrawing a splinter from a wound, the trenchcoated figure withdrew its blood-soaked hand from the gaping ruin that had been Carl's chest, its palm rich with the piece of throbbing meat that Carl saw with shock was his still-beating heart" (p. 109) is intended to represent neither arrogance nor a tin ear for good writing, but a brave and principled stance.

Were I not reading it for review, I would certainly have given Mr. Gaunt the proverbial throwing with great force at this point, but had I done so I would have missed out on the best and only truly successful story in the collection, "Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers." As its title suggests, "Episode Seven" is an interlude. Jackie and Wayne are survivors of a global epidemic who have been fleeing The Pack, feral dogs or something much worse, and have now stopped to lay a final trap for their pursuers. The actual business of the story, however, is Jackie's recollections and her fears for the future. She is heavily pregnant. She needs Wayne to survive, and will need him even more once her child is born, but there's a weight of history between them that's only grown more awkward since all history ended. The baby's father, a stereotypical beer-swilling caveman who resented her friendship with the geeky, comics-loving Wayne, in part because, as Jackie knows perfectly well, Wayne is in love with her, was one of the Pack's first victims, and it's left open to debate whether Wayne intended for him to be saved when he showed up just ahead of the Pack to carry Jackie off to safety. In the interim, Wayne has grown more distant, and Jackie has had occasional glimpses of a being possessing him that might have come out of his own comic books.

she relaxed and glanced up at him, smiling—to leap back with a shriek at what she saw: Wayne's face gone from the mouth up, shrouded in heavy oily blackness, as if someone had dropped a can of black paint over his head; except that, instead of running down his skin, this was staying in place ... she could see something behind and above him, a cloud of blackness, billowing out like a cape or a pair of wings. (pp. 146-7)

The premise of "Episode Seven," is reminiscent of The Stand, and the dynamic between Jackie and Wayne recalls the plot strand in that book about the pregnant Frannie and her geeky friend Harold, who set out together after they alone survive the epidemic in their home town. Harold falls possessively in love with Frannie and reacts with injured entitlement, which later feeds into his decision to side with the villain Flagg, when she chooses the more traditionally masculine Stu as her partner (a character arc which famously caused Spider Robinson to denounce The Stand as a work that attacked the very geeks that made up its audience). "Episode Seven," though not as virulently anti-geek as The Stand (and despite getting rid of the Stu character entirely) nevertheless plays against the narrative running through Harold's, and presumably Wayne's, heads, in which they prove their worth to the object of their affection by rescuing her, and thus win her love, by keeping us inside Jackie's endlessly churning mind. Jackie never stops thinking and asking questions—what caused the epidemic? What is the Pack, and how can they survive when their existence doesn't make biological sense? What are the purple flowers which have suddenly appeared since the outbreak? Where can she find medical supplies and a safe place to have her baby? Is Wayne a greater danger than he is an asset?—and through that stream of consciousness Langan creates an utterly persuasive portrait of a woman's terror and determination to survive in a situation in which her biology puts her at a disadvantage, forcing her to rely on men who may expect more than she's willing to give in return, and thus to use her wits and courage to stay alive.

Mr. Gaunt concludes with the novella "Laocöon, or The Singularity," a more successful piece than the collection's first three stories, but also flabby and overlong. Dennis is a fortysomething almost-was, a man who's let life's opportunities slip through his fingers. A plastic artist, he's had some successes in his career but has failed to capitalize on them. At one time he considered getting into drawing comics, but let that ambition and his connections in the industry lapse. He works as a lecturer at a local college, but can't get tenure because he never handed in his MFA thesis piece. Now his classroom performance is slipping because he's bitter about his recent divorce from a woman he never cared for nearly as much as the close friend he never made a play for. Broke and miserable, Dennis is reenergized by the discovery of a statue in the dumpster outside his building, described as resembling H.R. Giger's Alien but missing a head. His creative juices suddenly flowing, Dennis dedicates himself to making the statue's head, in the process endangering what little stability he has left—his relationship with his sons, his job at a video store, his chances of being asked to take more lectures next semester.

"Laocöon" shines in those segments in which Langan describes Dennis's creative process—how he came up with previous well-received pieces, how the idea for the statue's head forms in his mind, and the physical process of crafting it from metal—but as Langan himself says in the collection's story notes, it is a "trap story," a fact which is blazingly obvious almost from the moment Dennis finds the statue. There is simply too much stuff—descriptions of Dennis's day-to-day life, recollections of the various ways in which he's screwed himself over the years, demonstrations of his inability to see why his life has turned out the way it has, even excerpts from his lectures—getting in the way of that inevitable ending. None of it is badly done, but with the readers so primed for Dennis's downfall the slackness of the story's pace rankles, and Dennis's mundane failings seem insignificant compared to the gruesome fate which clearly awaits him.

If we view Mr. Gaunt as a retrospective of Langan's career thus far, the impression it forms is of a writer who was by no means ready to have taken this next step in the life cycle of a genre author, but also one who is steadily improving on both a technical and thematic level. This latter impression is borne out by Langan's most recent, and to my mind most accomplished story, "How the Day Runs Down," which appeared in the December 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction as well as the recent zombie anthology The Living Dead, but sadly is not included in Mr. Gaunt. Treading similar ground to "Episode Seven" but greatly improving on it, "How the Day Runs Down" is best described as Our Town with zombies, with Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager moving between the different townspeople's stories to describe not their mundane sorrows and joys, but their encounters with, and last stands against, the zombie horde. The juxtaposition of Wilder's play, which is all about the continuity of communal life in the face of individual deaths, with a plot that posits that not only the town but all of humanity is doomed, makes for a heartbreaking story. "How the Day Runs Down," "Episode Seven," and even parts of "Laocöon" give every indication that Langan is an author to watch, but he isn't in control of his voice yet, and lovers of short fiction would not suffer for giving Mr. Gaunt a miss.

Comments

Posted by Laird Barron at April 14, 2009 8:34 AM:

"...it isn't worth a reader's time and money."

Curiously, esteemed critics such as Michael Dirda and Elizabeth Hand, PW, LA Times, and others, seem to hold quite the opposite opinion. I find myself firmly in this second camp.

Mr Gaunt is among the finest debut collections of dark fantasy since Michael Shea's POLYPHEMUS. I heartily recommend that my fellow lovers of short fiction, and most epecially horror, grab a copy of Langan's book asap.

Posted by Abigail at April 14, 2009 10:05 AM:

Curiously, esteemed critics such as Michael Dirda and Elizabeth Hand, PW, LA Times, and others, seem to hold quite the opposite opinion.

Well, that's me told.

I don't suppose you'd be interested in engaging with any of the points of criticism (or, indeed, praise) raised in this review? Because otherwise, what you're doing here seems indistinguishable from PR.

Posted by Laird Barron at April 14, 2009 2:09 PM:

"Because otherwise, what you're doing here seems indistinguishable from PR."

Prime knows where to send the check.

Posted by Terry at April 16, 2009 12:28 AM:

Abigail, you and I for years have been able to use one another as negative indicators: if you like it, I don't, and vice versa. John Langan's work appears to be no exception. I very much enjoyed Mr. Gaunt, and will be taking it up on my blog very shortly. I'll make it a point to reference this review and engage with some of your criticisms then.

I would -- and have, somewhere, I'm sure -- go so far as to say that John Langan and Laird Barron are unquestionably the two shining new voices in horror fiction of the 21st century to date. Both of them had absolutely amazing short stories in Ellen Datlow's anthology Poe, which I commend to your reading, if you haven't yet had a chance to peruse it. (In fact, it might be in my review of that anthology that I so praised Barron and Langan. The review can be found on SF Signal.)

Even though we rarely agree, I always find your reviews worth reading. Thanks for the thought-provoking work.

Posted by Abigail at April 17, 2009 8:06 AM:

As I said, Terry, I see a definite improvement in Langan's writing, so it isn't surprising (though quite pleasing) to hear that his story in Poe is worthwhile. I think my problem with Mr. Gaunt can be summed up quite succinctly as its being too short. If Langan were more prolific or the collection had been published a few years down the line, the failings of his early stories might not have been enough to sink it.

Posted by Nick Mamatas at April 19, 2009 12:26 AM:

No surprise that Laird doesn't want to take you up on engaging the criticism you present, as you don't really present any. Rather than dealing with the work, you deal with your daydreams about the field of science fiction and what you insist Langan's stories must have been about. It' the sort of fannish handicapping that has made the review section of this magazine unworthy of attention for years.

Shorter:

There's a logical progression that shapes the early careers of many genre writers. It goes: write short stories, submit to genre magazines, get published, get nominated for a couple of awards, get some name recognition, publish a collection.

Wrong. (And what a fanciful use of the word "logical"!)

By its very nature, the club story is plotless.

No.


It is at first perplexing, given the prominent James references in both stories (in "Mr. Gaunt," a story driven by a father's neglect of his son and the son's desperate desire for approval, the narrator is a James scholar whose favorite work by the Master is What Maisie Knew) that both veer towards gothic, over the top horror, since The Turn of the Screw, written as a response to such stories, is a work of psychological horror whose narrative leaves it in doubt whether the protagonist is even sane.

Nothing perplexing about it, except that you cannot tell the difference between your own preconceptions and what the stories were actually attempting to achieve.

And finally:

In vain did I search "Tutorial" for any hint that Langan was aware of how puffed-up and arrogant he was making himself seem, or any sign that he was trying to puncture either James's or the narrative's self-importance by poking fun at James's plight

Perhaps you should have looked in your own paragraph: "Slowly, with the care you would expend withdrawing a splinter from a wound, the trenchcoated figure withdrew its blood-soaked hand from the gaping ruin that had been Carl's chest, its palm rich with the piece of throbbing meat that Carl saw with shock was his still-beating heart" (p. 109) Talk about an Olympic dive!


None of it is badly done, but with the readers so primed for Dennis's downfall the slackness of the story's pace rankles, and Dennis's mundane failings seem insignificant compared to the gruesome fate which clearly awaits him.

Gee, really? Ya think! Careful, you might actually trip over the theme if you keep this up. But, of course, you didn't.

Posted by JusD at April 19, 2009 3:19 AM:

Thank you, thank you, to those in the comments for helping me re-find Laird Barron's work. I had read some of his short stories awhile back and recently tried in vain to remember the writer's name and it was nagging me horribly. So... thanks!

And I'll be picking up Langan's work as well. Sounds like an excellent read.

Posted by Abigail at April 19, 2009 7:32 AM:

Hi Nick,

Briefly, and in order:

1. Just off the top of my head, I'd say this is a pretty good description of the early careers of Ted Chiang, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kelly Link, and, of course, John Langan.

2. Can you provide some examples of plot-driven club stories? Most of the ones I've read have been tone-oriented, an attribute which I think is reinforced by the structure of such stories, which imposes an extra layer of fictionality between readers and characters.

3. If I have preconceptions about a horror story that namechecks James as often as the beginning of "On Skua Island" and the entirety of "Mr. Gaunt" do, I think the fault for them can be laid squarely at the author's feet. That said, this was not my main complaint against either story, and had they been even remotely scary I probably would have been less inclined to quibble about the type of scariness they achieved.

4. Have you read "Tutorial"? I agree that coming to that quote cold, one would almost have to assume that Langan was writing tongue in cheek, and indeed this was my assumption throughout most of my reading, but everything about the story - its tone, James's behavior, the plot, the similarities between James's writing to prose from the two previous stories, and Langan's own story notes - eventually dissuaded me from this ironic reading. If Langan did set out to poke fun at himself - and if you have read the story, I'd be interested to know what other arguments you can give for this reading - then at the very least he's failed at the task he set himself.

5. You haven't addressed my complaint. Just because a thing is done deliberately doesn't mean it's done well. If "Laocöon" were shorter, it might have carried off its theme successfully, but as I say in this review, its flabbiness works against it.

Posted by Jeff VanderMeer at April 19, 2009 3:01 PM:

Abigail--I think you jumped the shark for me when you made your pretentious announcement dismissing either the Hugo or Nebula nominees you hadn't read as not worthy of your attention because the *writers* simply weren't capable of living up to your standards. Such a pronouncement tells me you are now drinking your own Kool-Aid.

I've gone back and forth on Strange Horizons' review section, as Niall knows, but I'm firmly on the side with Nick on this--that it has jumped the shark. More importantly, there is no longer any real pretense of the agenda: which is, simply put, a general defense of anything from the UK and a general put-down of anything not from the UK. I won't be sending any books of mine for review at SH in future. This isn't said with any heat, but I'd rather get an honest negative review somewhere else.

JeffV

Posted by Abigail at April 19, 2009 5:35 PM:

Jeff,

your pretentious announcement dismissing either the Hugo or Nebula nominees you hadn't read as not worthy of your attention because the *writers* simply weren't capable of living up to your standards

What? Seriously, what the hell are you talking about?

Posted by Jakob at April 20, 2009 10:47 AM:

Honestly, I am a little surprised how much heat Abigail Nussbaum has to take for a negative, but pretty balanced review. I can’t add anything worthwile to the discussion, because I haven’t been able to get my hands on anything by Langan yet. But regarding the review, I have to say that it kindled my interest in Langan much more than Laird Barrons praise did - Barron is a great writer, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a good critic or critic’s critic. He says little more than „well-known people think differently“, which is pretty much the laziest argument one could imagine.
On the other hand, I’m constantly delighted by the quality of Abigail Nussbaum’s reviews, and this one is no exception. Abigail always makes clear where she is coming from with her often harsh criticism. Nick Mamatas might call this her „preconceptions“, but I would say it’s actually a prerequisite to formulate any kind of sensible criticism. Clearly stating one’s own expectations and then going on to explain how a work meets or fails to meet them is exactly what a good reviewer should do, because that’s what allows the reader to distance her- or himself from the perspective of the reviewer.
I do not always agree with her verdict – For example, I’m quite on the other side of the fence with regards to „Veniss Underground“ and „Shriek“, both books I love. On the other hand, Abigail has formulated very balanced and thoughtful critiques of Chabon’s „Yiddish Policemen’s Union“ and Stephenson’s „Anathem“, praising them but also pointing out the problems with these books that most other reviewers avoided writing about, because it’s kind of a consensus that Chabon and Stephenson are great. Abigail has proven herself as a reviever who doesn’t just go with the hype, but takes a good, hard look at the actual books.
Ultimately, the quality and fairness of a review doesn’t depend on if I share the reviewers verdict. It depends on the ability of the reviewer to make the reasons for that verdict transparent, on her ability to argue a point in good faith.
Strangely enough, Abigails review made me want to check out „Mr. Gaunt“. What I’m reading here is a well-written negative review of John Langans first story collection that actually ends up praising Langan. One could argue that the statement that „Mr. Gaunt“ „isn’t worthy of a reader's time and money“ is a little too apodictic, but it’s a review – we all know that it represents the reviewers opinion on the book. One might disagree with that opinion, but why the hostility?

Posted by Nick Mamatas at April 20, 2009 6:34 PM:

1. Just off the top of my head, I'd say this is a pretty good description of the early careers of Ted Chiang, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kelly Link, and, of course, John Langan.

So? Four writers out of...how many? Since when are the statistical outliers of a field somehow representative of a "logical progression" of literary careers? Plus, Link self-published, Langan and Bacigalupi came out via small presses, and Chiang was working for over a decade before getting his collection from a major press. That is, the paths of those four writers don't even follow the same "logical progression," much less represent the career paths of "many genre writers."

2. Can you provide some examples of plot-driven club stories?

Intellectual dishonesty. You didn't claim in your review that club stories were not "plot-driven", but that they are plotless. That in the next sentence you actually describe the basic plot of the archetypal club story is just extra-hilarious. I recommend learning what the word "plot" means. "Fellow has unearthly experience, is haunted by it and compelled to share it," IS a plot.

3. If I have preconceptions about a horror story that namechecks James as often as the beginning of "On Skua Island" and the entirety of "Mr. Gaunt" do, I think the fault for them can be laid squarely at the author's feet.

Of course you think that, because your preconceptions overwhelmed your ability to read the story. That is, you assumed, foolishly, that the stories that reference James would somehow agree with James's conception of a "ghost" story rather than namechecking him to subvert that conception.

4. Have you read "Tutorial"?

Yes, and rather more closely than you did.

5. You haven't addressed my complaint. Just because a thing is done deliberately doesn't mean it's done well.

Have you read my sentence? Have you read your own? See, being snarky is easy. The complaint I quoted is not that the insignificance of the protag's problems was done poorly, but simply that the problems seem insignificant. Well, the only thing to say to that is "Yes." And? You may as well write, "The story seems to take place in a college town." Uh-huh. It sure does.

Jakob:Clearly stating one’s own expectations and then going on to explain how a work meets or fails to meet them is exactly what a good reviewer should do, because that’s what allows the reader to distance her- or himself from the perspective of the reviewer.

Simply put, no. If the local music critic expects some Lawrence Welk numbers at the Metallica concert and then fumes that he didn't get any, he has abrogated his actual responsibility as a reviewer.

Posted by Abigail at April 20, 2009 7:48 PM:

1. Ken Scholes, M. Rickert, Howard Waldrop, Bejamin Rosenbaum, Jennifer Pelland, Vandana Singh, Laird Barron, Ellen Klages, Theodora Goss, Tim Pratt, Joe Hill, Alan DeNiro, Jay Lake, Holly Phillips, Eileen Gunn.

2. Plot != structure

3. I think this conversation will probably go better if you don't assume that you know what's going on in my head better than I do. At any rate, and for the second time: this was not my main complaint against either story.

4. In that case, would you mind answering my question?

5. Once again, I understand what Langan was trying to do. My point is that it backfired. He overstresses the protagonist's mundane concerns, and instead of creating tension throws readers out of the story. Had the story been shorter, you're right that the insignificance of Dennis's worries compared to what's in store for him would have created the horrific effect that Langan was aiming for.

being snarky is easy

Indeed.

Posted by Nick Mamatas at April 20, 2009 8:48 PM:

1. Ken Scholes, M. Rickert, Howard Waldrop, Bejamin Rosenbaum, Jennifer Pelland, Vandana Singh, Laird Barron, Ellen Klages, Theodora Goss, Tim Pratt, Joe Hill, Alan DeNiro, Jay Lake, Holly Phillips, Eileen Gunn.

Published short novel first, small press, published a collaborative novel first, small press, micropress, published YA novel first, small press, small press, small press, small press, no award nominations, small press, self-published, no award nominations, decades of work prior to collection.

I'm sorry, you don't even know about the careers of the authors you mention. Further, even if all the people you named did match that "logical progression", we are still nowhere near "many genre writers" -- nor is there anything particularly logical about it. The most common progression for collections is that collections come after novels, when the author has a significant fanbase. (There's a reason most of the people you named either had their collections come out via small presses in the last ten years—thanks to the rise of POD technology—, or had novels first, or self-published their books.) The most common progression for genre writers period is that there are no collections at all! Most genre writers never publish any sort of collection at any point in their career.

Finally, "logic" has nothing to do with any of the confluences of editorial taste, marketing savvy, exploitation of niches, and technologies that lead to some small subset of genre fiction authors debuting of a collection of any sort.

2. Plot != structure

I didn't describe the structure. The structure of a club story would be that the club is introduced as a frame and then someone relates a story within the context of that frame in order to present a tale as a spoken utterance. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. "Someone encounters something uncanny, is haunted by it, and compelled to relate the story of his haunting" is a plot and indeed is a plot that hardly needs a club story structure. See, for example, many of Lovecraft's tales.

Like I said. Learn what a plot is before you use the word again.

3. I think this conversation will probably go better if you don't assume that you know what's going on in my head better than I do.

I made no assumptions at all. You stated your preconception clearly in the review for all to read:

It is at first perplexing, given the prominent James references in both stories ...that both veer towards gothic, over the top horror, since The Turn of the Screw, written as a response to such stories, is a work of psychological horror whose narrative leaves it in doubt whether the protagonist is even sane. It soon becomes apparent, however, that such delicate manipulation of the reader's emotions was beyond Langan's skill.

It's only perplexing if you think that someone who namechecks James must be attempting ambiguity, as la James. Langan doesn't attempt such ambiguity, but you declare that such is beyond his skill because he failed to do so. You certainly haven't demonstrated that he tried for it and failed. You simply assumed it. There are a number of reasons to namecheck James: two are a) to do what James did, and b) to counter what James did. Langan clearly chose the latter. Rather than deal with that, you assume he did the former and then complained that he didn't get it right.

4. In that case, would you mind answering my question?

You didn't ask a question other than if I read "Tutorial." I did. I understood it. You didn't understand it. Not much more to it than that. Because you engage in fannish handicapping rather than reviewing, your "reading" boils down to complaining that Langan's story isn't Gaiman's story.

Hint: a story can take itself seriously while not taking its characters seriously. One can admire someone despite that person being a stooge or wrongheaded.

5. Once again, I understand what Langan was trying to do.

The quote I already cited shows that you do not. And, again, you simply shift from "seems insignificant" to, finally, acknowledging "the insignificance." My remark was that it was simply obvious and jejune to say that Dennis's problems "seem insignificant", but you simply don't seem capable of reading what is on the page or the screen without building a strawman version of the same.

He overstresses the protagonist's mundane concerns, and instead of creating tension throws readers out of the story.

Oh? Do you have polling information about this?

In addition to learning what a plot is, I strongly recommend learning the difference between a personal experience, an opinion, and a factual claim.

Posted by Nick Mamatas at April 20, 2009 8:53 PM:

Pardon me: Waldrop actually published both The Texas-Israeli War AND Them Bones prior to publishing his first collection Howard Who?

Posted by Nick Mamatas at April 20, 2009 9:03 PM:

Another begging of pardons—Joe Hill did receive award nominations in Britain prior to the publication of his collection. Of course, Joe Hill is also Stephen King's son. This is not to take anything away from Hill's significant talent, but "Be Stephen King's son. Know many many people in the field" is hardly part of a logical progression of one's career...well, except for Joe and perhaps Owen King.

Posted by Abigail at April 20, 2009 9:29 PM:

1. Why don't small press books count?

2. I disagree. What you're calling the plot of a club story is its structure - the whole point is that the narrator isn't part of the story.

3. It seems to me that if Langan were trying to be anti-Jamesian he would have signposted that intention more. To which you'll probably say that the shlocky nature of the stories is itself the signposting. Maybe, but to me it just seems like two parts that don't mesh together.

4. I asked, if you had read the story, whether you could offer any more arguments in favor of an ironic reading, because I'd considered the one you gave when I first read the story and dismissed it.

5. OK, I've said the same thing about this story three times now and you don't seem to be hearing me. So this one's yours: you win.

Posted by Nick Mamatas at April 20, 2009 10:00 PM:

1. Why don't small press books count?

Because one needn't need name recognition to publish in the small press. Indeed, small presses actually help generate the name recognition in the first place.

2. I disagree. What you're calling the plot of a club story is its structure - the whole point is that the narrator isn't part of the story.

Like I said, you do not know what a plot is. "This horrible thing happened to me, now I must relate it" is a plot—a character has a motivation and takes an action. Further, narrators in club tales are of course part of the story. One cannot separate voice and style of the narrator from the story proper —though of course you do that in your review in another context when you claim "usually because [the story] resorts to telling the readers how they ought to feel..." You confuse the "story" doing this with a particular narrator doing this.

4. Try the entire comical tone of the piece, the bombast of the three antagonists, the protag's own ridiculous fury...you know, pretty much everything.

5. I am hearing you. What I am saying has little to do with your late claims, and much to do with the silly sentence I quoted the first time 'round.

Posted by Terry at May 24, 2009 10:49 PM:

I've posted my own review of John Langan's book here: http://readingtheleaves.com/mrgauntandotheruneasyencounters. Anyone still interested in this discussion is welcome to drop by, read and comment there.

Posted by David C. at June 30, 2009 7:31 AM:

Abigail,

Your review is even-handed and thoughtful. I read the book and had a similar take. At the very least, it's certainly not "among the finest debut collections of dark fantasy since Michael Shea's POLYPHEMUS." If Langan's post-Mr. Gaunt work is any indication, his debut will be filed away as only "of interest," while his subsequent collections will be worthy of the praise people are projecting onto Mr. Gaunt.

Barron and Mamatas are personally invested in Langan and in his book; I'm sure they like the book, and I'm sure they think it's a fine debut; they are too close to it for their judgement to be useful. VanderMeer's comment borders on the hysterical. Your friend Terry thinks there are six stories in the collection, but besides factual errors in his review, Terry clearly went to Langan's book with the intention of proving you wrong, a motivation that weakens the integrity of Terry's criticism.

Keep up the good work.


Abigail Nussbaum (anusbaum@netvision.net.il) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.