Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
13 April 2009
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presents four long stories, in order of their original publication in Fantasy & Science Fiction, plus a previously unpublished novella, delivers just such a mixture.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.