Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies – John Langan
[Word Horde; 2021]
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters – John Langan
[Word Horde; 2021]
Like most of the fantastical genres, horror literature has its own “inner circle.” Beyond the bestselling authors, there is a growing community of literary horror giants who many outside of genre publishing may simply be unaware of. Amongst the most celebrated is the Bram Stoker Award winning John Langan, whose “cosmic horror” is known for pushing right up against the limits of language and for bringing a fluid literary style back into monster fables. Veteran horror publisher Word Horde has recently released two of Langan’s books on the same day, one a re-issue of an out-of-print book, and another a brand-new collection that features some of the best writing of Langan’s career. Both books will be well received among weird fiction authors. But given Langan’s brilliance, each book deserves a much wider reception.
Many fans of Langan have not read Mr. Gaunt in its original form since it has been out of print for the past several years (Langan’s publisher said that this made it a “collectible,” a phenomenon that is too common in the horror world). This is a shame since some of these pieces, particularly the lengthier ones, fit nicely in his canon, though when presented right next to Corpsemouth, you can see how far his style has come. Langan is an easy author to jump into, one whose writing is accessible to newcomers, but he is not known for being the most straightforward storyteller. Instead, it’s not uncommon to find stories-within-stories, stories in alternative formats such as transcriptions of a documentary, tales with unreliable narrators, and a lot of ambiguity. What you might first notice is that, while he always had this penchant, there is more of a clear-cut punch to a number of the earlier stories collected in Mr. Gaunt. The book’s namesake and “On Skua Island,” which is the most successful of the book, have a tried-and-true genre vibe, though with Langan’s unique spin. They immediately brought to mind a more recent book by Langan, Sefira and Other Betrayals, which in its introduction he described as his own attempt to do a “demon hunter” story well. Likewise, Mr. Gaunt seems like Langan’s attempt to take on a mummy story, a post-apocalyptic story, and even a running skeleton, each from his own fractured vantage point. This makes Mr. Gaunt a good entry point for those who have not jumped into Langan’s work: It may be the most recognizable to genre watchers, so it might be the easiest to adapt to.
Langan is better when he allows the story space to breathe, which is especially true in “Laocoön, or The Singularity,” which, along with “On Skua Island,” is the best in the collection. “Tutorial” is a story that belongs in this book since it is an overwrought analogous parable about a writer very attached to his own overwrought analogous parable. Its escalating horror is one that is painfully relatable for a writer: The protagonist is held to account for breaking from the “elements of style” in the search for originality. In a strange sense, Mr. Gaunt feels a little more attached to those elements, a little more accountable to the genre’s established conventions, and so it is easy to see how in subsequent books Langan pushed his own voice further and further. The final story, “Tethered,” is new but is concise and direct in a way that makes it fit well with stories like “On Skua Island.” While “Tutorial” is a fun story, it could have been tightened and shortened (maybe Strunk and White should have added a second “Editor” to torment him), but that is a small complaint for a book that carried so much. The reflections at the end add quite a bit. Langan’s effort to lift the hood on his own process is part of why he has the reputation of being a favorite for other writers.
Released on the same day as Mr. Gaunt, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies is one of his most personal books to date and possibly the best of his career. As the title suggests, the book leans into Langan’s own life, particularly his relationship with his parents, taking real stories just eschewed into the annals of the weird. Just as in Mr. Gaunt, the back pages of Story Notes really do help connect the reader with an additional layer. This exposition traces how each story came together and its position in Langan’s early career, which highlight what themes drive his work and how they cultivated an audience for him in a relatively crowded literary field.
Horror is a uniquely personal genre, something that gets lost in a lot of the popular pulp branding, but its anchor is in our own individual sense of loss and how fears can bind us together across space and particularities. Corpsemouth leans into Langan’s “New Lovecraftian” work and collects some of the best stories that readers outside of the hardcore circle of genre faithfuls may have missed. “Anchor” is a longer gem that was tucked into a wonderful but largely forgotten book Autumn Cthulhu, published by what must be a now defunct Lovecraft E-Zine. “Outside the House, Watching for Crows” is the perfect reimagining of the cosmic horror that traces through Lovecraft’s work without being tied to pastiche, the mythos, or tired horror retreads, and one that would have been missed unless you had known to pick up The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu. What Corpsemouth does is celebrate the work that has been published decidedly for a Lovecraftian base, which is where Langan really shines and elevates the existential terror to something infinitely relatable.
There is a sense of tragedy and grief that binds these stories together. While he often anthropomorphizes these feelings, as well as the terror of the unknown, it is the inner life of these fears that animate the characters. Even with his cosmic horror operating on a trans-dimensional scale, we are centered on his characters as they struggle through pain, moral dilemmas, and fraught relationships. This is not just Langan’s best collection of monster stories, it is the best round-up period, one that serves as a high point in a career made of accelerating quality. Corpsemouth is the best horror book I’ve read this year, and it is doubtful that any other collection will surpass its consistency and ferocious intensity.
What is clear when reading both collections, and the past couple of years of his output, is how his longer pieces are the ones that really haunt readers. His novel The Fisherman was well received by the literary horror community, so it’s curious that he hasn’t released a follow up. It could be a matter of practicalities more than preference: As a working scholar, it can be easier to pick up short fiction piece by piece than find the space for a novel. Langan has a lot of new work to be released across a number of anthologies in 2022 (his contribution to the recently released collection of longish stories Dark Stars is a perfect testament), so we can expect another one of these collections in the not-too-distant future, as long as he can see what theme connects this section of his work. My only hope is that he starts to lean into length and formats that can invite more readers because just as the work in Corpsemouth shows, it deserves to have a much bigger reach than it has. Luckily, the publisher Word Horde, which has published Langan several times, has captivated a unique pocket of the market, creating a library of accessible literary horror and building up its presence in an otherwise crowded horror market.
Langan may be one of the most acclaimed of Word Horde’s staple authors, but they are bringing a recognizability to this brand of horror, which has staked its claim on the idea that genre publishing is a literary art form like any other. This stance may be the most powerful force in getting Langan to a wider audience, as readers look for the kind of transgressive voices that can speak to the kinds of crises that we are all living through. There may be no better analogy for rising temperatures and armed militias than the distant echo of a black ocean.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021) and Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017), and editor of the forthcoming No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis. His work appears in places such as NBC News, Jewish Currents, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, The Independent, Truthout, Bandcamp, The Daily Beast, and Jacobin. He has a newsletter on literature, film, and Judaica called the Maiseh Review.