"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters by Gary Lachman (2007)

          In looking for a trigger for [Rene] Crevel's suicide, we have several candidates: his failure to dissuade the communists to relent or to persuade Breton to apologize; his inability to reconcile his love for the Black Pope with his rejection of his politics; his repeated drug addictions; his homosexuality; the fact that on the day he committed suicide he had discovered that his tuberculosis, which he believed had been cured, had in actuality gotten worse and was spreading; his recent pitiful performance lecturing to workers who he realized saw him as "just a rich kid with problems, slumming;"29 or, underlining all the rest, what must have been the gruesomely traumatic memory of his father's death. Dali, who was a close friend, hearing about the Congress debacle, realized Crevel needed some support, and telephoned him, only to receive what must have seemed like a particularly surreal answer: an unfamiliar voice advised him to get a taxi and come at once, as Crevel was dying. When Dali arrived, he found a fire engine parked in front of Crevel's building, and firemen in his flat. "With the gluttony of a nursing baby," Dali wrote, "René was sucking oxygen. I never saw anyone cling so desperately to life."

     His attachment to it, sadly, was brief; he died in hospital that evening. Crevel's note, tied to his wrist, speaks of his self-hatred. It read, "René Crevel. Please cremate me. Disgust."

*   *   *

The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters by Gary Lachman (2007)

surveys two millenia of the activity, from the the publication of Werther to the cult suicides of the 1990s. It also dips further back to Socrates and Seneca, but the focus is on the Romantic and post-Romantic writers who experienced

the fruits of bourgeois revolutions and the rosy dawn of imperialism.

Lachman does a good job of not letting his famous self-murdering writers the final word. Reasons for committing suicide are contradictory and testimony of its perpetrators is obviously untrustworthy. Testimony of survivors, likewise.

*   *   *


     Within a few months of the novel's [Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther] publication, Europe was in the grip of Werthermania, and Goethe became the most famous German writer in the world. As often happens with this kind of early success, Goethe spent much of his subsequent career trying to show he was more than 'the author of Werther'; even his masterpiece Faust, which is a classic on a par with Shakespeare and Dante, was less known in his lifetime. The 'Werther costume' – blue coat, buff waistcoat, breeches and riding boots – became de rigueur among the young set. There was a Werther tea, a Werther cologne, young people took to taking long walks in the woods, reciting Homer and Ossian (one of Werther's favourite poets), and torchlight processions made their way to Jerusalem's grave. Pilgrims from all over Europe flocked to the place, and the site was included in the travel guides of the time. Werther style poems, plays and novels were bought and read as fast as they could be published, most of an inferior literary quality which, as can be imagined, hardly mattered. There were Werther fireworks, Werther wax figures, Werther songs, Werther porcelain, and Werther jewelry. Questions posed by the novel were hotly debated: should Lotte have continued to see Werther after she and Albert were married? Romantic displays of solidarity with Werther were common. A group of Englishmen toasted Werther over Jerusalem's grave, drew their daggers, and made speeches, but evidence for the many Werther copy-cat suicides that remain part of the novel's myth is scant. As Michael Hulse remarks, although there are a few deaths linked to the book (and these in fact were women), reports of a 'suicide epidemic' are exaggerated and "the young men of Europe contented themselves with dressing in blue frock-coats and buff waistcoats, and sensibly preferred not to pull the trigger."5 But if Werther didn't send a generation to an early grave, as has been reported, it's popularity was dangerous in another, less drastic way. It was less as an endorsement of suicide, than in the way its many readers misunderstood Goethe's message, that the book was a danger. That the book was nevertheless banned in Leipzig, and that a Danish translation was aborted did little to stop the spread of the Romantic sensibility that Goethe had purged himself of by writing the book.

     From his creator's point of view, that Werther was a fool to commit suicide over a woman is clear, but that is not the extent of his foolishness. Goethe's younger contemporary Heinrich Heine pointed out that the social issues raised in the novel were as important as the romantic ones, and that if the book had been published in the 1800s, this would have been recognized. Werther's problem – which we can assume was Jerusalem's as well, and indeed Goethe's at one point – was that he did not 'fit' into society. He is intelligent, idealistic, poetic: valuable traits all, but not ones that guaranteed that he would be judged as an equal by his social betters. Lotte's rejection of his love is mirrored by the rejection he receives by the aristocratic society he encounters during his tenure as secretary to an ambassador, a position taken so that he could master his feelings toward Lotte. The ambassador himself he finds difficult to take. Werther finds him "extremely trying," "the most punctilious oaf imaginable, doing everything step by step, meticulous as a maiden aunt."6 Werther can't understand why he must "despair of my own powers, my own gifts, when others with paltry abilities and talents go showing off, smugly self-satisfied."7 "What people these are, whose entire souls are occupied with protocol and ceremony, who devote their devious creative energies, for years on end, to moving one place higher up at table!"8 Werther's own intelligence and energy is often too vital to suppress, and he frequently contradicts or corrects his employer, behaviour that earns him rebuke and the admonition to control his "hypersensitivity", and the advice that he must learn to "moderate it and divert it into areas where it can be put to proper use and produce its rightful powerful effect."9

     Werther tries to abide by these counsels, but something happens that makes him throw his position over. A count who appreciates his talents and is fond of him invites him to dine on the same evening that he held a regular soirée with his fellow nobles. Werther did not know that he, as a subordinate, should not be present, and so he lingered, although the turned up noses of the aristocrats were enough to make him flee. Then a young woman, Miss B., whom he had got to know and whom he felt had "retained a very natural manner amidst this inflexible life" and who accepted his request to call on her, arrived. Although his "heart always feels freer" the moment he sees her, he soon realizes that she was not as 'natural' with him then as she had been. "Can she too be like the rest of them?" he asks. Gradually the room fills and his presence becomes an issue. Eventually and apologetically, because he does truly like him, the count has to ask him to leave. Werther makes his exit, and drives to a hill to "watch the sun set and read that magnificent book in Homer where Odysseus enjoys the hospitality of the excellent swineherd."10 Later he discovers that his faux pas is the talk of the town, and he hears from Miss B. that she had been warned against keeping up an acquaintance with him. The idea that he is being talked about enrages him. "I wish someone would have the courage to mock me to my face, so that I might thrust my sword through his body …" But thoughts of suicide are not far behind either. "I have snatched up a knife a hundred times, meaning to relieve my sorely beset heart …" Like the "noble breed of horses that instinctively bite open a vein when they are exhausted and feverish," Werther too is "tempted to open a vein and so find eternal freedom."11

     But this humiliation is only the last in a series of unendurable conditions for Werther. "There is not a single instant when the heart is full," he cries, "not one single hour of bliss!" In the evenings he resolves "to enjoy the next day's sunrise, but I cannot quit my bed;" during the day "I look forward to the delights of moonlight, and then I stay in my room. I do not quite know why I rise or why I go to bed."12

     Werther's problem, however, is not that of social snobbery, or of the impossibility of having Lotte. It is more than this. As John Armstrong points out in his book Love, Life, Goethe, Werther's experience with Lotte, and with Miss B and the count, "seems to suggest something terrible about life." Werther "regards love as sacred – as the most important emotion. However, there is no guarantee that love, however ardent, will be returned: that the world will meet it and reward it. He feels as if the most valuable thing that he has is useless in the world as it is. Existence is perverse."

*   *   *

Lachman opens his chapter on suicide and depression:

In a grimly fascinating book, Let Me Finish, the German academic Udo Grashoff put together an anthology of suicide notes, gathered from police records. Reading these, it's difficult to argue with A. Alvarez's assessment, quoted earlier, of the "shabby, confused, agonized crisis which is the common reality of suicide." The notes Grashoff collected suggest that the motivation for most suicides fall within a fairly limited purview: unrequited love, debt, shame, sickness, an intolerable domestic situation. They also confirm that the only thing to come of most suicides is a nasty mess for someone else to clean up….

The summation Lachman gives to experiments by the youthful Graham Greene injects some necessary sense and probity into the book's beginnings, before it fills with depressives, nihilists, surrealists, and those in political flight from Hitler and Stalin:

[....] [Graham] Greene's attempts to shock himself out of a spiritual lethargy [by playing Russian roulette as a teenager] are an example of "living dangerously," an ideal which Colin Wilson associates with many of his Outsiders. Wilson argues that there is a kind of "indifference threshold" in human consciousness. "There is, "he writes, "a certain margin of boredom or indifference when the human mind ceases to be stimulated by pleasure, but can still be stimulated by pain or discomfort." (Encyclopedia of Murder with Pat Pitman [Arthur Baker: London, 1961] p.22) Greene (and Coleridge), who could see but not feel beauty, had reached this threshold, and the prospect of blowing his brains out, and then discovering he hadn't, for a brief time galvanised his consciousness. In her account of Greene's experience, however, Kay Redfield Jamison fails to mention that his motive in playing Russian Roulette was to achieve a feeling of greater life, not to end his own.

          This is one of the problems with Jamison's book, which, as a study of manic-depression among writers and artists, is excellent, as far as it goes. But being a clinical psychologist, Jamison tends to see everything in terms of either mania or depression. One example she gives of 'manic' behaviour is Poe's short story "The Man of the Crowd." She quotes Poe's narrator remarking how, convalescing after months of illness, he finds himself in a London coffee house "in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui – moods of keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs … and the intellect, electrified, surpasses … its everyday condition." For Jamison this is an expression or confession of Poe's manic states, but it is clear that Poe is simply speaking of the poetic condition itself, the kind of clarity and acute sensual and psychic appreciation which reveals to the poet the poetic object. Psychologically speaking, Poe's narrator is having what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a 'peak experience'. This isn't 'manic' at all, and is something, Maslow argued, experienced by most healthy people. This kind of 'peak' is shared by many of the depressives Jamison writes about, people like Coleridge, William James and others. But she fails to recognize it as such, and erroneously speaks of it as an indication of a pathology.

*   *   *

Some of Lachman's suicides add insult to they injury they inflict on those they leave behind: not wanting to make a mess, they go to a hotel, or put rubber sheets on their bed. Both Mayakovsky and Cesare Pavese in their notes request "no gossip." 

Others just seemed to drift inexorably toward suicide, toying with the idea or joking about, and naturally writing about it.  Inexorably they found themselves painted into a corner and felt they had to do it: Walter Benjamin was an example of this type.

*   *   *

Lachman's  footnotes are not without their black humor:

29  On 25 March 1969, Assia Wevill copied Sylvia Plath by gassing herself and her two year old daughter by Ted Hughes, Shura, in the kitchen of their flat. Although 'with' Assia at the time, Hughes was having an affair with yet another woman, Brenda Hedden. Hughes himself remarked, "All the women I have anything to do with seem to die." One wonders if he ever asked why that may have been….

*   *   *

Dead Letters  includes a useful anthology of literary extracts at the end, and an index.


29 July 2022

Saturday, July 16, 2022

"Midnight Mass" (1990) by F. Paul Wilson

Readers unfamiliar with the novella "Midnight Mass" (1990) and the novel Midnight Mass (2004) may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.

A priest and a rabbi walk into a church together.

     For a moment he was disoriented, like someone peering out the window of a city apartment and seeing the rolling hills of a Kansas farm. This could not be the interior of St Anthony's.

     In the flickering light of hundreds of sacramental candles he saw that the walls were bare, stripped of all their ornaments, of the plaques for the stations of the cross; the dark wood along the wall was scarred and gouged wherever there had been anything remotely resembling a cross. The floor too was mostly bare, the pews ripped from their neat rows and hacked to pieces, their splintered remains piled high at the rear under the choir balcony.

     And the giant crucifix that had dominated the space behind the altar – only a portion of it remained. The cross-pieces on each side had been sawed off and so now an armless, life-size Christ hung upside down against the rear wall of the sanctuary.

     Joe took in all that in a flash, then his attention was drawn to the unholy congregation that peopled St Anthony's this night. The collaborators – the Vichy humans, as Zev called them – made up the periphery of the group. They looked like normal, everyday people but each was wearing a crescent moon earring.

     But the others, the group gathered in the sanctuary – Joe felt his hackles rise at the sight of them. They surrounded the altar in a tight knot. Their pale, bestial faces, bereft of the slightest trace of human warmth, compassion, or decency, were turned upward. His gorge rose when he saw the object of their rapt attention.

     A naked teenage boy – his hands tied behind his back, was suspended over the altar by his ankles. He was sobbing and choking, his eyes wide and vacant with shock, his mind all but gone. The skin had been flayed from his forehead – apparently the Vichy had found an expedient solution to the cross tattoo – and blood ran in a slow stream down his abdomen and chest from his freshly truncated genitals. And beside him, standing atop the altar, a bloody-mouthed creature dressed in a long cassock. Joe recognized the thin shoulders, the graying hair trailing from the balding crown, but was shocked at the crimson vulpine grin he flashed to the things clustered below him.

     "Now," said the creature in a lightly accented voice Joe had heard hundreds of times from St Anthony's pulpit.

     Father Alberto Palmeri.

     And from the group a hand reached up with a straight razor and drew it across the boy's throat. As the blood flowed down over his face, those below squeezed and struggled forward like hatchling vultures to catch the falling drops and scarlet trickles in their open mouths.

     Joe fell away from the window and vomited. He felt Zev grab his arm and lead him away. He was vaguely aware of crossing the street and heading toward the ruined legal office.

• • •

Stories about humanity "under the fang" don't come much bloodier, more sanctimonious, and populated with more caricatues than F. Paul Wilson's 1990 novella "Midnight Mass."

Father Joseph Cahill, a handsome and winning young priest, has been framed-up as a pedophile and exiled from his parish before the action begins. He is found in the basement Morton's Liquors and recalled to life by an old theological sparring partner, Rabbi Zev Wolpin. Zev is a Jackie Mason Jew stereotype from central casting. For Wilson he only exists to maneuver Fadda Joe into inspiring a mass fightback against the vampire occupation.

Wilson later shaped this novella and other material into the 2004 paste-up novel Midnight Mass. That novel, with alternating situations for a variety of characters as they converge and unite to fight the vampires, is very good.

So, all proportions guarded, is "Midnight Mass." I have read enough Wilson to know his use of caricature for rabbis and whiskey priests and colorful parishioners is not aimed maliciously. It's mass market fiction, and of a very high order.


16 July 2022


The Mammoth Book of Vampires ([1992] 2004 edition) edited by Stephen Jones

Revival (2014) by Stephen King

Readers unfamiliar with Revival may prefer to read the below only after reading the novel

     And after a pause, he added: 'I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration. It is possible, indeed, that we three are now sitting among desolate rocks, by bitter streams.

     '. . . And with what companions?'

"N" by Arthur Machen

When writers the caliber of Ramsey Campbell and Elizabeth Hand praise a piece of fiction, it's best not to delay. Catching up to Revival (2014), Stephen King's powerful novel of addiction, family calamity, and cosmic horror, only took me eight years. 

It's hard to keep up with Stephen King. The compelling novels demand attention. Their settings and characters appear in our dreams if they are too long neglected. Even weaker, prolix books consume energy; I came to terms with not finishing Duma Key, but the resolve to give up only came at the halfway mark.

Generally, I avoid contemporary novels. The banal rigamarole of beginnings is enervating. Happily, King solves this in Revival by using the first-person. Jamie Morton is a kid from a big working class family in Harlow, Maine. Jamie has been through life's ringer, and his shorthand style is excellent medicine for an easily distracted reader.

All the horrors, and there are many in Revival, have been suffered before Jamie starts page one. We know he survives, and wants to keep on living. 

     My life these days is far from happy, but the antidepressants have put a floor under me. Suicide isn't on my radar. And given what may come after death, I want to live as long as possible. There's something else, too. I feel—rightly or wrongly—that I have a lot to atone for. Because of that, I'm still trying to be a do-right daddy....

Revival is carefully equipoisal between sf-horror and supernatural-horror. 

As a child, Jamie Morton idolizes Harlow's new Methodist minister, the electricity-obsessed Rev. Charles Jacobs. Throughout the novel, their lives keep intersecting. After the death of his wife and young son in a spectacularly gruesome car accident (which King magnificently distances and makes strange), Jacobs publicly rejects Christianity and his ministerial calling. Jamie Morton becomes a successful rock musician and, after a motorcycle accident, an addict.

When they meet again, it is at the 1992 state fair in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Under the name Dan Jacobs, Jamie's former hero is offering "PORTRAITS IN LIGHTNING." His stage show is popular, but Jamie detects a whiff of the uncanny in its effects. But strung-out on heroin, the most uncanny effect turns out to be Jacobs curing him of his addiction and chronic pain.

     I looked at the chair, but didn't sit on it. "You were going to give me a little hit first."

     "So I was." He produced the brown bottle, considered it, then handed it to me. "Since we can hope this will be your last, why don't you do the honors?"

     He didn't have to ask twice. I took two heaping snorts, and would have doubled down if he hadn't snatched the small bottle away. Nevertheless, a window on a tropic beach opened in my head. A mellow breeze wafted in, and I suddenly no longer cared about what might become of my brainwaves. I sat down in the chair.

     He opened one of several wall cabinets and brought out a pair of battered, taped-up headphones with crisscrosses of metal mesh over the earpads. He plugged them into the amp-like device and held them out to me.

     "If I hear 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,' I'm taillights," I said.

     He smiled and said nothing.

     I put the headphones on. The mesh was cool against my ears. "Have you tried this on anyone?" I asked. "Will it hurt?"

     "It won't hurt," he said, not answering the first question at all. As if to contradict this, he gave me a mouthguard of the type basketball players sometimes wear, then smiled at my expression.

     "Just a precaution. Pop it on in."

     I popped it on in.

     From his pocket he took a white plastic box no bigger than a doorbell. "I think you'll—" But then he pressed a button on the little box, and I lost the rest.      

     There was no blackout, no sense of time passing, no discontinuity at all. Just a click, very loud, as if Jacobs had snapped his fingers beside my ears, although he was standing at least five feet away. Yet all at once he was bending over me instead of standing beside the thing that wasn't a Marshall amp. The little white control box was nowhere to be seen, and my brain had gone wrong. It was stuck.

     "Something," I said. "Something, something, something. Happened. Happened. Something happened. Something happened, happened, something happened. Happened. Something."

     "Stop that. You're all right." But he didn't sound sure. He sounded scared.

     The headphones were gone. I tried to get up and shot one hand into the air instead, like a second-grader who knows the right answer and is dying to give it.

     "Something. Something. Something. Happened. Happened, happened. Something happened."

     He slapped me, and hard. I jerked backward and would have fallen over if the chair hadn't been placed almost directly against the metal side of his workshop.

     I lowered my hand, stopped repeating, and just looked at him.

     "What's your name?"

     I'll say it's something happened, I thought. First name Something, last name Happened.

     But I didn't. "Jamie Morton."

     "Middle name?"


     "My name?"

     "Charles Jacobs. Charles Daniel Jacobs."

     He produced the little bottle of heroin and gave it to me. I looked at it, then handed it back. "I'm good for now. You just gave me some."

     "Did I?" He showed me his wristwatch. We had arrived at midmorning. It was now quarter past two in the afternoon.

     "That's impossible."

     He looked interested. "Why's that?"

     "Because no time passed. Except . . . I guess it did. Didn't it?"

     "Yes. We spoke at great length."

     "What did we talk about?"

     "Your father. Your brothers. Your mother's passing. And Claire's."


After the 1992 state fair, Jamie is clean, sober, and fully employed with a recording studio. Charles Jacobs becomes arena-filling faith healer C. D. Jacobs. Jamie's conclusion: "You're self-teaching, aren't you? All your customers are actually guinea pigs. They just don't know it. I was a guinea pig."

Most of the healings are spectacularly successful. But as Jamie tracks the healed, he finds a minority that have gone wrong.

     "I don't know if it was God working through him or not," Hicks told me over coffee in his office. "My wife does, and that's fine, but I don't care. I'm pain-free and walking two miles a day. In another two months I expect to be cleared to play tennis, as long as it's doubles, where I only have to run a few steps. Those are the things I care about. If he did for you what you say he did, you'll know what I mean."

     I did, but I also knew more.

     That Robert Rivard was enjoying his cure in a mental institution, sipping glucose via IV rather than Cokes with his friends.

     That Patricia Farmingdale, cured of peripheral neuropathy in Cheyenne, Wyoming, had poured salt into her eyes in an apparent effort to blind herself. She had no memory of doing it, let alone why.

     That Stefan Drew of Salt Lake City had gone on walking binges after being cured of a supposed brain tumor. These walks, some of them fifteen-mile marathons, did not occur during blackouts; the urge just came on him, he said, and he had to go.

     That Veronica Freemont of Anaheim had suffered what she called "interruptions of vision." One had resulted in a low-speed collision with another driver. She tested negative for drugs and alcohol, but turned in her license just the same, afraid it would happen again.

     That in San Diego, Emil Klein's miracle cure of a neck injury was followed by a periodic compulsion to go out into his backyard and eat dirt.

     And there was Blake Gilmore of Las Vegas, who claimed C. Danny Jacobs had cured him of lymphoma during the late summer of 2008. A month later he lost his job as a blackjack dealer when he began to spew profanity at the customers—stuff like "Take a hit, take a fucking hit, you chickenshit asshole." When he began shouting similar things at his three kids, his wife threw him out. He moved to a no-tell motel north of Fashion Show Drive. Two weeks later he was found dead on the bathroom floor with a bottle of Krazy Glue in one hand. He had used it to plug his nostrils and seal his mouth shut. His wasn't the only obit coupled to Jacobs that Bree had found with her search engine, but it was the only one we felt sure was connected.

Such anecdotes, and older lore, are the materials King assembles to create Revival's cosmicist, indifferentist horror.  Revival's picture of human life out-Ligotti's Ligotti. But unlike Ligotti, or Mark Samuels, King brackets his story of macabre revel culminating in apocalyptic vastation with an everyday world of individual physical carnage: addiction, painful disability, and cancer. Those whom "C. D. Jacobs" successfully heals are put in tow to an incomprehensible reality that will, ultimately, spare no one. As John Clute sums it up: "we are soon told that the inherent aspect of the world is malice...."

Revival (a title with many and often contradictory cutting edges) is a focused and compelling novel. Don't lose sight of it among other King titles.


15 July 2022

Saturday, July 9, 2022

The Fisherman (2016) by John Langan

Readers unfamiliar with The Fisherman may prefer to read this only after reading the novel.

....The laugh continues, spools out of the dead woman like thread snarling off a loom. It's almost tangible. Jacob can practically feel it winding around him. There's something inside it, a message for him and him alone. The message is extremely important. It concerns Lottie, Lottie and him. If he concentrates harder, lets the laughter tighten its coils about him, he's sure he'll be able to hear what it's trying to say to him.

     "Silence," Rainer says.

     The laugh stops. Helen frowns. Jacob shakes his head, as do the rest of the men.

     "Who is your master?" Rainer says.

     Helen answers in a voice like rocks cutting the surface of a stream. Jacob feels his bowels shudder. The others step back. She says, "His name is not for you."

     "Who is your master?" Rainer says.

     "Ask Wilhelm Vanderwort," Helen says.

     That name sends a jolt through Rainer. He starts to speak, stops, and says a third time, "Who is your master?"

     "The Fisherman," Helen says.

     Rainer nods. "Why has he come here?"

     "To fish," Helen says, her mouth twisting in a sly smile.

     "Why is he fishing here?"

     "The water runs deep."

     "For what does he cast his line?"

     "No thing."

     There's a pause, then Rainer says, "Not whom, surely?"

     "Surely," Helen says.

     "Who?" Rainer says.

     "You are not fit to hear the name," Helen says.


     "You could not stand the sound of it."

     "Who?" Rainer says again. Jacob has the sense of a ritual being observed in the exchanges between Rainer and Helen. She is under no obligation to answer his question's first asking, or its second, but if he persists, she is obligated, he's not sure how, to surrender the information he demands. Rainer is on the verge of delivering his request a fourth time when Helen utters a word that Jacob has never heard before. It might be "Apep," but she says it too quickly for him to be sure.

     Rainer appears to recognize the name. He says, "Nonsense. He would not dare."

     "You have asked," Helen says, "and I have answered. Would you prefer another name? Tiamat? Jormungand? Leviathan?"

     "The truth!" Rainer shouts. "The Compacts—"

     "I heed the Compacts," Helen says. "Do not blame me for what you cannot accept."

     "He does not have the power," Rainer says.

     Helen shrugs. "That is his concern."

• • •

"Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, 1870", by Albert Bierstadt

• • •

I'm always tardy keeping up with contemporary writers. This is unfortunate in the case of John Langan, a productive author of highly accomplished short stories and novellas. This was brought home to me again last week as I read his story "Blodsuger" in the new anthology Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous Edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor Nightfire, 2022).

Langan's 2016 novel The Fisherman has been on my radar since publication. For a variety of reasons, I find it hard to stay focused on novels, but my enthusiasm and admiration for "Blodsuger" encouraged me to at least start the book.

• • •

The Fisherman can be approached in a variety of ways.

The shade of Hemingway, for instance, is near. Part One of the novel is called "Men Without Women." The narrative focus on loss and recovery may not be handled as obliquely as "The Big Two-Hearted River," but the proposition that men might reclaim their equipoise in the self-forgetting demanded by open country and hard physical activity is certainly congruent with Hemingway's story.

Set in New York's Catskills region, (Langan's own little postage stamp of ground) The Fisherman can also be approached as a work of regional fiction.  Scenes of daily life are richly localized. The novel's horror sources are also geographically and historically specific. (As a reader, I am convinced I could drive there and find my way around. Not that I would want to.)

• • •

Langan's two widowers, Abe and Dan, are united by both loss and a passion for fishing. Both experience premonitory dreams about a river where - they are told - they will meet their wives again.

The river does not appear in local guides.

     You can find the creek on your map if you look closely. Go to the eastern tip of the Ashokan Reservoir, up by Woodstoc, and backtrack along the south shore. It may take you a couple of tries. You'll see a blue thread snaking its way from near the Reservoir over to the Hudson, running north of Wiltwyck. That was where it all happened, though what it all was I still can't wrap my head around. I can tell you only what I heard, and what I saw. I know Dutchman's Creek runs deep, much deeper than it could or should, and I don't like to think what it's full of. I've walked the woods around it to a place you won't find on your map, on any map you'd buy in the gas station or sporting-goods store. I've stood on the shore of an ocean whose waves were as black as the ink trailing from the tip of this pen. I've watched a woman with skin pale as moonlight open her mouth, and open it, and open it, into a cavern set with rows of serrated teeth that would have been at home in a shark's jaws. I've held an old knife out in front of me in one, madly trembling hand, while a trio of refugees from a nightmare drew ever-closer. 

Abe and Dan ignore local warnings received when they near the Creek. The two have been promised answers to their prayers, and hearsay about horrors experienced by others makes no difference. Ultimately, their "learning better" will have a terrible cost.

• • •

....Can a story haunt you? Possess you? There are times I think recounting the events of that Saturday in June is just an excuse for those more distant events to make their way out into the world once more.

The Fisherman is a novel of great skill and economy. Its protagonists, hungry to end the heartbreak our mundane world has visited upon them, run heedless into the open arms of another, a borderland world whose liminal horrors can only mock and jeer at human pain. And make everything so much worse.


9 July 2022