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

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

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

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