In this oneiric collection, Langan makes a living off taking horror tropes to places you wouldn’t expect, sometimes with a level of playfulness and audacity only true horror fans will appreciate. I found myself reminded, over and over again, about what first attracted me to the genre: horror is one gunshot, one car accident, one slip on an icy stairway or stranger away. Always. For writers able to exploit it, writers like Langan, the fiber of dread lives in every moment.
The collection begins with “Sweetums”, an uncomfortable story about a movie starlet wandering through a set without a script, witnessing oddities as she pretends to adlib. It seems hokie, at first, as all horror movies do, until the true horror is revealed at the end. It’s not the actors or the people, it’s the idea that the world has ended, we’ve moved on to hell, and no one has even had the decency to tell us, that stays with you. The cult has already succeeded in raising whatever demon spawn they were after. The nooses have been strung. The difficult part is living with it.
Tipping his hand with the story “Muse”, Langan seems to mock an idea of Stephen King, who admitted in On Writing that his muse shows up at every writing session, and it’s a man. In the story, a somewhat successful writer begins a letter to decline the offer to write an introduction for Stephen (not King), and slowly relates the story of how he sat down with Stephen at a convention and made the mistake of asking about writing one too many times, much to Stephen’s chagrin. Finally, when the Stephen in the story shows the speaker his muse, the true horror is revealed. What’s sneaky about this story is Langan admits a great deal about writing by saying he was impressed because the story’s author always kept his readers guessing. Sometimes, the monster really is the monster, just because that’s what the reader expects.
“With Max Barry in the Nearer Precincts” takes the idea of the afterlife, of floating toward the white light, and turns it on its head completely, when the main character fights to get away, he realizes that all of first heaven lies in ruin because one man realized how to solve a Gordian knot. This one stayed with me, and I’ve dreamed about it, since. If you’ve ever felt dread at the utopia behind the pearly gates, this one is a must read.
“Hyphae” explores the horror of checking in on an infirm, neglected loved one, and is case study in limiting a short story to a unity of time and place. Many of the stories in this collection start with the sensation of waking up in a dream. No idea how you got there, the character’s background doesn’t matter. What matters is the subject of fear is so ubiquitous, so relatable to any reader, and that the force of the writing is such that you can’t help but imagine it happening to anyone other than yourself.
Langan’s work occupies the spaces of our past we’ve long forgotten. Basements, dark cinemas, dangerous religion, the widow of a fallen friend, and propels us into places we’ve never been with the knowledge that it could be us. “Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” starts with a grisly car accident, an horrific event under any circumstances, but twists expectations when it is revealed the people who stumble onto the event are ghosts, and even they are shocked to learn the impressions of those who died in the crash have been consumed by a monster.
Reading Langan made me feel like I was born in hell. His horrors seem to exist outside of time, preying upon our basest fears, reminding the reader that horror awaits at every turn and, without a doubt, it is something much more subtle and terrifying than we expect.
After you read Langan’s collection, be sure to pick up a copy of Evil in Technicolor.