and Other Monstrous Geographies
by John Langan
324 pages, Hippocampus Press
Review by S.P. Miskowski
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies collects nine of John Langan’s stories, several of which have appeared in popular anthologies. They range in length from riff ("Kids") to novelette ("The Wide, Carnivorous Sky") and feature zombies, vampires, werewolves, and serial killers. Despite the array of fantastic creatures, Langan’s fiction unfolds out of the darkest recesses of human nature.
The title story centers on a vampire that spends its nights hovering in an impenetrable coffin above the Earth, and its days preying upon humans at sites of extreme conflict. Because it only ventures forth in the midst of carnage, its presence goes undetected. Only by piecing together their memories of battles in Iraq can a small band of U.S. veterans discover the vampire’s modus operandi and attempt to track and destroy it. The brilliance of the story is its seamless conflation of a supernatural occurrence, well-crafted action-adventure, and the hallucinatory effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris." is a brief and darkly humorous cautionary tale about the dangers of hitching a ride and the mysteriousness of strangers. "How the Day Runs Down" is structured as a theatrical performance in which a stage manager directs attention to various stories of a developing zombie apocalypse, all in the manner of the beloved Thornton Wilder play, "Our Town."
In this collection my favorite story is "Technicolor." Part of the appeal is the contrast between the "safe" academic setting and the disturbing undercurrents, which become more apparent with every passing moment.
Following a typical reading assignment, a professor leads a classroom full of students through his lecture on the themes embedded in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Masque of the Red Death." Anyone who ever had to sit through such a lecture will recognize the professor’s mild boredom with his dull acolytes. His asides and sudden tangents perfectly evoke the atmosphere of the class, so that the author never has to resort to physical description.
The professor shows practiced patience with the half-hearted insights offered by people half his age, who are more interested in earning an English credit than in learning how and why Poe constructed his weird classic. Beginning with a recitation of the color scheme of the Poe story, the professor moves on to relate the extraordinary life history of a man whose writings supposedly inspired the master of the macabre in the early19th century.
Serving in Napoleon’s army, Prosper Vauglais barely survives the disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812. In fact, his physical survival is a subject of some dispute. Later he is said to have led a band of occultists through some bizarre experiments in the Catacombs of Paris. Prosper Vauglais is such a wicked and superb bit of meta-fiction that I attempted not one but two Google searches just to see if he was based on any particular, historical individual.
The character’s writings interest Poe when he first discovers them in a Baltimore bookstore. Then, in the later years of his life, when grief and dissolution begin to overwhelm Poe, the oddly compelling diagrams created by Vauglais become an all-consuming obsession.
I won’t spoil the fun by describing how these two biographical stories–one the true account of a fiction writer’s life and the other a fictional yet believable account–are entwined. (Here’s a hint: Compare Prosper Vauglais, Poe’s Prince Prospero, the fate of Poe’s wife, and the myth of Proserpina.) The way in which Langan allows his themes to emerge in the framing story is nothing short of divine.
John Langan is an author whose work I read both for pleasure and because I learn something about the art of fiction in each story. With every tale he draws the reader inexorably deeper into a world of strange and terrible wonders, while expanding the conceptual boundaries of horror. His use of literary devices is assured, seemingly organic, and never self-conscious.
Above all, Langan allows each story to unfold naturally and at its own pace. No matter which trope or convention he employs, nothing is formulaic or forced. Every character conveys the feeling of a life lived fully, both on and off the page. Every story is vivid and surprising. Read this collection and you’ll see what I mean.