John Langan has been shortlisted for numerous horror awards and received critical acclaim for both his shorter work, like his story collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Terry reviewed it here), and his two novels, House of Windows and The Fisherman (you can read our review here). In addition to writing, he edited the Creatures; Thirty Years of Monsters anthology with Paul Tremblay. Marion Interviewed him about The Fisherman, “literary” stories versus “horror” stories, and the power of landscape in fiction.
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Marion Deeds: In your Afterword to The Fisherman, you say that this book took you more than twelve years to write and complete (obviously there were projects in between!). During that time, how did the story change?
John Langan: Surprisingly little, to be honest. I think the biggest development occurred in the middle section of the book, where I decided to follow my more extravagant narrative impulses.
Well, I’m glad you did.
Your descriptions of the small towns, the creeks and the rivers, and the countryside, are vivid and beautiful in The Fisherman. Did you grow up in this area? What was your experience in that landscape as a child and as an adult, and how did it affect this book?
I was born and raised a little south of the Catskills, across the Hudson in Dutchess County. However, I came to school at SUNY New Paltz when I was eighteen, and the landscape of this side of the river had an immediate and overpowering effect on me. Both sides of the Hudson have exerted a profound influence on my life. On the one hand, the place is close enough to New York City to allow access to that urban center; on the other, there are parts of it that are wild and remote. From my combined reading of Stephen King and William Faulkner when I was younger, I got the idea that your particular location could serve as a suitable setting for your fiction, and most of the fiction I’ve published these last sixteen years has taken advantage of that idea.
You also said in your Afterword that some horror publishers found this too “literary” and some literary publishers thought it was too much “horror.” I call it “literary horror.” Having confidently said that, I have no idea what “literary horror” is. Does that phrase have any meaning for you? Is your literary approach to this kind of story intentional, or organic?
Well, in my more pedantic moods, I note that literary is an adjective, and that it’s something that can be applied to any genre. However, I also note that some publishers have started to apply the label to work by people such as Victor LaValle and Paul Tremblay. In that sense, I think it refers to work that brings techniques and approaches to writing fiction usually associated with mainstream fiction to bear on the materials of horror fiction. It’s something that writers have done before: Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is my favorite example, but you could go back through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes to Shirley Jackson ’s Haunting of Hill House, and from there leap to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, and so on. I tend to think of the literary as fiction that, the more you as the reader put into it, the more you get out of it—which I think asks the writer to put as much of him/herself into it as s/he can. I try to do that with my fiction, to bring everything I have to the story at hand. This means what I’ve learned from the great writers of the horror tradition on the one hand, and what I’ve learned from the great writers of the mainstream tradition on the other.
Your structure is one of nested stories. What did this accomplish for the book? Does it do what you intended, and was if difficult to keep track of plot elements using this structure?
I love nested stories. I love the fact that, although they can appear highly artificial, they also mimic something of our daily lives, into which stories constantly erupt. I love the way that a structure of nested stories allows for resonances to be created among the stories that deepens the overall work. In the case of The Fisherman, I needed the interior narrative in order for the exterior narrative to achieve its full significance. I felt I was taking a gamble in having an interior story that was so over the top, and an exterior story that was more contained, but I also liked the way that mimics something of our daily experience, in which our particular experience is intersected by grander narratives of history, religion, culture. I’m generally pretty good about keeping track of what’s going on in my various narratives, but for The Fisherman, I did keep a couple of sheets of jotted notes, to be on the safe side.
Tell us what you’re working on now.
I’m completing a couple of original stories for my next collection, Sefira and other Betrayals, a new story that will be included with the re-release of my first novel, House of Windows, a couple of stories for different anthologies, and reviews of about a half dozen new horror titles for Locus magazine.
Before your novel House of Windows came out, you were known for your short fiction, with your work often on the short lists for horror awards. Tell us some of the differences between writing short fiction and developing a longer work.
From the start, my stories tended to run long, so I may not be the best person to ask about the difference between short and long work—my work seems to fall more between long and longer. In the few truly short works I’ve written, I tend to focus on a character at a crucial moment in her/his life; as it were, the story is almost entirely the climax. In longer works, the focus is on exploring character and context, following out the implications of what’s happening to the protagonist.
Word Horde is an independent press that specializes in horror fiction. What was it like to work with them? (If it wasn’t good, we’ll delete the question!)
It was a terrific experience, one of the best I’ve had. From the start, Ross Lockhart was an enthusiastic supporter of my novel, and he did everything in his power to ensure the book reached the widest audience possible. He took a chance on my book, for which I’m grateful, and I’m a tremendous fan of a lot of the other work he’s publishing, too. Livia Llewellyn’s second collection of stories, Furnace, was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the finest books published in 2016; while Michael Griffin’s debut collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, announced a major new talent.
Llewellyn’s work is terrifying, and I mean that as a compliment.
Back to The Fisherman … I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between the lives of the immigrants in the “Howard’s Story” section, and Abe’s treatment by his long-time employer at the end. Do you see parallels between America’s Long Gilded Age and the 1990s (or the present)?
Absolutely. It frequently seems to me that, in a number of ways, we have reached a point in our national history where we’ve cycled around to where we were in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, with many of the same problems rearing their ugly heads. Indeed, in the haste of some in power to roll back all sorts of regulations designed to protect us at home and at work, I can’t help but see looming catastrophe.
Sadly, so can I.
I can easily see The Fisherman being taught in an American literature survey course or even a history course. If you would choose the perfect program to teach this novel at the college level, what would it be?
I think it would be interesting to read the novel alongside the works in the American literary tradition it draws on, which I guess would have to include Moby Dick, maybe some of Hawthorne’s stories, a little Washington Irving, a story or two by Robert E. Howard, and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Heaven knows, there are probably plenty of other literary works lurking in its pages, too.
You and Paul Tremblay co-edited the anthology Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters. Tell us what that experience was like. What did you learn from it?
Creatures came about in part from my desire to follow up the work Stephen King had done in his great non-fiction study of the horror field, Danse Macabre. In his book, King surveyed the horror narratives of a thirty-year period stretching from 1950 to 1980. I thought it would be interesting to survey the horror field over the next three decades, from 1980 to 2010. I didn’t have the time (or really the expertise) to write a critical study, but I talked about the idea of putting together an anthology of monster stories with my friend, Paul Tremblay. He was enthusiastic about the prospect of editing such a book, but he insisted he would do so only if I joined him. I agreed, and we read a lot of stories. Although there were a few we wanted and couldn’t get our hands on, I was proud of what we were able to come up with. It was a great pleasure to reprint stories by writers I’d grown up admiring, such as Clive Barker and David Schow, and to include a couple of new stories by newer writers Nadia Bulkin and Carrie Laben. Paul and I talked about doing a companion volume, which would focus on stories of non-supernatural horror from the same time period, but we couldn’t come to an agreement with the publisher about it, so that will have to wait for another day.
We at Fantasy Literature always ask our writers if they have a favorite beverage they would like to share with the audience. What would yours be?
I drink a lot more water these days than I ever have, a consequence of exercising more than I ever have (my younger son and I take a karate class together). That said, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the drink of my ancestors, single malt scotch. I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the many varieties of the water of life, but I’m especially fond of Talisker.
Thank you for your time and for writing The Fisherman.
Thank you, for your very generous review of the novel and for these questions.
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