Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
There's an art to short story collections and it really surprised me when I opened the table of contents to find only five stories in this book. Little did I know this would just be the start of John Langan's subversiveness. As far as stories go, for example, there's almost always a meta-textual quality to the author's prose and while it sticks out, feels right at home in the kind of narrative Langan attempts. As far as story quantity is concerned, there's something uncompromising with a short story collection that only has five--albeit lengthy--pieces: they'd all better be winners, as one dissatisfying read can wreck investment in the book. Thankfully, it never arrived, and that's perhaps a good summary of what Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters is like. I wouldn't say the stories blew me away (as Langan succeeds with his story "Technicolor" in Ellen Datlow's anthology Poe), but they didn't disappoint either and left me with a satisfying experience.
The first story is "On Skua Island" and the metafiction at the beginning might seem indulgent but in fact prepares the reader for the second part of the narrative, an appetizer if you will. The horror tropes are all there but Langan manages to write it in an accessible manner and uses the most unlikely of sources as inspiration--no mean feat considering the subject matter. Overall, it's a well-written story, albeit one that I find too traditional.
"Mr. Gaunt" follows the pacing of "On Skua Island" but the sense of foreboding hits you early on and features a richer delve into the characterization of its protagonist. Langan's take on his antagonists is refreshing, not simply because of his concept, but how he portrays them. There's no melodrama to be found but you still end up with a villain that's repulsive for different reasons. The beats of a traditional horror story can be found but along with it are other new elements which make it feel new and refreshing. Easily my favorite in the collection.
The metafiction in "Tutorial" is even more direct and the first thing that popped into my head is how Langan will make this a convincing horror story that doesn't sound masturbatory. The author succeeds in writing a piece that uses a horrific metaphor and is this strange blend of Lovecraft and Kafka. The concept isn't groundbreaking but serves as a breather for the other stories in the book.
"Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers" will polarize readers but is definitely memorable. In fact, upon reading the first few lines, I remembered that I read this piece somewhere previously (John Joseph Adam's Wastelands) although rereading it here has given me ample time to reassess its merits. This is easily Langan's most experimental piece, with the structure standing out the most. Amidst the chaos of the story from an external force, the strength of this story is the characterization and the decisions of the narrator. Langan knows how to layer the story as the history of his protagonists is revealed piece by piece for dramatic effect.
The longest story is "Laocoon, or The Singularity" and is an ambitious piece in the sense that the author juggles many characters and conflicts, all of which come to bear against the protagonist. Langan uses the space to delve into characterization, using key moments to provide exposition and background, and juxtaposing them with his hero's dilemmas. There's a rich usage of pop culture reference here--more accessible to me compared to the literary innuendos present in the other stories--which add to the verisimilitude and scope. Honestly, there's a point when I felt the story was too long, but the payoff was rewarding.
Rounding up the book is Story Notes which is probably the lengthiest commentary by an author of their own stories that I've encountered, so this will be a boon to readers who fancy such stuff. It's also a chance to evaluate whether the author succeeded in his nuances, or if the reader was aware of them.
I'm not the biggest fan of horror but John Langan's fiction is a welcome read. If you want lengthy pieces that draw you in, you might want to pick up a copy of Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.