Despite making fun of the guy several times on both this and my previous blog (and on twitter, and about once or twice a month in real life), I have nothing against Stephen King. I even like some of his work. It’s just that he’s one of the most famous and most popular authors in modern history, and he has a collection of quirks and recurring foibles that are very easy to mock.
This is all preamble in order to explain why the idea of a competent Stephen King imitation is something I’m drawn towards, rather than recoiling from. At worst, I’ll probably get a Ripping Yarn that will be the literary equivalent of a tasty cheeseburger, albeit one sprinkled with baffling and slightly off-putting ingredient choices; at best, it might actually be really good. The Fisherman by John Langan (not to be confused with the novel of the same name by Chigozie Obioma, which I assume isn’t terribly similar) trends heavily towards the latter for most of its length, before veering suddenly and sharply right past the former and into the territory of King's worst work, in a way that's distinctly reminiscent of the The Master himself when he's at his lowest.
Narrated by a lonely middle-age widower named Abe, The Fisherman is a story-within-a-story centering around a river in upstate New York called Dutchman’s Creek. In the surface narrative, Abe and a similarly-bereaved friend named Dan who have bonded over fishing travel to the creek; in the middle of this there’s a long (as in, a good third of the book long) section where Abe and Dan, en route to their fateful destination, hear the history of the creek and the origin of the otherworldly forces they’ll soon come face to face with.
The King connection is evident right from the start. Being told by a middle-aged-to-going-on-elderly New Englander, the narration slips into the folkesy, slightly old-fashioned patois that King has been using since his mid-thirties. Like Stephen King, John Langan wants you to settle down in a rocking chair with a big mug of hot chocolate while he tells you a real hum-dinger of a spooky story, although unlike a Stephen King novel it never starts to feel cloying here. The fact that Langan is younger than King by twenty-two years is both an asset and a weakness; an asset because he doesn’t stumble into weird anachronisms like King has more recently tended to, but a weakness in that the old-man voice is slightly unconvincing.
As I've mentioned before, Stephen King's biggest flaw strictly when it comes to horror is that he tends to go too far: too much gore, too many over the top funhouse abooga-booga scares, and too much over-explanation of the scary or paranormal elements, such that they cease being either frightening or interesting. For large whacks of The Fisherman, John Langan manages to turn this weakness into a strength.
Part of this is that the explanations behind the Creek's horrors (which come before the protagonists ever encounter it--a reversal that works well, as the explanation can't unspook the story if it has yet to be directly spooked) are actually fairly interesting in their own right. Rather than making the story seem smaller, as is usually the case when you try to over-explain horror, the creek's background implies the existence of a much larger fictional universe of occult forces and dark magic, of which the events surrounding the creek are only one small part. Langan could easily spin these suggestions into a bigger novel (or even novels) in the urban fantasy genre, and I'd be pretty happy to read it.
Granted, as much as I liked the creek's origin story, it drags the book down by being a bit too long (I strongly get the impression that the material covered here was once intended as a stand-alone novel) and being improbably told. The tale is recounted to Abe and Dan by a mildly-mysterious Fishing Geezer, who like all such characters turns out to know more than the main characters about what's going on. This story is then recounted to us verbatim by Abe.
Problem number one is that Fishing Guy's diction really doesn't sound like natural speech (in fact it sounds exactly like Abe's narration, which is a separate problem). Problem number two is that it's wildly implausible that Abe would actually remember the entire thing and able to write it down exactly as he heard it. The book tries to get around this by revealing that the recounting of the story was itself supernatural and that this explains how Abe is able to recall it so exactly, but this is very obviously just Langan recognizing the issue and papering over it.
But that's a fairly minor complaint. As I said, the story itself is interesting.
What's not interesting is when Abe and Dan finally get to the creek, and things quickly go off the rails.
Abe catching a spooky fish thing with a human skull? Great, all for it. Abe seeing his dead wife in the woods? Yep. That's my jam. Abe then having hot spooky forest sex with his dead wife is a bit over the top, but then she turns into a gross fish monster so that's cool.
And...then Abe just, like, talks to the fish monster. They have a normal conversation. Where the fish monster tells him that the scary skull-fish was a nymph and starts expositing on the pagan supernatural forces in the area and zzzzzzzzz
This instantly killed the book for me. I really don't know why horror authors feel the need to make their monsters talk (or show up repeatedly to taunt the heroes and crack cheesy one-liners, as Pennywise does often in the second half of It). I'm not going to say it's an iron-clad rule that horror elements must be vague and half-glimpsed to remain scary, but it's very hard to retain a sense of fear or mystery otherwise, and pretty close to 100% of horror writers fall flat on their asses when they try to turn their ghost or their monster into a walking, talking character. Langan, unfortunately, is no exception.
Up until this fatal point I was enjoying the book a lot. Langan can spin a good yarn. If he puts out more (this was his first after a career spent doing short stories and editing anthologies), I'll probably read them. I just hope that next time, the journey is worth the destination.