Like most of the fantastical genres, horror literature has its own “inner circle''. Beyond the bestselling authors, there is a growing community of literary horror giants who many outside of the boundaries of genre publishing may simply be unaware of. Amongst the most celebrated is the Bram Stoker award winning John Langan, whose “cosmic horror” is known for pushing right up against the limits of language and prose and for bringing in a kind of fluid literary style back into monster fables. Veteran horror publisher Word Horde has recently released two of Langan’s books on the same day, one a re-issue of a now out of print book, and another a brand new collection that features some of the best of Langan’s career. Both books will be perfectly received among weird fiction authors, but given Langa’s brilliance, each book deserves to get a much wider reception.
Many fans of Langan have not read Mr. Gaunt in its original form since it has been out of print for the past several years (Langan’s publisher said that this made it a “collectible,” a phenomenon that is too common in the horror world). This is a shame since some of these pieces, particularly the lengthier ones, fit nicely in his canon, though when presented right next to Corpsemouth you can see how far his style has come. Langan is an easy author to jump into, one whose writing is accessible to newcomers, but he is not known for being the most straightforward storyteller. Instead, it’s not uncommon to find stories-within-stories, stories in alternative formats, tales with unreliable narrators and a lot of ambiguity. What you might first notice is that, while he always had this penchant, there is more of a clear-cut punch to a number of the earlier stories collected in Mr. Gaunt. The book’s namesake and “On Skua Island,” which is the most successful of the book, have a tried-and-true genre vibe, though with Langan’s unique spin. They immediately brought to mind a more recent book by Langan, Sefira and Other Betrayals, which in the introduction he described as his own attempt to do a “demon hunter” story well. Likewise, Mr. Gaunt seems like Langan’s attempt to take on a mummy story, a post-apocalyptic story, even a running skeleton, each from his own fractured vantage point. This makes Mr. Gaunt a good entry point for those who have not jumped into Langan’s work previously: it may be the most recognizable to genre watchers, and so it might be the easiest to adapt to.
Langan is better when he allows the story space to breathe, which is especially true in "Laocoön, or The Singularity,” which, along with “On Skua Island,” is the best in the collection. “Tutorial” is a story that feels well put in this book since it is an overwrought analogous parable about a writer very attached to his own overwrought analogous parable. Its escalating horror is one that is painfully relatable for a writer: being held to account for breaking from the “elements of style” in the search for originality. In a strange sense, Mr. Gaunt feels a little more attached to those elements, a little more accountable to the genre’s established conventions, and so it is easy to see how in the subsequent books Langan pushed his own voice further and further. The final story, “Tethered,” is new, but is concise and direct in a way that makes it fit well with stories like “On Skua Island.” While “Tutorial” is a fun story, it could have been tightened and shortened a bit (maybe Shrunk and White should have added a second “Editor” to torment him), but that is a small complaint for a book that carried so much with it. The reflections at the end add quite a bit and Langan’s effort to lift-the-hood on his own process is part of why he has the reputation of being a favorite for other writers.
Released on the same day was Mr. Gaunt, Corpesmouth and Other Autobiographies is one of his most personal books to date and possibly the best of his career. As the title suggests, the book leans into Langan’s own life, particularly his relationship with his parents, taking real stories just eschewed into the annals of the weird. Just as in Mr. Gaunt, the back pages of Story Notes really do help connect the reader with an additional layer. Horror is a uniquely personal genre, something that gets lost in a lot of the popular pulp branding that surrounds it, but its anchor is in our own individual sense of loss and how fears can bind us together with others across space and particularities. Corpsemouth leans into Langan’s “New Lovecraftian” work and collects some of the best stories that readers outside of the hard core circle of genre faithfuls may have missed. “Anchor” is a longer gem that was tucked into a wonderful but largely forgotten book Autumn Cthulhu, published by what must be a now defunct Lovecraft E-Zine. “Outside the House, Watching for Crows” is the perfect reimagining of the cosmic horror that traces through Lovecraft’s work without being tied to pastiche, the mythos, or tired horror retreads, and one that would have been missed unless you had known to pick up The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu. What Corpsemouth does is celebrate the work that has been published decidedly for a Lovecraftian base, which is where Langan really shines and elevates the existential terror to something infinitely relatable. This is not just Langan’s best collection of monster stories, it is the best round-up period, one that acts as a high point in a career made of accelerating quality. Corpsemouth is the best horror book I’ve read this year, and it is doubtful that any other collection will surpass its consistency and ferocious intensity.
What is clear when reading both collections, and the past couple of years of his output, is how his longer pieces are the ones that really haunt readers. His novel The Fisherman was so well received by the literary horror community, and it's curious that he hasn’t released a follow up. It could be a matter of practicalities more than preference: as a working scholar it can be easier to pick up short fiction piece by piece then find the space for a novel. Langan has a lot of new work to be released across a number of anthologies in 2022 (his contribution to the recently released collection of longish stories Dark Stars is a perfect testament to this), so we can expect another one of these collections in the not to distant future, as long as he can see what theme is connecting this section of his work. My only hope here is that he starts to lean into length and formats that can invite more readers in, because just as the work in Corpesmouth shows, it deserves to have a much bigger reach than it has. Luckily, the publisher Word Horde, of which Langan has also published several times previously, has captivated a unique pocket of the market, creating a library of accessible literary horror and building up their presence in an otherwise crowded horror market.
Langan may be one of the most acclaimed of Word Horde’s staple authors, but they are bringing a recognizability to this brand of horror, which has staked its claim on the idea that genre publishing is a literary art form like any other. This stance may be the most powerful force in getting Langan to a wider audience as readers look for the kind of transgressive voices that can speak to the kinds of crisis that we are all living through. There may be no better analogy for rising temperatures and armed militias than the distant echo of a black ocean.