John Langan is no stranger to the weird. A lifelong fan of horror, Langan began teaching classes in horror and gothic fiction at SUNY New Paltz shortly after receiving his Master’s Degree there. He went on to earn a Master’s in Philosophy from CUNY Graduate Center in New York which must have helped his take on the supernatural, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008). That collection of tales was followed by his first novel House of Windows (2009) before Langan returned to the short story format with the The Wide Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies (2013). The collection was called a “must read” by Publishers Weekly and led modern horror-legend Laird Barron to name Langan “one of the leading voices in contemporary horror literature.”
I spoke with the author about writing horror for the modern age, how his catholic upbringing influenced his predilection for the weird and, of course, zombies.
WT: Your first book was a collection of short stories, and you followed that with a self-contained novel. Your new book, The Wide Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies, returns to the short story collection format. What brought you back to the short story/novella format and do you think there is an advantage to using that format when writing horror?
JL: Well, I began with stories--though, to be honest, I suppose I'd have to call them long stories, i.e. novelettes and novellas. The ten to twenty-thousand word range seemed to be the length at which the narratives I was developing could best be realized. This was due in equal parts to my desire to write stories in which more fully-realized characters would deal with the supernatural elements in some depth, and to my having been a voracious reader of novels, horror and non, and thus really having internalized longer-form fiction models. My first two novels--House of Windows and one I've just finished--started as these kinds of stories, and simply continued to grow until I reached the point I realized my story had become a novel.
I didn't think of my first collection as a unified thematic whole; it was more a case of, a couple of friends, Nick Mamatas and Paul Tremblay, wrote to me separately to say that Prime Books was looking to publish a collection, and each had passed my name along. It so happened I had four published stories and one giant, thirty-thousand word piece that I wasn't sure what I was going to do with, so I bundled them together in simple chronological order and had my collection. When it came to my more recent collection, I started off in somewhat the same way, assembling a group of stories that I had written over the span of a couple of years; as I was looking them over, though, it occurred to me that they were all much more of a piece than the stories in my first collection, in that pretty much all of them dealt with reinventions of traditional monsters, frequently through the use of narrative techniques that derived from the postmoderns.
As for the question of what the best form for the horror narrative is: there is at this point a long and respected line of thought which says that horror functions best at shorter lengths. I suppose it begins with Poe's theory of the single effect; more recently, Thomas Ligotti has expressed a version of this view, as has Richard Gavin. I respect this school of thought--indeed, I consider Richard a good friend--but I disagree with it. Horror can function well at very short lengths, but it tends to do so as an exercise in almost pure affect. There's a place for that, certainly, but I tend to be interested in and compelled by narratives in which the horror-elements are given time to unfold--and, more importantly, in which we're given characters endowed with sufficient depth to make them and their encounter with the horrific compelling and resonant. I tend to think that the novel is ideally-suited for this kind of horror story, and find enough examples of successful horror novels, from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, through Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's The Shining, to Sarah Langan's Audrey's Door and Laird Barron's The Croning, to support my view.
That said, I don't see this in either-or terms. Through the use of the novelette and novella, it's possible to craft works that offer more concentration of effect while allowing for richer characters.
WT: Many of the stories in The Wide Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies use postmodern narrative techniques and exhibit a real awareness of the horror genre. In stories like "How the Day Runs Down" and "The Revel," this is done to great effect-the paranoia of the narrators of both stories is palpable. Does the recent mainstream success of the horror genre in film and television create a demand for more intellectual approaches to manufacturing terror?
JL: It's funny: I was talking with some friends the other night, and we were reflecting on how much of the horror fiction of the last century is marked by a self-awareness of the tradition in which it's operating. And before that, the great horror narratives of the nineteenth century display a concern with narrative technique that I guess you might call postmodernism avant la lettre. There are exceptions, of course, but so many of the writers I think of as cornerstones of the field: M.R. James, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, exhibit and exploit a deep knowledge of the field's traditions, and do so in fictions that explore the possibilities of narrative form. So, ironically enough, the genre that's often associated with lowest-common-denominator gore and scares in fact boasts some of the most sophisticated fictions around. I suppose I would fit my own experiments with form and tradition into that larger context. To speak more personally, I'm sure it also has to do with my being exposed to Peter Straub's novels, especially Ghost Story and Shadowland, when I was in my teens, as well as Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett's plays during my senior year of high school. John Barth's short story, "Lost in the Funhouse," made a tremendous impression on me when I was an undergraduate, as did the novels of Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf. I loved the way that all of these writers re-invented what narrative could be with each book. It's something I've continued to value in the work of contemporaries like Laird Barron, Michael Cisco, Gemma Files, Kelly Link, Livia Llewellyn, and Paul Tremblay, that willingness to explore fiction in these very fundamental ways. I haven't made an exhaustive survey, but I suspect that these kinds of experiments in narrative arrangement and presentation connect in some way to the horror field's abiding concern with the limits and limitations of human knowledge.
WT: Have any real-life experiences with the macabre (personal or in the news) inspired your work?
JL: I was raised by devout Catholic parents, who made sure to send me to twelve years of Catholic school. From the very beginning, I was exposed to the varied and extensive visual art of the Catholic church, from vividly-rendered crucifixes to detailed illustrations of the lives of the saints, many of which focused on the unpleasant ends those women and men met. I also heard the narratives that informed those artworks over and over again. When I was in grade school, the Shroud of Turin was the focus of considerable media attention both inside and outside the Church, in part because it was being subjected to newer methods of scientific inquiry; this resulted in a great deal of discussion concerning the figure represented on it, the nature of his wounds and the historical practices that led to them. Finally, my parents--especially my father--had a reservoir of contemporary religious stories that tended in the direction of the visceral; one I recall concerned a group of men who stole a consecrated host out of a church tabernacle for some blasphemous purpose or another. The men left the wafer lying on a plate on the table of the apartment to which they had taken it and went about doing other things. As it was lying there, the host began to bleed, which freaked out the men so much that they immediately returned it to the church. My father said he knew a priest who had been on the altar when that host was used as part of the practice of Benediction, and there was a small, dark area visible at one spot on the wafer, the place from which it had bled. Needless to say, such stories have a powerful effect on the mind of a young boy. The sense they gave of the supernatural surrounding you--especially in very dramatic, and occasionally tangible, and often frightening, ways--left a permanent imprint on my psyche. Although I'm not trying to evoke a specifically Catholic worldview in my fiction, that sense of the numinous remains fundamental to what I do.
WT: What do you make of the recent resurgence of the zombie and what it implies for the future of horror writing?
JL: I'll be honest: when the current mania for all things zombie first broke in the mid 2000's (with, I would say, Brian Keene's The Rising, Max Brooks's World War Z, and David Wellington's Monster Island), I didn't think it would have nearly the staying power it has. In retrospect, it seems easy and obvious enough to link our zombie obsession to the state of our national anxieties in those first few post-9/11 years. I'm not certain, though, that the connection can bear all that weight, alone. I suspect it has as much to do with the fears that have been front and center in our lives since the end of the last century: from our awareness of new, exotic illnesses, such as Ebola, and of old, increasingly-drug-resistant ones, such as tuberculosis; to worries about the collapse of the social order--think the fiery rampage that ended Woodstock '99; to fears about the environmental catastrophe that's already here with climate change. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder if our interpretation of 9/11 wasn't determined more by our apocalyptic anxieties than the other way around.) From its puritan beginnings, the U.S. has always been prone to apocalyptic fever, and the zombie as conceived by George Romero in the original Night of the Living Dead is that end of the world made flesh. They have a simplicity that's hard to beat. They want to eat you; their bite will infect you and turn you into one of them; and they can be dispatched by either sufficient damage to the brain or fire. (There must be something going on with the significance of the brain in zombie mythology, both in terms of their frequently-portrayed desire to consume it and their weakness in it. It parallels the vampire's thirst for blood, and vulnerability to a stake through the heart. Is it as simple as our awareness that it's your brain that controls the show that is you? Or does it speak to anxieties about consciousness?)
As far as the specifically literary aspect of the zombie resurgence, I'm encouraged by how widespread and varied it's been. Before Keene, Brooks, and Wellington's novels, there wasn't a great deal in the way of substantial zombie narratives, at least, of the post-Romero strain. You had the anthologies John Skipp and Craig Spector edited in the late 80's/early 90's, Book of the Dead (1989) and Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2 (1992); otherwise, the zombies were confined largely to film. Now you have novels such as Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which is a brilliant book, beautifully-written and -realized; you have Bennett Sims's A Questionable Shape and Jason Mott's The Returned and Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall and Stephen Graham Jones's It Came from del Rio. You've got Joe McKinney and Kim Paffenroth writing series that take the zombie in interesting directions. How much more can you do with the zombie? Every time I think I know, I find out I was wrong. All of this makes me optimistic for the future of horror writing.
WT: What's your favorite ghost story that you remember from childhood?
JL: When I was a kid, my mom was plagued by nightmares, bad dreams that would chase her out of sleep screaming at two in the morning. She always woke my dad; sometimes, she woke the rest of us, too. I have this memory of her telling me about a time when she came awake to see a figure standing in the doorway to her room. Did she describe it as the silhouette of a woman in a nightdress, her long hair wild? I don't know why, but I'm sure she said the woman was holding something, a teddy bear or a doll, by its arm. That sight forced a scream from her. The worst part was, the figure waited a moment after she screamed, then dashed down the hallway towards where my brother and sisters and I were sleeping. She roused my dad, then forced him to rise from bed to check on us. But our doors were closed, and we were still asleep.
John Langan's book The Wide Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies is available from Hippocampus Press (www.hippocampuspress.com) and amazon.com for the Kindle. Langan will be doing a reading in New York City on April 16th, 7pm, at KGB Bar as part of the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series. For more information visit: www.kgbfantasticfiction.org
Visit John's website HERE
Edie Nugent is a freelance writer and reporter based in New York City, who-full disclosure-had the pleasure of discovering H.P. Lovecraft under John Langan’s tutelage while earning a BA in Communication and Media at SUNY New Paltz.