“I went to touch the thing, to add its texture to my catalogue of impressions, only to hesitate with the tips of my fingers a hairsbreadth from its paper. I was seized by the most overpowering repugnance, such that the hairs from the back of my hand right up my forearm stood rigid. I swear, my flesh actually shrank from the thing.”
I feel like I need to be upfront about this. In the latter part of the last decade I was reading an actual print copy—slick, glossy pages; beautiful, full-color illustrations; edited by the estimable Ann VanderMeer; the whole shebang—of Weird Tales. How we all should have reveled in those days! While reading, an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a forthcoming collection of stories by an author I’d not heard of by the name of John Langan. “Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.” Somewhere between the gorgeous cover art and the promise of tales truly told in the title, I was seduced. I had just started to come out of my Serious Books Only phase and was looking to branch out. This seemed just the thing.
This is the part I need to be up front about. I was disappointed. Only one of the five stories contained therein captivated me. I was looking for something to scare me, and this didn’t do it. I put it aside and when Mr. Langan’s first novel came out, I let it pass me by. Fast forward to roughly now and I’ve really gotten into horror short stories, particularly those with a Lovecraftian bent. And I start seeing Langan’s name everywhere, so I decided to give him another try. I read and reviewed The Supplement, which I enjoyed most everything about save the title. Then I read Lost in the Dark, found in The Best Horror of the Year (2018, edited by Ellen Datlow), Volume 10, and wow, was it awesome! So awesome I recommended it for a Story Unboxed episode of This is Horror! and I think Bob and Michael are going to do it. Then I read John Langan’s short novel, “The Fisherman” and I was stunned. When I finished that book, I laid it down gently next to me and thought for close to forty-five minutes. I’d like to say more about that novel here sometime, if the chance presents itself, but for now I’ll just say that I loved the easter egg he left in Mr. Dunn for fans of “The Fisherman.”
Perhaps Mr. Langan had grown on me, perhaps he’d gotten better at his craft, perhaps I’d broadened my reading tastes so as to be able to appreciate his style. Likely some of all of those. So, when I heard his third collection, “Sefira and Other Betrayals” was coming out this month from Hippocampus Press, I was very excited, and reached out for a review copy which was happily granted. Thank you very much. Mr. Langan was gracious enough to even point me to two stories which might best fit my Lovecraftian requirement. The one I did not choose (not because it was unworthy) was called Bloom. You have to admit, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons just sounds way cooler.
Like a lot of Mr. Langan’s stories, this one clocks in at a longer word count than most other contemporary short horror fiction, and it contains several nesting stories and interwoven character threads. Combined, these provide for a rich reading experience, if perhaps not one that you can get through in one sitting unless you’ve got some stamina. It tells the tale of one Mr. Coleman, a novelist, who, having read about the curiosity of Mr. Dunn’s balloons, decided to go investigate them for himself. On the train to Mr. Dunn’s estate, he meets Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw who are also going to visit Mr. Dunn, but for a very different reason. Mr. Earnshaw has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and, with his time short and likely painful, he sought out alternative assistance. Mr. Dunn, in addition to his balloons, was apparently known for easing the pain in the last days for terminal patients.
Things are not all what they seem on the surface, as you might expect. Coleman can’t get a handle on Dunn or on his weird, oddly repulsive balloons, and Mrs. Earnshaw becomes increasingly uneasy with her husband’s course of “treatment.” When Coleman inquires of her about her husband’s tolerance of pain, she responds, “I cannot understand how he bears it. But I might wish he were bearing it with me rather than with Mr. Dunn. I will lose my husband soon enough, Mr. Coleman; I would like to spend what time I have left with him in his company.” In a very Langanian fashion, nestled inside the Earnshaw/Coleman narrative is another story, told by Dunn, about a former time during a war. Coleman was unsettled by this telling just as much as he was by the balloons. “He was thinking that Dunn had uttered his description of the war in a tone not of horror, but nostalgia.” This kind of thoughtful, gentle disquietude pervades this tale and much of the recent work I’ve read by Langan.
By the time we get to the end all of the narrative threads return to the source to form a beautiful and horrifying picture more disturbing than any single one of them might have led you to believe. Themes of grief, loneliness, the ethical boundaries of pseudo-scientific research, the questions and emotions and sad futility of end of life care, the horrors of war, they’re all here vying for headspace and cloaked in the weird and the pernicious. In the end, and only in the end does it get Lovecraftian, and I won’t spoil how but it was marvelous. Readers familiar with HPL’s From Beyond, Pickman’s Model, and to some extent The Shadow Out of Time and The Colour Out of Space, have fun stuff to look forward to!
John Langan is a very erudite, studied, and well-read author, and with each successive story by him that I read (though perhaps none as much as “The Fisherman”) I appreciate his scholarship and knowledge base more and more. He layers his texts with complicated but believable emotion. His characters are fully-fleshed out in this one and you want to go deeper with them, to know more. For example, Coleman is the son of a Swedenborgian—a peculiar religious sect of Christianity extant in only a very small part of the United States, that I only know about because I once had the good fortune to meet one—and while this detail might seem superfluous, it efficiently locates Coleman both in time and place, while saying something about his spirituality that might impact how he encounters the rest of what is ahead of him in this tale. Langan accomplishes all that with a word. This revelation was followed by a short ontological discussion touching on both eschatology and soteriology. Again, Langan manages to cram all that into three sentences, molding real meat onto the bones of his characters. Some, I suppose, would label this story “literary horror,” but I find such a description to be an unnecessary restatement and mildly offensive.
Nevertheless, if you like your horror on the longer side, bearing the hallmarks of college-professor authorship, and more thought-provoking than gut-churning, then I suggest you give this story, and this collection, a try. But don’t fret if you’re more into action, because there’s a ripping good sword fight that bookends Mr. Dunn as well! Without a doubt, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons will tug uncomfortably at an unattended corner of your soul, worrying it like an old dog with an older bone who knows there’s still something to be consumed deep within the scarred and pitted exterior.
If you’ve not read Langan before, I suggest you start with “Sefira”. There’s no reason not to, and in “Sefira” he’s at the top of his game. Then, if you like what you read, do yourself a favor and pick up “The Fisherman.” I really can’t recommend that one enough. Personally, I’ve come a bit full circle on John Langan, I have to say, and I think I’d like to go back and give “Mr. Gaunt” another try. I still have the beautiful hardcover on my shelf.
This review was composed listening to my wife’s television show, The Real Housewives of somewhere, in the background – a horror of an altogether different nature.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
The Betrayals of Attraction: “The successful arms merchant who washes his hands of the blood in which he’s steeped them for nigh on twenty years to devote himself to the promulgation of his new Spiritualist beliefs—not to mention, to fashioning his elaborate balloons—how could such a figure not be of interest?