The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons, by John Langan

“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. 9828b5516ad62e6ff3200eaf07ea775e.image.400x600[1].jpgThen 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.

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The Balloon Ride by Deviant Artist andyp89

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.

 

266791566021212[1].pngBy 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 Bibliothecar

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?

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The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection.  But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.

Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.

Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.

At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.

Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.

I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.

When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.

The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.

I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

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