Review: Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters

by Orrin Grey

Langan, John. Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. Prime Books, 2008. US $24.95. ISBN 978-0809572496.

On the cover of John Langan’s debut collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, there’s a blurb from a Publishers Weekly review that says, “Horror readers will welcome a new voice speaking in a classic tongue.” While I hate to start a review by quoting from another, try as I might, I’ve yet to find a better way to sum up what makes Langan’s stories so incredible.

I’m a fan of traditional supernatural stories, of the (by now clich├ęd) “good story, well told” variety. And Langan writes stories that are at once wonderfully traditional and delightfully surprising.

The first surprise in Mr. Gaunt comes with the table of contents. While the book clocks in at a very reasonable 250 or so pages, it contains only five stories, each of them (obviously) quite long.

It’s difficult to say what new element Langan brings to these stories besides adroitness, but certainly there is something there, something almost sideways in the way he approaches each piece, a kind of playfulness that borders on – but isn’t quite – experimental, rubbing up against and invigorating the complete and refreshing seriousness with which he treats the (often time-worn) tropes in his employ.

The first story, “On Skua Island”, is his attempt to “rehabilitate” the mummy story. It’s got the kind of antiquarian influences that can be felt throughout the book, but it’s also got a clear (and acknowledged) vein of Robert E. Howard running through it. Perhaps its most notable feature, though, is the easy fusion of reality and fiction, as the author himself appears as narrator in the beginning of the tale.

I’m hesitant to go into each story one by one, for fear that by doing so, I may deprive them of some of their impact. But suffice it to say that they all share the same wonderful qualities, both traditional and surprising, even as each story draws from different influences and inspirations (such as the way “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers” recalls the more apocalyptic fiction of Stephen King). And all of them feature Langan’s unabashedly baroque writing, full of elaborate and comma-filled sentences that somehow never become too difficult to read or comprehend (giving testament to the opinions expressed by the protagonist in “Tutorial”.)

My favorite piece in the book was probably the title story. The subject matter of “Mr. Gaunt” is something I think I’ll keep to myself so as not to spoil the fun, but it made me deliriously happy when the time for the big reveal came.

I’m also the kind of reader who likes author’s notes almost as much as (and sometimes more than) I like stories, so the lengthy and insightful section of author’s notes in the back of Mr. Gaunt pleased me a great deal.

Perhaps what makes the stories in Mr. Gaunt so unique lies in part in how thoroughly Langan seems to understand them, how unashamed he seems of them, and yet how unbound he seems by their rules. He appears as unwilling to bow to conventions as he is to apologize for them, and either quality alone would be enough to make Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters something special. Put both together and, yes, “a new voice speaking in a classic tongue” seems to sum it up nicely.

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