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That Occulted Part of Ourselves: Interview with John Langan


John Langan

John Langan is a professor, a literary scholar, and the author of the superlatively excellent supernatural horror collections Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Tales and The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, as well as the equally excellent supernatural horror novel House of Windows.

In 2010 I interviewed him for Demon Muse. Then in 2013 I shut that site down after a four-year run because of repeated bot hacks, and because most of its aspects had basically been incorporated into The Teeming Brain anyway. But that meant John’s interview was lost.

This regrettable situation is now remedied and reversed, because as of this moment, John’s interview is republished here to join the ranks of the other Teeming Brain interviews that I’ve conducted over the years.

Here’s an illuminating and illustrative excerpt:

JOHN: As I see it, weird fiction is shot through with a deep ambivalence about human knowledge, which may well encode a kind of skepticism towards the Enlightenment’s general faith in rationality. After all, the figures of learning in these narratives are just as likely to unleash the supernatural threat as they are to contain or expel it. The anxiety over epistemology that lies at the heart of what may be my favorite Lovecraft story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is something that the academy has been struggling with for the better part of the last four or five decades, in the wake of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, etc. So it’s another level of convergence that I’m only too happy to exploit.

. . . One of my favorite quotations about human consciousness comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature; in it, Lawrence, arguing with Ben Franklin, asserts that his self is a clearing in a dark forest into which strange gods come and go. I can remember sharing this with a particularly brilliant friend who said that if you could live as if this were true, your life would be remarkable. I can’t say that I’ve succeeded in living such a life, but I’ve remained convinced of the importance of that occulted part of ourselves.

FULL INTERVIEW: “That Occulted Part of Ourselves: A Conversation with John Langan

Photo courtesy of Ellen Datlow

A New Golden Age of Horror Fiction?

We just may be living through a new golden age of horror fiction. That’s my diagnosis as I survey the range of wonderful books that have recently appeared, and that have been appearing for the past few years, and that are set to appear in coming months.

I make this claim in full awareness that the publishing world is currently experiencing a freak-out of historic proportions as various factors — including the e-book revolution, the transformative crisis in the economy, and questions about the demand for books in an increasingly aliterate population of visual media addicts — raise concerns  about the future of traditional written fiction.

Despite these mounting uncertainties, horror is booming, at least in terms of quality, at least judging from some of what’s being published.

I offer you only two examples. Please feel free to comment with more. Also feel free to tell me that you think I’m full of crap, and that I’m just cherry picking.

1. Laird Barron’s Occultation

A week ago Barnes & Noble’s SF and fantasy blog, Explorations, published one of the most hagiographic celebrations of an author that I’ve read in ages. Remarkably, I didn’t think it was overstated. So I’ll let it do the talking for me. Just please ignore the syntactical gaffe in the post’s headline.

“I have never come across a contemporary writer who even comes near to [Lovecraft’s] dark, bowel-loosening storytelling brilliance—until now. And his name is Laird Barron.

….”The bottom line is this: Laird Barron is to horror what Paolo Bacigalupi is to science fiction. In 2008, Bacigalupi was a relative unknown when he released his short story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories. Now he is a Nebula Award winning novelist (The Windup Girl) and science fiction’s brightest star. Laird Barron may be a relative unknown now but, trust me, when his debut novel The Croning is released in 2011, everyone will be talking about this guy and heralding him as horror’s next superstar.

“Why wait until next year? I’ll say it right now. Laird Barron is horror’s new messiah.”

— Paul Goat Allen, Explorations, Carnivorous Cosmos: Laird Barron — and His Lovecraftian Stylings — Is Horror’s New Messiah, July 28, 2010

Go read the rest of the piece for more words of a similar tenor, including ecstatic praise for Laird’s new collection, Occultation. I recently received a signed copy from the author (thanks, Laird!), and it’s the single book I’m most eagerly looking forward to diving into. Laird’s first book, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, was nothing short of sublime. This new one promises to equal or surpass it. A Golden Age trend, for sure.

2. John Langan’s House of Windows

John Langan’s first book, the fiction collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008), was oh-so-good. His first novel, last year’s House of Windows — a contemporary haunted house story that blends academic concerns with an entirely convincing portrayal of a haunting — isn’t just good, it’s great. As in, thematically substantial and brilliantly enjoyable at the same time. That’s the very definition of an Important Book.

I stand by what I said in my review of it for Dead Reckonings #7: It’s a scarifyingly assured debut. It’s one of those wonderful books where you realize only a few pages in that you can relax into it and trust yourself fully to the author, since he obviously knows what he’s doing.  Good fiction of this type conveys the sense that, yes, this is exactly what it would be like, and exactly what it would mean and imply for the everyday world of human life and interactions, if the plot’s central supernatural phenomenon were actually real. In House of Windows, John mounts an entirely convincing portrayal of a haunting, and of how an ontological intrusion from a spirit realm might appear to and impact a human subject.

Just two weeks ago I bought the current issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction specifically because it features a new story by John titled “The Revel.” It’s a werewolf story in metafictional form, and it’s brilliant, one of those stories that’s like nectar to the mind. Golden Age, anyone?

* * *

Not incidentally, I recently interviewed John for my Demon Muse blog: “The Secret to Writing Is Writing: A Conversation with John Langan.” I urge you to read it. Laird is also confirmed for a future interview.

Importantly, I could name more than just these two in support of my Golden Age hypothesis. Simon Strantzas’s short-lived first book Beneath the Surface — short-lived because the publisher went under immediately after it came out — is about to be released in a new edition from Dark Regions Press (with an introduction by yours truly; I love that book), and his second, Cold to the Touch, has drawn praise and even raves. Richard Gavin’s The Darkly Splendid Realm, also from Dark Regions, has received some excellent press, and I know from having reviewed Richard’s first book Omens for Dead Reckonings #2 that he’s a horror writer’s horror writer, with chops galore and a vision to boot. Mark Samuels, Kim Paffenroth, Nick Mamatas (who sometimes, but not always, writes horror), Sarah Langan (whom I haven’t read, but whose work promises to be wonderful when I finally do), Barbara Roden (I’ve read a single excellent story, and simply must get her debut collection) — I could name these and more as examples of authors who are presently producing some seriously high-quality horror fiction.

And it’s not just that they’re good, but that they represent a brand new phenomenon in the literary world. At the same time when some of the cream-of-the-crop authors from the original 1970s-to-1990s horror boom continue to write, and to write wonderfully (Stephen King, Peter Straub, Thomas Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, T.M. Wright, et al.), a whole new crop of amazing writers has sprung up in just the past few years and displayed a solid and collective feel for and appreciation of the tropes and themes that really define horror fiction — as opposed to a mere desire to cash in on a profitable publishing trend — combined with a real dose of literary skill and panache.

This is a good thing. It looks like Sturgeon’s Law (or actually, technically, Sturgeon’s Revelation) is in fact visibly working even as we speak. The explosive growth of the total number of people attempting to write and publish horror — courtesy of the Internet, print-on-demand publishing, and now e-books, all working in synergy with other long-brewing cultural forces — is producing a new and excellent class of horror writers right before our eyes. The same may well be true of other types of fiction, but horror is the one that’s nearest and dearest to my heart.

And it’s thriving.