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John Langan
The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies
Hippocampus Press
US Trade Paperback First Edition
ISBN 978-1-614-98054-4
Publication Date: 05-07-2010
324 Pages; $20

Date Reviewed: 05-22-2013

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Horror  Fantasy   Science Fiction  General Fiction

The chains can set you free. The limitations of genre fiction can offer just what is required to fire the imagination. In John Langan's collection, 'The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies,' the horror genre enables the author explore family, friendship, the American community, and more by using the tropes of horror as well as literary experimentation, great characterization, smart plotting and carefully crafted prose. Most of the stories run long enough to offer the feel of a novel at a fraction of the length. Langan gives us just about every horror icon we can ask for; the zombie, the ghoul, the monster, the exorcism — each so startlingly different from any other version you've read, it's as if he's invented them from scratch. 'The Wide Carnivorous Sky' is a bargain. It's like a whole set of top-shelf horror novels in a single book.

While most of the pieces in 'The Wide Carnivorous Sky' are long, it begins with "Kids," essentially a brief nightmare wrought in prose. It's a nice way to set the tone for what follows, like the finger-prick with a sharp needle that precedes amputation and then evisceration. Langan then wastes no time taking on the big themes and the major monsters. "How the Day Runs Down" gives us Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager from Our Town helping the citizens of that good city handle an invasion by zombies. Langan absolutely nails the right prose style here to offer dollops of humor, wallops of horror and heartbreaking terror. The slow-motion, inevitable feel of being trapped in a small-town life is torn apart at the seams, as are the characters' and the readers' emotions. Langan knows how to bring us into his cleverly constructed world with a superb prose voice and a faux-play format that makes reading a joy.

"Technicolor" picks up from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" when a very erudite English professor gives a lecture that slowly swings into the sinister. As with "How the Day Runs Down," Langan manages to refer specifically to other works and build on that association with prose that is compelling and original. "The Wide Carnivorous Sky" is a monster story, pure, but not simple, filtered through the experience of veterans of our recent ventures abroad. Here, Langan offers a more familiar style and subject, with a very original creature, a large cast of complicated characters, and a ripping pace.

"City of the Dog" and "The Shallows" are both nods to Lovecraft, but very different from one another and their inspiration. The former populates the bad parts of any modern city with the nightmares of what we might become when we surrender to our worst instincts, while the latter is an exploration in surreal disaster. Both explicitly refer to Lovecraft and his work, but, as with Langan's other referential stories, the effect is to extend that work into new and original dimensions. While the reader need not ever have read Lovecraft to enjoy these stories, if you have, you'll enjoy them more, and if you have not, (once the monstrosities from beyond this universe have consumed your soul), you'll have a good idea of some of the effects that Lovecraft was trying to create with his work.

"The Revel" is Langan's werewolf story for this collection, and it's a knockout. Written in the second person, it puts the reader into the story in an intense and immersive manner. Langan knows how to use the authority of the author's voice to craft prose that is exhilarating to read even as we're being taken to the darkest places in our souls.

"June, 1987. Hitchhiking, Mr. Norris." is a second shorter story. Here Langan demonstrates his skill with the more common form of short horror fiction, and provides some of the chills that Algernon Blackwood managed in his work. The final story, "Mother of Stone," is a novella-length excavation, again in the second person, in which a statue is unearthed and what follows proves to be horrifically fatal to more than one character in the vicinity. Langan offers readers the pleasures of a journalist pursuing a story, researching a legend, and a very unique take on exorcism.

'The Wide Carnivorous Sky' concludes with story notes that are themselves quite entertaining, the literary equivalent of having a beer with the author after watching a marathon session of movies based on his work. Langan's intensity, his virtuosity and his penchant for providing the fun we all want when we open up a book of horror stories might make readers feel as if they've seen the movies based on these stories, and in a very real sense, they have. This is a book that quite easily consumes the reader. 'The Wide Carnivorous Sky' will swallow your reading soul and leave you adrift in a cosmos that does not care about your puny existence. More than once.

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