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Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters by John Langan

When you set the bar for yourself, the main danger is that you set it too high. In Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters, John Langan approaches the potential use of horror tropes with the dangerous assertion that he hopes to come up with something new. Characters in short stories, novels and films have been finding or digging up “things” for more than a hundred years. To inspire anticipatory terror in the reader (or watcher), there’s usually a curse and, at its heart, the only question is how many will die before the malevolent force is assuaged. Given that every reader (or watcher) almost always knows from the outset what’s going to happen, the author (or screenwriter) is left to wrestle with the technical challenges of building and maintaining suspense.

In “On Skua Island”, Langan adopts the traditional frame of a club or group of people exchanging stories of their “adventures”. When a timid voice pipes up from the back, we are launched into a calm recital of the “facts” and, overall, it’s a satisfying romp with a paranoid twist in the tale. However, I find the context for the story overcomplicated. All we need is cannon fodder for the “mummy” to slaughter. I know that films like Dog Soldiers have popularised the idea of soldiers being picked off by supernatural forces, but an approach by MI5 to our hero is faintly surprising unless the point of the exercise is to tear up the island to make an outpost for GCHQ. In such a case, I suppose some kind of archaeological survey might be authorised before the destruction takes place. As a matter of record, MI5’s role is primarily domestic. It’s MI6 that deals with external threats from Russia. Whoever the “soldiers” work for, they would take listening or surveillance equipment if they were really tracking and monitoring submarine activity. Then, why would the UK security services pick a non-national when there are plenty of loyal British scholars? Our hero would also have to sign the Official Secrets Act so all the dreams of public glory for supervising the excavation would turn to dust. All unauthorised disclosures describing the site and the circumstances surrounding the dig itself would almost certainly be a criminal offence.

Further, even the real-world Achill Island does not have a bog on top of Slievemore, so I doubt the presence of conditions on fictional Skua Island’s hilltop sufficient to produce a bog body. The pillar would have been seen frequently by passing boats if it was on top of the hill. To give credibility to bog conditions sufficient to produce the body and to explain why no-one had previously investigated the island’s mysterious grave marker, it should have been on flat boggy ground and only visible to a boat very close in to shore. This would have set up a better narrative device of a local trawler captain approaching our hero with photos taken from offshore. They could both be regular drinkers in the same pub. Despite the out-of-focus pictures, our hero would be tempted by the thought of a completely new neolithic or Viking site. So they organise a dig on a shoestring with men from the fishing fleet who are finding times hard. Our hero would promise them a share in the glory for helping to dig up something wonderful and unique (all archaeological finds in Scotland belong to the Crown and are treasure trove unless the contrary is proved). Then all the more guilt when only he and the original trawler captain survive. It’s all very well to invite the reader to suspend disbelief, but there are limits.

Nevertheless, Langan gets everything right in the titular story of “Mr. Gaunt”. It’s completely satisfying on every level and the explanation of how Mr. Gaunt came to be as he is demonstrates a genuinely pleasing, if somewhat mordant, sense of humour. There is also some academic humour attempted in “Tutorial” but, on balance, the story goes on too long and does not have a clearly enough defined rationale. It’s common ground that those with the right tools can manipulate their target readers. I’m not sure that these motives for attempting the suppression of more complex language are sufficiently worked out.

“Episode Seven” is a curious conflation of post-apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy and weird. I suspect that if I had read it in a magazine, I would have been more impressed. As it is, the story sits somewhat uncomfortably in a collection which, to this point, has been primarily supernatural in theme. It is an “action story” rather than an “uneasy encounter”. Although, perhaps, there is a supernatural transformation in progress as (Bruce) Wayne slowly assumes his alter ego. The final story is simply too long. I accept that some academic exploration of the mythology surrounding Laocoön and Doris Lessing’s analysis of the statue now sitting in the Vatican adds a powerful layer of irony to the story but, at this length, it slows down the development of the plot. This is a variation on the transmission system for passing on the characteristics of a vampire, werewolf, etc. and, although this particular plot is a clever step forward in the development of the trope, I find it overburdened with a catalogue of the author’s own interests and ideas. That said, there are some delightful touches such as the son’s nightmares about Darth Vader.

As a first collection, Mr. Gaunt displays some highly encouraging signs and, for all their faults, the stories gave me considerable enjoyment. The “Story Notes” are also illuminating. I shall definitely add this author’s name to my list of people to watch.

For a review of John Langan’s first novel, see House of Windows.

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