Joy Silence (joysilence) wrote in darkling_tales,
Joy Silence
joysilence
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New John Langan Collection

I've been a fan of John Langan for a long time - I particularly like his Mr Gaunt collection and his novel House of Windows - so I received his new short story collection Sefira and Other Betrayals with much excitement. But is it up to his usual extremely high standard?



The first story, Sefira, is in fact a novella dealing with a woman who is faced with the task of both confronting her bloke's infidelity and extricating him from the clutches of a supernatural being somewhat like a succubus. It's very unlike most of Langan's work, and was apparently a deliberate attempt to write something with the sort of plot that has become something of a cliche in mass-market urban fantasy. Consequently it has lots of action scenes and sex stuff. I didn't care for the latter - there's a long sex scene which struck me as very mechanistic and by-the-numbers, and we're dealing with the kind of characters who think it's erotic to say "woof woof" in bed, which didn't help. Early Clive Barker this is not.

However, the action scenes were actually very well done. The heroine's fights with numerous aggressors were described with a degree of clarity and vim that made me wonder if Langan either is or knows an experienced martial artist. The descriptions of physical pain are also very good. My main problem with this novella is actually that it's too long, and has a rum beginning that involves the heroine doing a long drive across a bunch of US states while her body is undergoing a weird transformation, then doing it all over again so a second weird bodily transformation can be described. While I normally love Langan's willingness to experiment, this just confused me. Plotwise I also felt like too many breakthroughs and pieces of helpful information are just handed to the heroine, who also never really comes alive as a person. Then again this kind of story really isn't my bag unless it's really well executed.

Luckily there's a sharp rise in quality as we move on to the second story, 'In Paris, in the Mouth of Cronos'. I've read this story several times as it's been anthologized like billy-o, but it definitely bears re-reading as it is truly terrific. It combines one of the nastier corners of Classical mythology with one of the even nastier corners of US foreign policy, and the result is extremely unsettling while also being very moral (in a good way!). Definitely the best story in the book and absolute vintage Langan, up there with stories like "Technicolour" and "Laocoon, or The Singularity".

Quite a few of the stories have a more domestic focus, although this is not always successful. 'The Third Always Beside You' is another look at infidelity - from the point of view of a brother and sister pair who are drawn into the mysteries of their parents' relationship - and is uncomfortable rather than frightening, though to be fair I think that's deliberate. 'Bloom' is another one based on a man's relationship with his dementia-bound father, and is predictably depressing, while the fantastic element involving a strange orchid-like plant felt stale. 'At Home In The House of the Devil' is another very long story examining the hero's relationship with sin and the Devil himself after he lets his girlfriend down in a very bad way. I don't normally like stories where the Devil makes a personal appearance, though Langan does a relatively good job of conveying the horror such a meeting would entail, and also manages to invent a few new things for the Devil to say and do. Langan's trademark long, stately but flowing sentences also helped make this story quite easy to read, given its length.

The more overtly fantastical stories were more to my taste, however. 'The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons', about an author who goes to stay in the home of an allegedly repenting war profiteer with eccentric theories about health, life and death, is unusually comedic for Langan. It's still very dark, too, and the early 20th century 'voice' of the narrator felt convincing to me, so I definitely approve of this one. 'Renfrew's Course' is a timey-wimey number about a gay couple who fall under a wizard's spell while visiting the Scottish countryside. I didn't like it much when I first read it but it improved with a second reading and is solid slipstream fiction. Finally, 'Bor Urus' - another one that's been anthologized several times, I think - is an impressive sylvan story about pagan entities that appear in the woods of New York State when storm activity causes a thinning of the veil. Langan has proved his skill with the pre-Christian stuff many times, and this provides yet more proof of that. 'Bor Urus' offers a hint of almost Sarbanesque beauty as well as awe, which is harder to do than just piling on the nasty stuff.

On the whole Sefira... is a worthy addition to modern weird fiction, with plenty of variety in setting and tone despite the common theme of betrayal. Don't be put off if you don't like the opening novella, as you'd be missing out on a high-quality collection!
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