Hi dear Círculo Lovecraftiano & Horror readers, sorry to keep you waiting so long for another dose of crazy thoughts, but as you know, Madmen are busy too conducting their mad business. Today we will have a glimpse into the life of a Madman, who is also a horror writer AND a teacher of creative writing. Doesn’t that sound like a scary novel by itself?
Mr. John Langan spends his time: with his students at the New York Military Academy (where he teaches sophomore and senior English, as well as classes on Gothic fiction and film), writing his own stories and publishing them, helping fellow writers in their works… And dealing with his bunch of cats (every writer needs a cat [or three]).
But there is more to the plot! John Langan helped in the creation of the Shirley Jackson Award organization, where he is now one of the directors. The Shirley Jackson Award has helped cement the careers of many new writers who otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
Langan’s work has appeared in anthologies such as “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, “The Living Dead”, “Poe”, “By Blood We Live”, “Blood and Other Cravings” among many others. Plus he has published his own collections; “Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters” (2008) and “The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies” (2013). And two novels to date; “House of Windows” (2009) and the critically acclaimed “The Fisherman”, which won the Bram Stoker Award for 2016. He knows firsthand the struggles of a writer looking for a home for his stories, maybe, that is the reason he helps other writers to get noticed… or may it be there is a global conspiracy of holders of the dark secrets and their plan to take over the world? We will know it now directly from his words in this edition of The Mouth of the Madman!!!
CírculoLovecraftiano& Horror: Professor Langan, we are honored having a man of such high category among the writers who give some of their time to our literary circle. How was your life before you started writing? I mean, when you were a young boy, what led you towards horror?
John Langan: Thank you for having me here! I’m honored to be among such distinguished company. (Although, why aren’t any of the others moving? Is it that they’re tired, after your interviews? That must be it.) The quick answer to your question is that reading Stephen King’s novel, Christine, during the autumn of my fourteenth year had an immediate and profound effect on me. If there was a single work that transformed me into not just a writer, but a horror writer, it was that book. Of course, the quick answer is not necessarily the complete answer, is it? What was it that King’s novel woke within me? I’m not sure I have a complete answer, but I know that my early life was marked by certain moments of fear. When I was two and a half, I had to have surgery on my right eye to remove a tiny piece of metal which had become embedded in my cornea. It’s a relatively simple procedure, but when it’s done on a child, the child must be put under anesthesia, and after he awakes, his arms must be restrained to prevent him from tearing off the eye patch fastened to his face. So while the actual removal of the piece of metal was uncomplicated, everything surrounding the experience was overwhelming, terrifying. Later, when I was thirteen, my father suffered a pair of massive heart attacks, the first of which put him in the hospital, the second of which struck while he was in the hospital. After he came out of the hospital, my mother told me that I had to be careful not to upset him, or he could have another heart attack and die this time. It goes without saying, my life and my family’s lives were upended. Throughout this time, I was being raised as a Roman Catholic, saturated in stories about miracles and martyrdom. Until I discovered Stephen King (who led me to Peter Straub, T.E.D. Klein, and a host of other writers), my reading tended toward fantasy, Tolkien and especially Robert E. Howard, in both of whose works the supernatural frequently appears in its most frightening manifestations. The more I look at my life, the more it seems no surprise to me that I ended up a horror writer.
CL & H: Were you an impressionable child? And what were you scared the most of?
JL: Yes I was. For me, the ultimate embodiment of my childhood fears was Frankenstein’s monster, whom I had encountered in a movie my father was watching on TV, which he said I could watch with him if I wanted. (I was maybe seven? Eight?) I watched just enough of the movie to imprint the monster on my psyche for the rest of my life, making him the receptacle for all of my anxieties. In more general terms, I was very much afraid of my father’s displeasure, and of the mockery of other children in school, and of the eternal punishment of Hell.
CL & H: One of your early works, the short story “On Skua Island” goes to the most classical example on the genre… the gathering of people to tell horror stories. This is pivotal in many plots, from the “real life events” of that fateful writing evening between Mary Shelley and friends, to camping out at night. It seems reminiscent of “The Turn of The Screw” from Henry James—whom you quote often in other stories-. How important are ‘tell tale’ or ‘old wives tales’ when you are teaching your students creative writing? And, how much of an influence was James to you as you grew up to become a scholar and writer?
JL: The first time I read Henry James—his short novel, The Turn of the Screw, during my senior year of high school—I hated him. I had a difficult time following his long, labrynthine sentences, and I decided he was a terrible writer. Fortunately for me, a few years later, I came back to his work in a college class in which I had to read several of his short stories, including his last completed story, “The Jolly Corner,” which is about a man being haunted by the ghost of the man he might have been. It’s an even more densely written story than The Turn of the Screw, but for some reason, I loved it immediately, and this convinced me that I had better give James’s other work another look. Now that I was ready to appreciate it, I did, in no small part because I could recognize the Gothic and melodramatic underpinnings to most of his fiction. I came love his attention to the process of perception, which seemed of no small importance to the writing of stories featuring the supernatural.
As for what might be called “old wives’ tales” or “tall tales:” I come from a family of storytellers. Both my father and mother were full of stories of growing up in Scotland during the 1940’s and 1950’s, some of which were amusing, some of which were much darker. This family tradition coincided with much of my reading, which featured the same kinds of scenarios, i.e. what the literary critic John Clute has called “club stories,” those tales in which a group of friends sit together and one of them relates a story to the others.
CL & H: Did you start writing after your thirties? I have seen that several of the writers –who now are masters of ‘de plume’- did not start at a young age as many of your predecessors. Maybe the new generations of writers first gather the knowledge before risking into trying to get in the business without a professional base…
JL: I didn’t publish my first story until I was thirty-two, but I had been writing since the age of six (a story about King King fighting Godzilla told from King Kong’s point of view). Many of the stories I wrote in primary school were imitations of the fantasy writers I was reading. I was also reading a lot of comic books, and while I was in grade school, my principle ambition was to work in comics, preferably as an artist/writer. During my teenage years, after I discovered Stephen King, I began to write stories in imitation of him; though I wasn’t thinking of publishing in anything much beyond the school’s annual literary magazine. In college and during the completion of my MA, I became self-conscious and anxious about writing horror, worrying that it wasn’t sufficiently literary, and although I continued to write in my twenties, completing a long novel, a short novel, and several long stories, they weren’t on the surface horror; nor did I try to publish them. It wasn’t until my wife and I had met one another and she helped me to see that there was nothing wrong with writing horror that I returned to the genre I loved and eventually began to submit things for publication. I think of Ray Bradbury’s advice to young writers (to paraphrase): Write a million words, then throw those words away, and you’re ready to be a writer. I’m not sure I wrote a million words, exactly, but I certainly worked for a long time at my craft. To be honest, I’m still working at it.
CL & H: This is a compelled topic due to the nature of our reading circle. How big of an influence are the works of H. P. Lovecraft on your writing AND do you ever discuss or encourage your students to read him?
JL: I didn’t read Lovecraft when I was young; I suppose my first exposure to some of his ideas came through the fiction of Robert E. Howard and through some of the comic books I read. When I got around to reading Lovecraft in my middle teens (which was motivated by Stephen King’s mention of him in Danse Macabre and several interviews), the first thing I read was The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I found bizarre and somewhat opaque. It wasn’t until I was done with my undergraduate studies that I actually read any of Lovecraft’s classic stories, things such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror,” which I appreciated much more. By that point, I had read enough of Lovecraft’s children, if you will, people like King and Klein, to have some idea of the themes his work engages and the monsters with whom he populates it. The older I grew, the more of Lovecraft I read, and I began to teach and to write about his work. Indeed, my first published piece of literary criticism was an essay, “Lovecraft’s Grammatology,” which appeared in Lovecraft Studies. At SUNY New Paltz, where I completed my BA and MA, one of my professors was Bob Waugh, who’s a brilliant scholar of Lovecraft and whose two books on Lovecraft, The Monster in the Mirror and A Monster of Voices, are among the best things anyone has written on him. Every year around Halloween, Bob would host a forum on Lovecraft to which he would invite local scholars to come and speak. In this way, I had the opportunity to hear a good deal of Bob’s scholarship in early drafts, as well as work by Peter Cannon, Norman Gayford, Judith Johnson, S.T. Joshi, and Steven Mariconda. It was one of the highlights of my academic life to deliver a short presentation on Lovecraft at the Forum, and for a number of years, the event spurred me to complete a new essay on Lovecraft and his relationship to a different writer each fall. (I published a few of them, one on Lovecraft’s influence on Fritz Leiber’s novel, The Wanderer, another on Lovecraft’s influence on Thomas Ligotti’s story, “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” and a third on Lovecraft’s influence on Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift.” At some point, I’d like to get around to publishing some of the others [there’s one on Lovecraft’s influence on Ramsey Campbell’s The Darkest Part of the Woods, another on his influence on T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, and a third on Lovecraft’s influence on Peter Straub’s Mr. X.] and then collecting them in a short book.) Between my work and the work of those other scholars, I gained an extensive and eclectic appreciation for Lovecraft’s fiction as well as for the influence Lovecraft had exerted on the horror genre.
And yes, I encourage my students to read Lovecraft’s work; I see it as too central to the development of the horror field to ignore.
CL & H: Many writers share some amount self experiences or third hand experiences on their works, one that is a common conflict in your stories, is the disagreements between father and son, example, in “The House of Windows” Professor Roger is infuriated about his son Ted’s disdain for literature preferring to go to war in Iraq (resulting in his death) or in “Mr. Gaunt” where George doesn’t seem fond of his son Peter for not living up to his expectations of becoming a mystic (which in a way results too on Peter’s death). I don’t want to sound psychoanalytical, but where does this clash come from? Family conflicts can be sometimes scarier than paranormal events, can’t they?
JL: Yes they can! And that father-son struggle does run through many of my early stories and my first novel. It’s very much rooted in autobiography: my dad and I had what could at best be described as a complicated relationship. I loved him dearly, but I was afraid of his temper, which was quick, and which when aroused often carried with it the threat of physical violence. To be fair, I can’t recall him actually hitting me; he tended to take out his anger/frustration with me verbally. I think he didn’t understand a lot of the things I loved and wanted to do, especially writing, and I think that made him afraid for me, for the mess he worried I would make of my life, and so he couldn’t stop trying to fix everything I was doing. Of course, the older I got, the less I was interested in his efforts to correct me. Sadly, he died shortly before I turned 24, at what might have been the start of us beginning to advance our relationship to a better place, so what I’ve been left with is a host of unresolved and in many ways contradictory feelings. It’s one of the wellsprings of my fiction, a source that continues to feed it whether I’m aware of it or not.
CL & H: About “House of Windows”, your first novel, a work that reminds us of the classical… Let’s call them “ghost stories” of Shirley Jackson, or the Gothic era phenomena, but situated in modern times, with modern scares, such as the war in the Persian Gulf, divorce… which can be a very scary situation, with lots of guilt. Looking back, what comes to your mind almost a decade after publishing it? And what has been its input to the genre?
JL: When I was writing House of Windows, especially once I understood that it was going to be a novel (a realization I had resisted for a long time, lest it intimidate me into stopping writing), I decided that I would try to write a book that, if I were to die the day after I finished it, I could be satisfied to have left behind. In the person of Veronica Croydon, who narrates most of the book’s action, I was quite pleased to have employed a perspective that was difficult, recalcitrant; in the same way, I was pleased by the knots and tangles of her husband’s personality and choices. Nick Mamatas once told me that the book had the “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” quality that a lot of first novels have, which seems to me a not unreasonable description. In it, you’ll find references explicit and implicit to Henry James, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Fritz Leiber, among others. I suppose I was trying to emulate the big horror novels of the eighties, books like Straub’s Ghost Story and Klein’s The Ceremonies. Only later did it occur to me that, with House of Windows, I had written what should have been my second (or third or fourth) novel first, which is to say, a novel in which a writer stretches their wings, shows that they can write characters who are less sympathetic, portray situations that are complicated, ambiguous. As a first-time novelist, I was presenting readers who knew nothing about me with a novel that was not particularly welcoming to them, which was perhaps not the wisest course of action. All of which is to say that the novel was not the smashing success I hoped for; though it has continued to attract some lovely and perceptive reviews over the years, and while I remain very proud of it, I don’t know that it’s had any real impact on the genre.
CL & H: When authors mention books in their books, whether such books are fictional (Lovecraft’s Necronomicon) or real, what are they trying to do? Maybe a reference for the cultivated reader or a suggestion for the audience so they get to do their own research on the subject. You tend to do this in some of your works, for example, in “Mr. Gaunt”, the book is ‘Les Mystères du Ver’ and in “House of Windows” there are fragments of Dickens and James’ books. In your last novel “The Fisherman”, one of the main contradictions comes from information contained in the real book “The Catskills” written by the late historian Alf Evers.
JL: I’m not sure I can speak for every writer who’s employed this device, but I think it has something to do with wanting to give the story you’re writing an added air of authenticity. (It’s worth noting that you find such references in the stories of M.R. James, who was a scholar of Biblical and ancient literature, and who knew how to employ such references with great efficacy.) In the case of something like the Necronomicon, I think there’s also the desire to connect what you’re writing with what Lovecraft and his circle wrote, to bring your fiction into contact with that wider context. Every time someone adds a new volume to the library that Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith assembled (or, as in my case, a new translation of one of those books), that larger context grows larger still.
CL & H: The villain in “The Fisherman”, that strange man who comes to live with the wealthiest family of the county unchaining bizarre phenomena, such as unexplainable lights, party noises coming from the house, weird looking people leaving the premises, who were never seen arriving. Where did you get the inspiration for this foreigner? There are similarities with the terrifying former priest ‘John Jackson’ from “Mr. Gaunt”, but one of the readers of our circle suggested that there might be inspiration on the god Odin, or the Bavarian folklore, maybe even some relation to Goethe’s ballad “Der Fischer”.
JL: The figure of the Fisherman arose from a somewhat unclear mental image of a man struggling to land the leviathan he had caught. I am a big fan of Norse mythology, and I may well have been influenced by the story of the time the thunder god, Thor, hooked the Midgard serpent, Jormagund. To a certain extent, the figure that grew out of that image was dictated by the requirements of the narrative I was writing: I needed someone who could be responsible for the strange phenomena my characters were experiencing, which meant that he was going to have to be some kind of sorcerer. When he first rolled into view during the long second section of the novel, I had no idea of this man’s history; all I knew was that his title was German. Only in the course of continuing through the book did I realize that he, too, had suffered a terrible loss, which had driven him to seek knowledge that might help him remedy it. The pursuit of that knowledge, though, had corrupted him; to invoke the American writer Robert Penn Warren, his means had defiled his ends. I liked the idea that his motivation was rooted in the same sort of tragedy my narrator and his friend had suffered. This, I understood, would allow him to make a more compelling case to the character of Dan just prior to the book’s climax.
CL & H: A couple of months ago, we discussed in our monthly reunion, McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”. In the end the opinions were split, between those who loved it (myself) and others who didn’t find it appealing at all. The main reason for the latter, was the fact that it “was not horror”, and even if the Judge was somehow a sinister figure, Cormac, never clarifies if Holden is a supernatural entity. What is your position regarding this novel, AND what do you think about the Southern Gothic as part of the ‘Horror’ genre?
JL: Blood Meridian may be my favorite of McCarthy’s novels (though I haven’t yet read all of them). I’m not sure if the Judge is supernatural (although he does that trick with the coin when everyone is seated around the fire, doesn’t he? spinning it off into the darkness and having it return…), but he certainly seems supernormal. There’s something of Ahab to him, and maybe Faust, too. He’s an over-reacher; he wants to force God’s hand by deliberately putting himself in life-or-death situations, making God decide whether he lives or dies. It’s for that reason that the Kid’s decision not to kill him when he so clearly has him at his mercy enrages the Judge, as it lets God off the hook, robbing the Judge of his moment of certainty. The book certainly seems like a horror novel to me, or if not, then so closely related as to be for all intents and purposes the same thing. As I see it, the field of the Southern Gothic intersects and informs much of the horror genre. This is particularly the case with a writer such as Flannery O’Connor, whose grotesques have their descendants in the works of writers ranging from Joe Lansdale to Nathan Ballingrud to Alden Bell.
CL & H: What drove you and the other Shirley Jackson Award members to create this platform? Did you imagine it would grow this big in such a short time? And, why did you choose her as the icon for such recognition? Could it have been the “Daphne Du Maurier Award” or “Gertrude Barrows Bennett Award”?
JL: The Jackson Awards grew out of a shared recognition on the part of Paul Tremblay, F. Brett Cox, JoAnnn Cox, Sarah Langan, and myself that the overlapping fields of horror, dark fantasy, and psychological suspense were healthy and expansive enough to support another award. Brett Cox was the one who thought of contacting Shirley Jackson’s estate to ask if her family if they would allow us to give the award her name, which, to our delight, they agreed to. In associating our award with Shirley Jackson, we were inspired by our admiration for the excellence of her writing, the depth of her characterization, and the resonance of her narratives. While there are other fine writers we could have chosen to name the award after, I’m not sure any would have offered quite the same fit Jackson has.
CL & H: Sometimes our interviewed writers give us a few lines long micro story, I’ll give you the start: “John Langan woke up inside a dark and smelly Mexican gaol, his cellmates, a young man, lying motionless and bleeding profusely, and an old charro, who stares at John in a creepy way… -Gringo, you’re awake, give me ten pesos-…”
JL: How about this:
He woke to darkness and the ammoniac odor of disinfectant, which failed to conceal the mingled reek of piss, shit, and blood. The right side of his jaw throbbed; when he eased his tongue towards the teeth there, fireworks of pain signaled that several, maybe all, were broken. He had a confused memory of something swinging toward his face—a chair? How? He had been at dinner with Phoenix and the others at the little fondita, discussing Fuentes and then...
Langan rolled over, the motion filling his jaw with hurt. He exhaled sharply, his breath torturing shattered molars. Tears wet his cheeks, blurred the dim scene in front of him. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. On the floor next to his bunk lay a figure whose white shirt seemed to glow in the dark. A black pool spread around its head in a liquid halo. Phoenix? Although doing so made the entire right side of his head sing with pain, his vision flare white, he pushed himself to sitting, gripping the edge of the bunk with both hands to keep himself from tipping off it.
Two of the four walls around him were rows of metal bars. He was in a jail cell—a first, in this country or any other. The realization was as shocking as the injury to his face, maybe more so. Based on the lack of light to which his eyes were still adjusting, morning was a long distance away. What had happened? With the exception of an elderly couple nearer its front, he, Phoenix, and the rest of the reading group had had the restaurant to themselves. The talk had been lively, mixed with laughter, the food delicious. Though there had been—at one point, they had heard something in the kitchen, a single sound midway between a laugh and a sob. Their conversation (What about Vlad, anyway?) had paused, then, when the utterance was not repeated, resumed. And that was it, until whatever had preceded the chair swinging toward—and presumably, into—his head.
From the floor, the figure in the white shirt groaned, the complaint oddly muffled, as if its mouth were full of half-chewed food. Squinting, Langan leaned forward. The darkness seemed granular, as if it were particles hanging in the air. It was a man—it was Phoenix. With the recognition came awareness that there was something wrong with the lower part of his face, something terribly wrong. His mouth and jaw looked misshapen, as if they had been crushed in a powerful grip. Black liquid—blood shone thickly on them. This was the reason his moan sounded stifled: it had to make its way out through the wreckage of his palate, teeth, tongue, and lips.
Fear clear, pure, and sharp washed through Langan. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Whatever he and Phoenix had been caught up in (where were the others?) it was bad. Why had Phoenix been brought in here and left in this condition? Another wet groan escaped him. Should Langan call for help? The corridors outside the cell appeared empty.
To his left, the cell’s two solid walls met in a corner whose darkness seemed denser, as if the particles of blackness were concentrated there. The form that emerged from it crept towards Phoenix with hands and feet on the floor, in a crab walk that was silent and oddly graceful. Its head was enormous, saucer-shaped, vastly out of proportion to the rest of its spindly body. Langan started, scrambled to the other side of his bunk, striking the wall to which it was anchored, his head flashing with pain. He pressed against the plaster, trying to force himself into it, away from the thing that circled to the other side of Phoenix and lowered its oversized head to his face. There was a lapping sound, like a dog at its water dish. Phoenix moaned, the complaint leaping several octaves to a scream as the lapping was replaced by a series of cracks. Langan’s feet scrambled against the bunk’s nominal blanket, pushing it onto the floor with a thump. The cracking stopped; Phoenix’s screaming dropped to a groan. Oh shit oh shit. The great saucer of a head raised to consider Langan, whose eyes were bulging from the sockets, whose heart was beating so fast his pulse had become a single, panicked thrum.
The creature coughed, a sound like an old man clearing his throat. “Gringo,” it said in a high, reedy voice, “you’re awake. Give me ten pesos.”
Thin, anemic laughter burst from the creature, and as it shook at its joke, Langan saw that it was a man; albeit, a skinny one, skin and bones with an emphasis on the bones. What he had taken for its flattened head was an enormous hat, a black sombrero. The man was dressed in a black jacket and black jeans, the jacket embroidered in silver designs: the costume of the charro; although he was barefoot. The brim of the sombrero obscured the top half of his face. His mouth was draped by a long, dense mustache that gleamed wetly: With Phoenix’s blood, Langan realized, the horror that had ebbed as he saw he was facing a man surging again. What is this?
“They tell me you were speaking about el conde,” the man said.
“About…? I’m sorry: my Spanish is not very good.”
“The count,” the man said.
“The son of the dragon,” the man said, “Vlad Tepes.”
Fuentes’s novel. “Oh,” Langan said. “Yes, we were. I mean, we were discussing a book. By a Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes. Maybe you know him, his work?”
“I do not read,” the man said.
“What were you saying about this book?”
“It’s a sequel to Dracula—by Bram Stoker. About the vampire. It was the last book Fuentes wrote, before his death. In it, Dracula—Vlad moves to Mexico.”
“Ah.” With the thumb and index finger of his right hand, the man reached into Phoenix’s mouth. Phoenix gagged, screamed. There was a snap. When the man’s fingers reappeared, they were holding something small and white—a molar. He popped it in his mouth. The tooth rattled against his teeth as he sucked it. Around the molar, he said, “And what does the book say he does after he moves?”
Through trembling lips, Langan said, “He takes away the narrator’s family. Except, the narrator already lost them. He was too self-involved, too blind to see what was happening in front of him.”
“Blind.” Something in the way the man said the word raised the hairs on the back of Langan’s neck, stippled his flesh with goosebumps. Without knowing the reason why, he understood that he had just walked onto ice so thin his next breath