A Wizard of Earthsea is my favorite fantasy book, not written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was only a matter of time before I read the sequel, The Tombs of Atuan. I went into the book cautiously because I’d heard that the narrative changed the protagonist and took a while to get going. While this is true, the new female protagonist, Tenar, is just as interesting as the last, Ged. Ursula K. Le Guin manages to tell a tale that feels like the other side of A Wizard of Earthsea’s coin. Each book follows a young protagonist finding their place in the world and coming to terms with their own agency and identity. Ged’s journey is about confronting his own potential evil, while Tenar’s is about confronting her own potential good. She’s raised as a priestess of the Nameless Ones, gods who demand sacrifice and darkness. Early in the novel, Tenar accepts the religion that kidnapped her without hesitation and is empowered to decide the fate of trespassers. She’s haunted by her decision through most of the novel. When Ged, the protagonist from the first Earthsea novel, is trapped and at her mercy, she must confront the lies of her religion and the lies she’s told herself. Tenar is a character sheltered by her way of life, and her struggle to confront that way of life is the crux of the novel. Ultimately, The Tombs of Atuan is just as entertaining, enlightening, and powerful as A Wizard of Earthsea. I can’t wait to read the next installment, The Farthest Shore.
The world of Mistborn immediately enthralled me. Brandon Sanderson’s magic system is incredibly well codified. The plot, a group of high-class thieves are trying to “Ocean’s Eleven” the world’s dark lord out of his rule, is equally enthralling. Vin, the protagonist, is a classic fantasy chosen one, she rises from humble roots to a heroic destiny, and I enjoyed following her adventure. My only warning to future Mistborn readers is to beware of the novel’s middle section. I struggled through it because the plot remains relatively static while Vin attends several fancy-dress balls. These balls are filled with good political intrigue, but it just seemed like there were a few too many, and I felt like the rest of the novel flew by once the plot kicked back in. I would’ve preferred if Sanderson lingered in some of the climactic moments instead of the ball scenes. Aside from that, I loved virtually everything else. I’d certainly read more of Brandon Sanderson’s work, and I’d love to dive back into the world he crafted in Mistborn. It feels both incredibly original and yet perfectly mythic.
Also, there is a board game called Mistborn: House War, based on this series, and I’ve already expressed my love for tabletop gaming in my article The Narrative Appeal of Board Games, so I will have to find a copy to play.
I loved The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. The book collects nine of John Langan’s short stories, some original and some reprinted. I first encountered Mr. Langan’s work in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, which I have been slowly devouring since I bought it back in 2016. While I was at the beach this past summer, I read his tale, Outside the House, Watching for the Crows, and I loved it as much as this collection. I marveled at his ability to use nostalgia in the service of telling a good horror story. About two weeks later, I encountered Mr. Langan in person.
Soon after my beach trip, I was lucky enough to present my academic paper, The Shadow Over Horror Tropes, at NecronomiCon 2019, in Providence, Rhode Island. It was there that I listened to Langan speak during the Outer Dark’s State of the Weird Podcast. Afterward, I ended up crossing his path a few times during the convention, but I didn’t realize he’d written Outside the House, Watching for the Crows until I got back from Providence. Somehow, my brain failed to make the connection that I’d read his work, even though I had my copy of The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu with me, and I saw his name tag multiple times. Suffice it to say; I’m still annoyed at myself for not getting his signature. Reading The Wide, Carnivorous Sky has only intensified my regret over missing the chance to pick Langan’s brain about his fantastic prose.
In my opinion, the tales in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky can be divided into two types. There are those where Langan experiments with the conventions of telling a horror story, and there are those that are more traditional. As a reader, I loved all these tales, but as a writer, I especially loved the avant-garde ones because they showed Langan’s narrative creativity.
I felt that four of the nine stories in this collection fell into the experimental category. The first was How the Day Runs Down, a tale in the form of a play concerning the zombie apocalypse and the afterlife. The mundanity of what happens after we die in this story was especially spooky to me. This is one I’d love to reread in print since I listened to The Wide, Carnivorous Sky on Audible. Immediately following How the Day Runs Down is Technicolor. This is a tale in the form of a lecture that concerns Poe’s exceptionally wonderful story, The Masque of the Red Death. Of course, writing this now, I can’t help but realize that How the Day Runs Down and Technicolor are both tales masquerading in other narrative formats.
The most avant-garde of these stories is The Revel. It’s a meta-tale told from a narrator dissecting the Werewolf story in progress by explaining all the elements, from the monster to the characters. It’s a unique take on the subgenre and another one I’d love to revisit in print form. The last tale to mix up narrative conventions is the final one in the collection, Mother of Stone. Langan uses the second person to tell a story about local lore and exorcisms. This one made my spine tingle quite a bit. As a writer thinking about craft, I wonder how much of that was due to hearing the narrator refer to “you” instead of a third person protagonist?
While I’ve devoted a little extra page space to the experimental tales, the five traditional tales are just as fun. The collection opens with Kids, a short and visceral story about a teacher dealing with, let’s say, unruly students. The collection’s namesake, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, is a fun twist on vampire mythology. It also reminded me of the science fiction horror classic Predator, because it concerned a group of soldiers confronting an alien foe with military strategy and good old-fashioned moxie.
Possibly my favorite tale of the entire collection, City of the Dog is amazing. The story uses nostalgia in a similar way to Outside the House, Watching for the Crows. The major difference is that City of the Dog connects with H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, specifically his famous tale, Pickman’s Model. Langan’s story is a masterclass on creating a believable character. The protagonist is extremely well developed, and I loved the haunting ending, which leaves the protagonist filled with fear and regret. I think this tale perfectly illustrates how vital a character’s regrets are to a good horror story.
Another excellent tale that deals with Lovecraft is The Shallows. This story explores what the world looks like after Cthulhu has risen. It’s effective in a similar way to City of the Dog, as regret is a core part of the tale again, but the tone is bleaker since the world has been wiped out. It’s full of the quiet moments of contemplation that I think good post-apocalyptic fiction requires. Lastly, there is June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris, a fictional account of an incident in the writer Laird Barron’s life (I just reviewed his exceptional collection, Occultation and Other Stories, last month). The story concerns a car designed to draw occult symbols using human blood to summon horrible monstrous entities. So, naturally, I loved everything about it.
If you like horror, weird fiction, or anything in between, you should read or listen to this collection. All the tales are unique and entertaining. Langan even mentions my favorite superhero team, the X-Men, in a few of his stories. I highly recommend checking out The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. And since I just listened to three short story collections in a row on audible, I think a return to novels is warranted. So, I may follow-up Langan with more Langan by reading his 2016 novel, The Fisherman. What better way to start 2020, then with a healthy dose of horror?
At one point, I assumed Laird Barron was a peer of Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber because his name came up so often when I researched Lovecraftian writers. Of course, I realized my mistake, but I think that informs you about how esteemed Barron is in Lovecraftian circles. So, it was only a matter of time before I dove into some of his work.
In Occultation and Other Stories, Barron presents an array of macabre tales that manage to avoid easy categorization. The story that spooked me the most in this collection was The Broadsword. It’s a tale where the protagonist is an older gentleman hearing people talk about nefarious doings in his apartment’s vents. Things get freakier from there. I enjoyed a ton about this tale, but what stuck with me the most is the fact that The Broadsword effectively recreated the feelings I got while devouring The Whisperer in Darkness for the first time.
Catch Hell and Mysterium Tremendum worked in similar ways for me. They conjured feelings I associated with classic horror stories, but Barron made them feel fresh in his voice. It was also a lot of fun to see “The Black Guide” used in Mysterium Tremendum after reading about it in Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things and Other Stories last month.
Two stories that felt intensely unique were Strappado and – -30- -. Strappado is essentially a tale about a man seeing a Banksy gone wrong. While – – 30 – – deals with the ecology of an area that has something unknown wrong with it. It reminded me a little of Jeff VanderMeer’s (who is thanked in the acknowledgements section) Annihilation, but this was published four years before that. Barron does some of his most effective work when he writes about nature, and I assume that his time living in Alaska probably gave him a unique perspective on the subject.
Lastly, Barron often challenges traditional Lovecraftian tropes. His protagonists come from different ethnicities and genders and go beyond the typical Lovecraftian type, and he deals with sex and sexuality in every story, something often avoided in Lovecraftian yarns. Besides sex, insects also seemed to show up to some degree in every story in this collection, but I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence or not. Bugs certainly play a huge role in Occultation’s first story, The Forest. In that opening story, Barron also has a character named Toshi, whom I assumed was partially inspired by famed Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi.
Overall, I enjoyed all these stories, and I’d like to revisit them to work through the nuts and bolts of how Barron writes. One of the pains of working forty-hour weeks and listening to everything on audible is that I don’t get to underline and mark up the text in front of me. Perhaps I’ll seek out a physical copy of Laird Barron’s Occultation and Other Stories to do just that.
In To Be Devoured, Sara Tantlinger presents a unique protagonist named Andi. You spend the majority of the novella aware that Andi is an unreliable narrator, and Tantlinger uses her protagonist’s unstable worldview to great effect throughout the story. Through Andi, the reader gets to ride shotgun on a descent into madness. As a result, neither Andi nor the reader is entirely sure what has transpired at certain times in this macabre tale.
While I don’t want to go into deep spoilers, I found it interesting that the inciting incident of the novel is the rejection of an artistic present made by Andi. The creation is something anyone who doesn’t love bugs would certainly be repulsed by, and that is the case for Luna, Andi’s girlfriend, but despite knowing that Luna’s reaction to Andi’s present was appropriate, I couldn’t help understanding and feeling for Andi at this moment. Anyone who’s ever created anything and seen it rejected can certainly relate to the protagonist, and while much of what Andi does after this is demented, this first hurt serves to orient the reader in her headspace.
When the truly horrifying points in the story occur, they are driven by Andi’s inability to halt her delusions and Tantlinger’s delightfully repulsive descriptions of Andi devouring twisted meals no one should be hankering after. Ultimately, even though Andi is doing horrible things, you feel like the world has failed Andi because you’re locked in her head. You want her to get to join the vultures she idolizes throughout the story. Giving the entire story’s point of view to Andi is an interesting narrative choice, and I think Tantlinger balances it in such a way that you don’t feel Andi’s actions are ever things you want to happen, but you understand why Andi does them. So, perhaps the scariest part of this novella is that by the end you aren’t as repulsed by Andi as the other characters in the novel.