The Fisherman (2016, Word Horde)
Written by John Langan
Abe lost his wife to cancer after only two years of marriage. Dan lost his wife and two children in a car accident. These two men have bonded in their grief by fishing in and around the Catskills and the Ashokan Reservoir. One day Dan suggests they try Dutchman’s Creek, a body of water Abe isn’t familiar with and can’t seem to find on any of his maps. Dan seems to know where the creek is and on a rainy Saturday morning, they head out. A fateful stop at a diner in the area leads to them to hear the story of how Dutchman’s Creek got its name and a warning to stay away from this place.
The Fisherman is already a strong contender for my book of the year. This is due in part to author John Langan’s masterful command of language and the ability to create a palpable atmosphere. He does something that by all sense should not work in a novel. He interrupts the main story to tell a novella length history of where the horror of Dutchman’s Creek came from. I’m always turned off when horror attempts to explain itself, but here he refuses to give the origins of the horror. The story is filtered through four or five layers of people so that we get very rough descriptions and details only when they are needed to punctuate the unnatural nature of the evil.
Langan teases us with the destination of the story from the opening of the novel. Abe retells the events from his perspective and briefly describes women and children with long needle-like teeth emerging from mouths split too far to be human. We know Abe is going to face the horror head on and he will survive to tell his story so the stakes can’t be live or die for him. Like good cosmic horror, death is too easy an escape. Instead, Abe is going to live with a deep knowledge that we have no awareness of how thankful we are not to share. Existence has become hell for Abe, and even in the closing chapter, as he tries to eke out a life of some normality after his experience, he is reminded that he cannot escape. He will be haunted with knowing why evil acts promulgate in the 21st century, making brief references to war and terror that now seem endless. It would be easy for this connection to have been eye-rolling-ly trite, but Langan has developed the evil with such weight that I as a reader have to reflect deeper on these real life occurrences.
The middle section story is a beautiful novella all on its own. It details the strange events that occurred in what would become the Ashokan Reservoir at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Elements of Old World European folklore are woven into this story of a mysterious guest who takes up residence in the manor of the region’s most wealthy citizen. Workers on the dam have a close encounter with the fruits of this guest’s work when one of their dead wives seemingly returns from beyond. An interesting conceit of this story is that Abe explains it was told to him in a diner on that horrible day. However, the man in the restaurant heard it from a reverend who in turn heard it from an elderly member of his congregation on her deathbed. And she only knew many of the events via what was told to her later by her husband. Abe explains that when he sat to transcribe what he remembered of the story
The world of the Catskills is described so beautifully and anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the wet, overcast autumn mountains like these or the Appalachians knows the mystery they can hold. When figures emerge from the treeline onto the shores of a creek you can hear the quiet of the woods, feel the cold, wet early morning air. I found myself getting lost deep into The Fisherman more than any other book I have read this year. I plan to backtrack to Langan’s short story collections and begin catching myself up on his fantastic work.