On Russell Edson’s The Tunnel and John Langan’s The Fisherman
Another pair that I finished on the same day. The first, Russell Edson’s The Tunnel, represents a selection of prose poems from his long career. The second, John Langan’s The Fisherman, is a 2016 horror novel I’ve had on my radar since its release, but never managed to pull the trigger on. I began the former about a month ago, and did so with great expectations, having read a handful of effusive reviews that spoke of Edson’s startling originality. I began the latter two days ago, expecting to be satisfied, but unsurprised. After a childhood dining on Stephen King and an adulthood spent regularly sampling the writers that inspired him and those he inspired himself, I demand a good deal from a horror novel, more than I do from a work of any other genre. The unknowable was terrifying in Lovecraft’s day, but now, almost a century later, it is terribly, tastelessly known.
And yet I enjoyed Langan’s revitalization of Lovecraft’s well-worn themes, while Edson’s poems left me feeling cold. Because while Langan does nothing new—the tale of a man driven to sin by the loss of a loved one is as old as the Greeks—he does it well, drawing out the essence of literary ingredients familiar to any horror fan like an experienced chef. The tale-within-a-tale structure employed so frequently by writers of weird fiction is never concealed; Langan plays the trope admirably straight. We begin with Abe, a man grieving over the loss of his wife to cancer, and it’s with Abe we end. The horrors of the past, which take up roughly the middle two-thirds of the book, are lively, and come to echo in the present. And Abe is forced to reckon with them. And in order to come out on top, he must first triumph over himself.
Given the above narrative, which is probably as conventional as they come, Edson would probably laugh. In his prose poems, he eschews such simple structures. Instead of a man grieving his dead wife, we might find a dead wife grieving her living husband. Or eating him. Or cheating on him with a younger version of himself, who’s treated her (his dead wife, that is) to a dinner of his own barbecued ribs. This, after all, is what Edson does (and does, admittedly, quite well): twist and twist and twist tropes until the reader’s brain snaps, letting in the glorious light of whatever truth he’s set out to illuminate.
I’m impressed by what Edson does, don’t get me wrong. True originality is almost impossible, and he is nothing if not original. But a lesson I’ve learned (and am still learning) is that I don’t read in order to be impressed. It’s nice when it happens, but it’s not why I pick up a book. I read in order to be, if only briefly, lost, and Langan’s The Fisherman did just that. The world of his novel might not have been as exciting (or even unsettling) as the world(s) Edson conjures, but not for a moment did I doubt it was real.