The Fisherman
The Fisherman

The Fisherman by John Langan is a quietly disturbing novel of loss, black sorcery, and regret. Unexpectedly, the story manages to be both intimate in its telling and sweeping in its possible implications. While not perfectly balanced between those points, The Fisherman is a well-written and emotionally engaging work.

Told in three parts, The Fisherman begins by introducing the languid, convincingly-realized Abe. He is the novel’s widowed narrator, recollecting why he began fishing and what eventually made him stop. Abe’s tale ventures from his personal history into local history, then local folklore, and then deep into the occult and supernatural. But Abe and his experiences are made to serve double-duty. While he is presented as the primary, first-person focus of The Fisherman, Abe’s life shortly becomes the frame for another tale that is a thinly disguised, massive exposition dump. However, that content does allow Abe’s narrative to be something more than an intriguing novella.

After Abe sets the scene, the second, longer part of the novel is a several-times secondhand recounting of  events that occur well before the frame story. While this second part is nearly stand-alone and full of rich images, it eats up the middle 150 pages of the 266 page novel without hitting the same emotional tone as the introduction. In particular, it lacks the distinctive voice Langan gives to Abe.

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In addition to creating a great character, Langan also imbues The Fisherman with a great sense of place—the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York are a vital presence in the novel. He teases out the atmosphere of the forests, rivers, and streams, captures the fragrance of the woods and the qualities of light. He also very gently lets grief seep in before his characters declare it out loud.

The foreshadowing in The Fisherman is frequent and subtle. Langan keeps good control over its pace, even when he seems to be pointing right to it: “The canvas was such a mess of shades and shadows that I half-suspected it was some kind of giant Rorschach Test… there was something about it, this quality, that I don’t know if I have the words for. The picture fascinated me; I guess because it was so close to showing you what it was, so close to revealing its meaning” (41).

You don't want these fish
You don’t want these fish

The imagery is strong but not always connected. The many, many uses of water are beautifully done, vivid and tactile, but they do not always, well, flow. Occasionally it seems as if a water reference is used simply because it is watery. For example, in the third part of the novel Langan weaves a familiar urban legend into the mix and then submerges it, using it to reinforce the dolorous mood:

“It’s one of those tales I’ve noticed attaches to spots where water covers the site of human dwelling. There’s something haunting about the image of those houses, those shops, those churches, submerged in darkness, schools of fish darting amongst them, the light a distant glow overhead. It’s as if you’re seeing how time works, or some such” (199)

While it is evocative, it doesn’t fully connect with his other uses of watery imagery, particularly the pivotal Dutchman’s Creek and the often-referenced black ocean.

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John Langan, The Fisherman himself
John Langan, The Fisherman himself

Speaking of liquid images, I wish the strange other world Langan attaches to our own had been more thoroughly dived into. He presents us with such grand visions as: “For a moment, Jacob’s mind insists that what arcs out of the water is an island, because there is no living creature that big in all of creation. Then it moves…the whole of its dull surface traversed by the ripples of what Jacob understands are great muscles flexing and releasing, and there’s no doubt this is alive” (145). This and descriptions like it evoke the sheer scope of the thing and its environment in a way that recalls Dune and the sandworms. Yet it still feels somewhat incomplete to me, like a set-piece rather than a fully organic experience. I would have welcomed a much longer novel that delved further into that sorcerous world.

The Fisherman has been described as Lovecraftian—but everything is Lovecraftian, of late. This flirts with it, although it is in many ways too concrete and contained in its cosmic horror. But comparisons are only guideposts, and John Langan has a distinct style that stands on its own. I truly enjoyed The Fisherman. It has at its root a thoughtful literary sensibility wrapped around a solid supernatural horror story. That’s a hard combination to beat.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Joe Hill's The Fireman
Joe Hill’s The Fireman

The Fireman, Joe Hill’s latest opus, is a big, rambling, post-apocalyptic horror novel that is fast-moving and entertaining but, for me, ultimately unsatisfying. I was never engaged enough to suspend my disbelief or to be even remotely scared by the goings-on. This was a distinct impediment to my full enjoyment of a promising feast. So while I found the novel action-packed, reasonably fun to plow through, and a good enough way to spend a couple of days, I could not in the end take it seriously.

The Fireman begins with the world in the throes of a new plague known as Dragonscale—a highly contagious fungus that causes most infected people to burn alive, and to burn the world down with them as they go. A lucky few, however, have learned to make a chemical peace with the infection. Some can even use their fire as a tool, or a weapon. These fire-users become the novel’s main characters, fighting to get to a safe place rumored to be off the Maine coast.

This, for me, is where The Fireman’s problems start. I didn’t find these characters believable as real people, and so it didn’t matter to me if they succeeded.

Hill’s POV character is Harper Willowes, a twenty-six year old nurse infected with Dragonscale, pregnant, and fleeing what she has just now discovered is an abusive marriage. To me, she comes across as both trite and cutesy. Her main character traits seem to be her weirdly optimistic affect, unlikely medical knowledge, and obsession with Mary Poppins. The last highlights the inconsistencies in her personal frame of reference. Harper is supposed to be in her twenties, but Hill’s timeline of her experiences and life events (as well as her taste in music and children’s films) all skew at least a decade older. She is a collection of quirks that never quite gel into a convincing person.

The main male character is John Rockwood—exhibitionist British mycologist, romantic lead, Dragonscale master, possessor of a 1935 hook and ladder rig, and so the Fireman of the title. He also suffers from an abundance of odd traits. He is somewhat more realistic than Harper, but he still ends up being presented as an assemblage of eccentric details rather than a fully-developed character.

I also found the secondary characters weak in The Fireman. Hill uses a lot of stereotypes in the peopling of his novel, from the calm, wise black woman to the grandfatherly old man and from the evil conspiracy theorists to the pseudo-religious cultists gone bad. Profanity and lascivious chatter are thrown in at random and attributed to various characters without regard for who they are supposed to be, giving the racy dialogue a toneless quality and a distinct lack of impact. Teens are largely portrayed as Lord of the Flies-style savages. The bad guys are single-dimensional at best, cartoonish at worst, and consequently not particularly frightening. None are truly individuals—they are tropes and plot devices which act without personality. I couldn’t find anything about them to genuinely care about.

Joe Hill as a fireman
Joe Hill as a fireman

The Fireman may be intended as homage or at least a pastiche, but the literary and cultural references are so in-your-face it is hard to take them as other than too-clever name-dropping. We get the direct naming of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and Harper Lee. We get obvious allusions to Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, King’s The Stand, Pet Semetary, Firestarter, and more.  At one point Hill uses his father’s technique of detailing a sudden disaster’s effects on minor characters. But the trick falls flat when there is no relationship with or between the people he suddenly throws into the story.

As with the references, so many of the details feel disconnected, as if Hill were focused more on moving the plot along (which he does, extremely effectively) than building a convincing end-of-the-world scenario. I was distracted by too many technical questions that stood out more clearly than the characters themselves. For example: Where do all the big trucks and construction vehicles gas up when they are driven for hundreds of miles? How do the overweight characters stay that way for months on end if the survivors are on short rations and skipping meals? And why are there always canned peaches?

So, to sum it up: despite the undeniably compelling pacing I found the characters poorly drawn, the cultural and literary references overdone, and the post-apocalypse details unconvincing. I can’t recommend The Fireman as more than a lightweight beach book. It is a glossy, compelling, in-joke of a novel with unlikely nonstop action, deus ex machina plotting at every turn, and an additional scene dropped off after the credits that teases a sequel. It will fall apart if you look too deeply. But if you don’t look, and don’t really expect too much, The Fireman can still be fun.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!