John Langan’s The Fisherman is the great-grandfather of all fishing stories. From its action-packed pages and the fact that it contains a narrative within a narrative to its taut, emotionally gritty atmosphere and its flawless touches of cosmic horror, this is one of those rare novels that immediately carves a space for itself on the list of great American horror novels that will be talked about and discussed for a very long time. Ripe with pain, hearsay, and monsters, The Fisherman is what happens when one of the most talented voices in horror fiction decides to push the boundaries of its genre and places loss, impossible creatures, and the effects of pain on the human psyche at the center of a story that’s surrounded by ominous shapes moving just below the surface of impossibly dark water, family history, and magic.
Abe and Dan are coworkers, but what brings them together is much more important than their job: they both experienced losing their wives. Abe found some measure of comfort in fishing, and when sees Dan struggle with his own loss, decides to extend him an invitation to go fishing together. As a result, the two grieving men begin a friendship anchored in the sport. One day, Dan suggests they head to Dutchman’s Creek, a body of water not frequented by fishermen that runs through the woods around Woodstock in upstate New York. On their way there they stop for a bite to eat and some coffee, and that stop leads to them listening to a long, improbable story told by a man who strongly warns them against going to the river. Dutchman’s Creek is more than a spot to fish; it’s a body of water with a very dark, tumultuous history that may or may not offer the men a way to ease their pain. As the two men listen to the tale of the river and the Reservoir, a history that is tied to that of a mysterious figure known as Der Fisher, the Fisherman, they will learn that there is, in fact, something they can do to make the suffering going away, to regain that which was dear to them and is now no more, but there is a steep price to pay if they want to pursue that solution.
The Fisherman is a narrative within a narrative. It starts with Abe, the narrator, and Dan, but quickly shifts to the tale that Howard, the man they talk to at the diner, begins to tell them. Once that happens, history, magic, and cosmic horror take over and the novel becomes one of the best offerings that lover of weird/dark literature had to enjoy in 2016. Langan is a masterful storyteller with a knack for bizarre situation and horrific imagery, but he also understands human suffering and the way people react to situations they witness or experience but aren’t able to fully comprehend. As a result, the stories told in this novel, which brilliantly moves back and forth in time, are not only entertaining in the sense that they are packed with creepiness but also touching because the anguish and motivations of the characters are palpable.
Cosmic horror is a hard thing to get right. On one hand, there is the temptation to not describe things, to let the readers’ imagination take over and create monsters of unspeakable/unimaginable dimensions and physicality. On the other hand, the most dangerous option is fully engaging with the creatures being presented to the reader, to describe in detail what the characters are looking at. This second one requires great talent and most of the time, sadly, ends in disappointment. That, thankfully, is not the case here. Langan has the ability to create atmospheres that lead to paralyzing visions and then to present those visions in luxurious detail:
A few hundred yards from the stony beach—it’s hard to estimate distances with any accuracy in this tumult, but much too close for comfort, let alone, sanity—something enormous raises itself amidst the waves. 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, first rising even higher, into a more severe arch, then subsiding, lifting itself from the waves at both ends while relaxing its middle into a gradual curve, 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 it’s alive.
Creating a sense of discomfort or primal fear should be the goal of horror fiction authors, but even when that is accomplished, a complete, satisfying narrative should be much more than that. The Fisherman succeeds in placing the reader in a perennial state of uneasiness, but then it pushes itself into must-read territory by also offering a brooding atmosphere pregnant with anguish, indecision, emotional grittiness, hurt, and the desperate aching that can only come from having to make dangerous all-or-nothing decisions. Word Horde is one of those strange presses that offer enough diversity to keep readers guessing and to maintain a wonderfully flexible vision and catalog, but they hadn’t produced an immediate classic…until now. The Fisherman doesn’t merely join a handful of contemporary novels in the upper echelons of cosmic horror; it explodes to the top with undeniable force and occupies a huge space there thanks to the way Langan engages with the material without falling into boring tropes or ever sounding like yet another Lovecraftian pastiche. Just that makes it required reading for fans of great literature.
by John Langan
Word Horde Press; 282 p.