Bodies Haunted by Stories, Bodies Remade: A Review of John Langan’s “Sefira and Other Betrayals”

John Langan’s fiction brings together two seemingly disparate strengths: his way of structuring narratives is often revelatory, and his stories and novels themselves are frequently unnerving. Langan writes horror fiction, but his isn’t so much about jump-scares as it is about being in the presence of the inexplicable. There are uncanny hauntings and bizarre fatalities in it, to be sure, but Langan’s horror takes a very different form from many writers in the genre, past or present.

Many of Langan’s stories and novels feature nestled narratives — his two novels, House of Windows and The Fisherman are both fantastic examples of the form, and one of the unexpected joys of reading Langan can be the way that he structures his stories. In The Fisherman, one of the nestled narratives takes on a supernatural property of its own: the concept is that of a story that expands in the mind to a gargantuan scale after it’s been heard.

Sefira and Other Betrayals is Langan’s latest collection, and his third overall. Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters helped establish Langan’s distinctive approach to fiction, while The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies riffed on archetypal stories in an occasionally metafictional way. As Langan notes in the section that closes the book — and as you might be able to surmise from the book’s title — Sefira and Other Betrayals has betrayal on the mind, at least thematically speaking. 

In the eight stories collected here, Langan interprets betrayal in a host of ways, from one partner in a couple letting another down to the way that it can play out as a concept in a workplace situations. Though in that particular story, “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos,” the participants are military contractors trying to leave behind a harrowing episode of torture that they were party to. It’s the kind of story that would be horrific enough on its own without the growing sense that more is happening than can be explained by rational means. Even so, the supernatural elements are entirely in keeping with the story’s larger themes, adding another layer to a structure abounding with questions of trust, power, and control.

The narrator of “At Home in the House of the Devil” is the son of a successful screenwriter, and a young man who turns out to be deeply toxic to those closest to him. He’s not the devil of the story’s title, though; that reference comes from what the narrator believes to be an old Scottish saying: “Every man meets the Devil once before he dies.” Does our antihero encounter the Devil? Chekhov didn’t write about first-act references to the diabolical paying off in the third act, but you might be able to make an educated guess as to the presence of Old Scratch. 

What makes this story truly sing are the quiet details: the notion of an immortal cursed being equal parts terrifying malevolence and an almost comedic haplessness. It’s not really one of Langan’s nestled narratives; instead, it splits the difference between familiar beats (the wastrel son of privilege; the great tempter having his fun with a mortal soul) and more unpredictable moments. And it’s all the stronger for it. 

It’s the title novella where Langan pulls out all the stops, deftly doing complex things with structure that flow effortlessly. It opens with a hell of a first sentence: “Lisa looked in the rearview mirror and saw that her eyes had turned black.” Langan can spin a yarn and depict likable characters hanging out with the best of them — hell, The Fisherman is literally set on a fishing trip — but this is just a model of efficient storytelling. Try to read that sentence without immediately wanting to know why Lisa is on the road and, more emphatically, what exactly happened to her that turned her eyes black. 

Soon enough, Langan has filled us in on the reasons for Lisa’s travels and her condition. He does so by a very meticulous manipulation of time, establishing the parameters of Lisa’s journey first, then jumping back in time to reveal the way Lisa’s marriage became frayed — it’s not for nothing that the song “Jolene” is a recurring motif here — and the way that this situation rapidly reveals itself to be more than simply a case of garden-variety adultery. As Lisa’s eyes suggest, there’s more than a little body horror here; there are also hints of a larger cosmology at work. The result is a stunningly written blend of plot, character, and technique.

To an extent, its place (first in the book) casts a long shadow over the rest of the stories in the collection, setting a bar remarkably high for the works to follow. It’s a good thing that the other stories largely head into different territory (with, as stated before, one thematic motif remaining consistent): “Sefira” is a hard act to follow. I also agree with Paul StJohn Mackintosh, who argues persuasively that the stories found in this book possess a “greater humanity” than those in Langan’s earlier collections.

In his introduction, Paul Tremblay writes that Langan “employs his monsters fearlessly as living, breathing, and nuanced story components with roles both simple and complex.” It’s a succinct way of putting it. When I interviewed Langan three years ago, he spoke about his frustration with what he calls “trap stories.” Langan’s humanistic approach to fiction prevents him from writing something that ends on a “gotcha!” note — one could say that he cares too much about his characters to give them such a fate. Here, he demonstrates another facet of that, and shows that he’s also willing to extend that empathy to the creatures and demons that populate his stories. 


Sefira and Other Betrayals
by John Langan; introduction by Paul Tremblay
Hippocampus Press; 352 p.

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