Down To a Sunless Sea: A Review of John Langan’s The Fisherman

7 min read

By Anthony Perconti

As a father and husband, the thing that scares me the most in this life is the untimely death of one of my children or my spouse. The only other thing that comes remotely close to this fear is imagining my death and leaving my family wanting. Leaving temporal business unfinished as it were. Being a risk-averse individual, I have taken steps to ensure that my family will be OK in the event of my passing. A life insurance policy, after all, is designed to benefit your survivors, right? And yet, once in a while, I will awaken from a terrifying dream, heart racing, helpless in the knowledge that something awful has happened to my family.

After a few minutes, I have had the privilege of drifting off back to sleep in the knowledge that it was not real. As the old saying goes, by the grace of God go I. But this exact panic-inducing scenario is what John Langan explores in his novel, The Fisherman. How does someone go on after all they love has been taken away? Do they move on with their lives? And if so, for what reason? Or perhaps a more germane question is, what happens if an individual in mourning refuses to let go of what is lost? Langan examines this fundamental question, filtered through the lens of a tale of the supernatural. The Fisherman is a somber meditation on the consequences of loss and the toll it takes on the human spirit.

This book is written in the style of a memoir, in which the narrator, Abe, recounts certain life experiences that he is trying to come to terms with. Right at the novel’s offset, Langan makes it abundantly clear to the reader that this story is a tragedy intermingled with a heavy dose of metaphysical anomie. Abe is a widower whose wife, Marie, died of breast cancer after about a year and a half of marriage. Throughout their short tenure together, always lurking in the background, was the constant realization that death would come for her.

Leviathan

After Marie’s passing, as can be expected, Abe went through a depression, drinking heavily and neglecting his responsibilities at his job at IBM. One day, Abe wakes up and has an unshakable compulsion to go fishing. This long-forgotten activity provides Abe with a sense of organization and meaning after the loss of Marie; he structures his entire existence around this introspective sport. As the years pass, tragedy strikes one of Abe’s coworkers, Dan Dresher as well. Dan’s loss is a counterpoint to that of Abe’s; where Abe and Marie had time together to come to terms with the looming eventuality, Dan’s wife Sophie, and their twin toddlers, were killed in an instant, when their car was struck by an eighteen-wheeler. Dan, ejected from the vehicle, was the lone survivor. As time passes, Abe begins to look after Dan’s wellbeing, and the two form a friendship of sorts. The two widowers form a (rarely spoken of) bond centered around their parallel circumstances and of course, fishing. John Langan does an outstanding job of fleshing out these two individuals. His descriptions of these two men’s circumstances, during their respective lives nadir (and their gradual ascension), brings a sense of naturalistic realism to this work.

The naturalistic literary tone of the book’s first part, “Men Without Women”, makes what comes after that much more jarring. This robust characterization also solicits a heightened sense of empathy from the reader; making the novel’s conclusion exponentially more powerful. Suffice it to say, the art of fishing is Abe and Dan’s simultaneous salvation and damnation.

Langan ramps up the bizarre quotient in Part Two, “Der Fischer: A Tale of Terror”. In addition to being a superlative character study (as well as a haunting tale of the supernatural), this novel utilizes the time-honored literary device of the frame sequence; of stories recounted within stories. During the first weekend of June, upon Dan’s suggestion, the two friends go to a new fishing spot, tucked away in the Catskill Mountains, named Dutchman’s Creek. The pair stopped to breakfast at a small roadside establishment, Herman’s Diner.

It is a story brimming with ancient antediluvian civilizations, an immortal sorcerer, the walking dead, disgraced academics, water nymphs, cursed grimoires, a heroic fellowship, and enchanted maidens.

When Howard (a thinly disguised version of HP Lovecraft) the short-order cook, learns of the pair’s destination, he tries to warn them off. Due to a torrential storm and curiosity, the two friends stick around to listen to Howard’s story regarding the origins of the creek. Comprising the majority of The Fisherman, “Der Fisher”, takes a seismic shift in tone that recounts the origins of Ashokan Reservoir, during the early years of the Twentieth Century. Langan deftly combines aspects of Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War with the works of such pulpsters as Robert E. Howard, William Hope Hodgson, and Algernon Blackwood to create the granddaddy of all fishing stories.

“Der Fischer” unashamedly revels in the gothic and pulp traditions. It is a story brimming with ancient antediluvian civilizations, an immortal sorcerer, the walking dead, disgraced academics, water nymphs, cursed grimoires, a heroic fellowship, and enchanted maidens. And underneath it all, deep within that primordial black ocean, Leviathan awaits.

In Part Three: “On the Shores of the Black Ocean”, the author converges the previous story threads and addresses the fallout. Abe recounts in great detail what befell him and Dan at Dutchman’s Creek that June weekend and of the consequences that ripple out from it well into the early part of the Twenty-First Century. The driving force behind this novel is contingent upon how the characters process personal loss. Abe is the type of individual who takes his grief and harnesses it into a positive force; how he takes responsibility for Dan for example and later in the book, when he teaches his neighbor’s young daughter, Sadie, how to fish (even though it frightens him immensely).

Apep

Abe’s decent nature remains constant throughout the book, irrespective of his pain. “My memory relaxed its grip on Marie’s death; although it felt more as if her dying loosened its hold on me. The myriad of experiences that had composed our time together became available as more than prompts to grief.”

Dan, and to a greater degree the titular Fisherman, both are Abe’s direct antithesis. These two figures cannot move past their grief; their loss is the defining characteristic that consumes them. The Fisherman uses his sorcerous knowledge to trap and exploit forces that dwarf our meager species on a fundamental level.

Jormungandr

His goal is to obtain the raw power to remake the world into his own image (while simultaneously bringing back his murdered wife and children in the process). Absolutely hubristic, yet still, the reader can empathize with his motives. Dan on the other hand simply wants to be reunited with his wife and children. Or, to be clear, what passes for his wife and children; their reflections. Dan is content in having a simulacrum of what was lost, rather than going on without it. This need to be reunited with his family eclipses the camaraderie that he and Abe have established.

I realize that I am being vague with regards to the plot points of The Fisherman. This is obviously an intentional omission. I don’t want to spoil the immensely satisfying experience of discovery as the tale unfolds. The subject matter of this novel was inherently terrifying to me; I cannot think of another horror novel that caused me anxiety-ridden, sleepless nights. In addition to giving this book my highest possible recommendation, I will say one more thing about The Fisherman.

At the novel’s conclusion, the two widowers (and The Fisherman himself), all achieve a certain degree of resolution; not a happy ending, mind you. Resolution, albeit in a backhanded, cosmically cruel sort of way. Or to state it differently, what eluded some in life was achieved after death. After all, what’s more, important than family?

Anthony Perconti is a contributor at Three Crows Magazine. He is a father, husband and lifelong book, comic & music nerd. His essays have also appeared in Broadswords and Blasters and Pulp Appeal.

John Langan’s “The Fisherman” is available for purchase from Word Horde.

Liked it? Take a second to support Three Crows on Patreon!