"The Fisherman" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by Word Horde
Written by John Langan
2016, 282 pages, Fiction
Released on June 30th, 2016
A popular new-ageism describes grief as a stone, either in your pocket or your shoe, something you carry around with you that you’re never quite rid of. I believe it’s more accurate to describe grief as a hot coal, smoldering and buried deep within you - something that leaves the rest of your body unaffected but constantly presses down on your very core. Every small movement, every moment, happy or sad, triggers the searing bite, the reminder things will never be the same again. Knowing this feeling is the key to understanding the characters of John Langan’s The Fisherman, in which people across time deal with the pain of loss, and the terrifying lengths they will go to defy God, nature and fate.
When the narrator, Abe, introduces himself, he’s already been through absolute hell from watching the love of his life gradually fade and eventually claimed by cancer. In addition to his destructive coping mechanisms, he finds solace in fishing, casting a line out and spending an afternoon with only the nature of woodsy Upstate New York as company. One of his co-workers, Dan, experiences an even greater loss and soon finds himself joining Abe for fishing trips; two men without their women seeking the silent contrition one finds when landing a big one is all that matters. Eventually, as Dan starts to slide further into his own grief, he suddenly shares a new fishing spot with Abe, one which he’s reluctant to reveal the providence of. But as soon as he mentions to the cook at the local diner that they’re on their way to Dutchman’s Creek, the cook won’t let them leave without a word of warning about that place - or, rather, a story passed down from person to person since the building of the Ashokan Reservoir. It is the story of the Fisherman, or "Der Fischer" and the European immigrant workers who faced him and discovered a horrifying truth that could never again be unknown.
This novel is, without a doubt, the most beautiful I’ve read all year. In the beginning it’s obvious to see the influence of greats like Melville in Langan’s writing - in fact, this entire book might be viewed as a twisted spiritual cousin of Moby Dick. But thankfully it isn’t exactly like that. Langan borrows from an omnivorous assortment of fiction writers, at times incorporating aquatic abominations that could have sprung from Lovecraft’s darkest nightmares, to a hodgepodge of references to the lore from throughout time and cultures. But like a perfect meal, it can’t just contain too much of any of it, but an equal balance. The pacing of the story is consistent, page-turning, on par with the bestsellers of Stephen King. The exposition is shared sparingly, like a heady scent on the wind that only just registers before it’s swept away.
But the most important aspect of the book is the all too relatable grief of the characters. It is the anchor that firmly lodges in the heart of the reader, reminding us that true horror does not simply spring from gross-outs and jump-scares, but the darkness of the human soul, the meeting of our primal emotions and our accursed hyper-intelligence. The Fisherman himself is a victim of such a combination, vividly described by narrator when he understands he is only experiencing a “portion of him”: “The apprehension was terrifying, made more so by the other emotions that impressed themselves on me: an amusement as bitter as lemon, and a malice as keen as the edge of a razor.”
This dangerous combination leads to the screaming tragedy of daily life - the murders, the wars, the violence that reflects the fact that we don’t walk among a world of angels, but one of wordly beasts. The only difference in The Fisherman is that this manifests as literal monsters from an undersea, which men in their foolhardy intelligence have sought to meddle with.
From the very first page I was, if you’ll forgive the pun, hooked on this fantastic story that draws on the reality of human emotion as much as the fantasy of a nightmare realm. Even more impressive to me was is the fact that the story, despite wandering far from the premise of the original narrator midway through, arrives back so naturally that it’s as if you yourself are transfixed in that cold, empty diner in the midst of a pouring thunderstorm. Some books, despite sharing most of these qualities, fail to stick the landing, so to speak. In other words, by the end of it, you can feel the narration fraying at the writer’s inevitable tiredness. Not so with The Fisherman. It ends on a note so devastating and perfect that I felt like giving it a standing ovation. As Langan mentions in the acknowledgments, this book took over ten years for him to write, and the commitment and craft shine through with the pale brilliance of a full moon. As long as writers like John Langan are out there continuing to do what they do, the horror genre will remain in good hands, as respected as fine art and as feared as the leviathan.