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“The Fisherman” by John Langan

John Langan’s novel The Fisherman is what you’d get if the award-winning memoir H is for Hawk had been written by H.P. Lovecraft. The first part of the book is a moving account of how a hobby (in this case, fishing) helps Abe to recover emotionally from the death of his wife. Something about sitting on a riverbank in the early hours of the morning, casting his line, soothes his grief. When a coworker suffers a similarly devastating loss, Abe invites him on a fishing trip, hoping it will have the same salutary effect on him. It does help, and the two men develop a friendship.

And then everything goes sideways.

One thing I’ve always admired about Stephen King’s novels is that they’re just as much about small-town life, interpersonal relationships, and the secrets people keep as they are about whatever supernatural being is menacing the characters. The Fisherman has a similar strength: it’s just as much about friendship, grieving, and the restorative power of a beloved pastime as it is about the malign power that dwells at Dutchman’s Creek. Abe, his friend Dan, and the man who faced the menace of Dutchman’s Creek before them are fully-realized characters. Similarly, the location of the creek is vividly described, making it feel like a place that you could stumble across while driving around upstate New York.

This is not to say that the supernatural elements of the story aren’t excellent, because they are. The Deep One-ish creatures that live in and around the creek are delightfully creepy. Langan does a good job of creating an ever-building sense of wrongness as the character get closer to the center of the mystery. And that center, when reached, turns out to truly deserve the name “cosmic horror.” (There’s also a bit of an Easter egg for readers of Langan’s short fiction, which makes the novel feel like part of a larger setting.)

The only real flaw here is an imbalance between the present-day and “flashback” sections of the book. Abe and Dan aren’t the first to encounter the ominous Dutchman’s Creek, and a large part of the novel tells us the story of the man who was. That nested tale was engrossing, but the final section, which returns to the present day and gives us the climax and denouement of Abe and Dan’s story, felt like it rushed by too quickly.

The Fisherman won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, and the accolade is richly deserved. I was already looking forward to Langan’s upcoming story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, but this made me even more eager to read it.

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