We readers of what’s broadly labelled horror fiction have seen it all. We know a creak on the stair means trouble, that a glint of metal in a darkened doorway isn’t going to end well. To keep us on our toes, to have us constantly guessing at what’s about to happen, whether we are even being told the truth, is a skill, and one John Langan has in spades. Sefira and Other Betrayals is a masterful collection of the weird and eerie; seven visions of personal hells, peppered with some perfectly crafted killer lines.
These are tales to set your teeth on edge… literally, in the case of the eponymous “Sefira”, in which we join Lisa in pursuit of her husband’s lover. Her tense marriage to Gary is illuminated by the discovery of his affair with Sefira, a woman so skinny and bony that she’s repulsive, yet so sensual she has the power to captivate almost everyone who sees her. Lisa’s nine-day road trip in pursuit gives her plenty of time to contemplate her marriage, and also time to undergo a transformation. There’s a threat at every truck stop, every gas station, yet the action is grounded in wonderful domesticity. It’s been weeks since she called her mother but she just can’t face picking up the phone to discuss the ins and outs of her parents’ forthcoming wedding anniversary party. This while she’s vengefully – and exhaustingly – chasing Sefira for a final, devastating showdown. These little details have the clever effect of making Lisa’s experiences even more horrifying, and it’s something Langan uses throughout.
His style of slowly feeding information, of using delaying tactics to build tension, means the reveals are joyous, and mostly surprising. While we know to expect the unexpected, it’s still nice to remain blind until the end.
In “Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos”, two disgraced soldiers are contracted to carry out an operation with alarming consequences. It contains one of my favourite lines in the entire book, a great lesson in showing, not telling: “…dressed in a black suit whose tailored lines announced the upward shift in his pay grade.” For me, these little additions – which are, thankfully, plenty in number – make Langan’s work stand apart from others.
Extra-marital affairs, the undead, ancient rituals, even an arms merchant with a penchant for balloons are fair game. A fleeing lover’s encounter with the devil is brilliantly portrayed (you’ll never look at shoes in the same way again), while a depiction of a marriage haunted by a dead lover is heartbreakingly beautiful.
In “Bloom”, an argumentative couple spot an abandoned medical cooler on the roadside and, the good samaritans they are, take it home in an attempt to reunite it with its owner. There lies their first mistake, of course, and it gets much, much worse.
Langan’s storytelling power is how he grounds the noir, the hard-boiled, the supernatural, the fantastical, the horror in the everyday. He adheres to tradition (I’d say he’s Lovecraftian, for sure) yet also forges his own path.
This collection is about betrayal, treachery and sin, but most of all, this is humanity in its raw, unedited and sometimes painful glory. It’s best read with the lights on… perhaps not fully blazing, but bright enough to see into those dark corners of our psyche.