Abe is a widower who lost his wife to cancer. Another coworker of his, Dan, lost his family in a car accident. To get their minds off their losses, they take up fishing together. On some of those trips, Abe swears he can still hear his deceased wife’s voice.
John Langan’s The Fisherman is a fantastic horror novel, and winner of the 2016 Bram Stoker Award. Like the best horror, it gives you time to like and understand the characters before the truly eerie parts happen.
There are three parts to The Fisherman. The first is just about Abe and Dan becoming fishing buddies while processing their losses. Even though this could just as easily fall into literary fiction for the first part of the story, there’s a low sense of dread and unease throughout. When Dan decides they have to go to Dutchman’s Creek, a river not on any map, the tension snaps into place. Dan’s evasive on where he found out about this river, claiming it was in an outdated old guide.
On their trip to Dutchman’s Creek they stop in an old diner, and here the supernatural element that could have previously been explained away as the mind playing tricks comes to the forefront. Howard’s Diner is empty except for them, though there should be a crowd at this time. And when they say they’re about to fish Dutchman’s Creek, Howard, a complete stranger to them, starts relaying the story behind Dutchman’s Creek, which takes up the entire middle act of the book. He relays it with perfect precision, and Abe, unable to get it out of his head, writes it down with even more information he shouldn’t know.
At this point The Fisherman becomes a full fantastical horror, following the construction of the Reservoir prior to the first world war. The story comes from a minister who heard it from the daughter of a professor involved in it, and more pieces she gets from her husband, who had helped her father at this time. The nested nature of these stories means there are areas where the story just stops to explain that they don’t know exactly what happened here and there, but these are their best guesses.
The professor, Rainer, is an immigrant from Germany who had been forced to leave his university, and it’s clear it’s because he was studying the occult. In a lot of books, the occultist professor would be the clear villain; here, he’s the only one with any chance to know what they’re dealing with and how to stave it off. This section, due to the more distant voice telling the story, is the least emotionally resonant part, even as there is a lot more actual plot, full of sorcery and horror and things that should not be.
After Abe and Dan leave Howard’s Diner, despite the warnings, they nonetheless head to Dutchman’s Creek. Here the present story and the past collide, and The Fisherman goes fully into the uncanny. Howard’s story has a sense of local legend, but here the story of two widowers suddenly confronting that place where the real meets the unreal effectively creates some real terror.
Langan’s prose is slow and detailed but very effective, and his characterization is sharp though subdued. The story, with all its century-spanning depth, takes its time in building up the characters and the stakes. And The Fisherman has one of the creepiest final lines I’ve read.