Book Review: Sefira and Other Betrayals by John Langan

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in April 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Hippocampus Press

Release Date: April 20, 2019

Pages: 408 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I love a John Langan story. They are often complex, using multiple narrative layers to construct a puzzle box of terror and emotion. His characters are not thin-paper cutouts that exist to be tortured. A Langan monster is not your standard horror creature. His bizarre creations make for exciting reading. And, equally important, they serve a larger purpose in his stories.

Horror author John Langan has chosen betrayal as the theme for his third collection (preceded by Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters and The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous). As you can imagine for a writer of Mr. Langan’s caliber, he finds a wealth of material with that theme. It is interspersed through every rich sentence and every dense paragraph. The two new stories (Sefira and the religious nightmare At Home in the House of the Devil) and six reprints included in Sefira and Other Betryals. The titular story may be one of the best examples of the main theme. Sefira is a brilliant road trip novella as well as an exploration of a marriage shattered. It’s brilliant and crammed full of body horror. It serves as a perfect introduction to the rest of the stories within.

If I had to pick a couple other favorites, I’d start with In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos and The Third Always Beside You. In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos is a noir heavy indictment of torture and the War on Terror. It’s ending is starling and awe-inspiring. On the other side of the coin is the much quieter The Third Always Beside You. As mentioned in his Story Notes (more on those in a moment), John Langan set out to produce a different kind of vampire story for an Ellen Datlow anthology. The power of this story ties once again in the relationships of its characters.

I’m glad that the collection is closed out with lengthy Story Notes. I’ve always been a fan of these kind of sections (where the author’s talk about the influences for the stories and other fun details). And because of the layered nature of these stories, it helped me to wrap my head around the eight tales I’d experienced. Not every story is perfect, but they all have their strengths. I read a lot of horror fiction, and it’s stories like these that make me want to be a better writer. Sefira and Other Betrayals is proof that horror can be literary. But these stories are not the stuffy texts we were forced to read in high school. Not even close.

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