John Langan’s Sefira first impressions…
Just finished reading his novella Sefira and like where he’s going with this line of mythmaking. If your familiar with Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost one feels the sense that John is developing his own vision of Hell we hope to see more of in future stories or novels. In fact in his notes he affirms this: “In teaching Dante’s Inferno over the years, and in referring to it in nearly all my classes, I had discussed the sin of betrayal as the most serious in his vision of Hell because of its perversion of those qualities specific to humanity, a view that grows more compelling to me the older I become.”
It is this theme of betrayal that is the creative engine driving this novella. We’re thrown into the midst of a small town where a typical husband and wife are undergoing a moment of transition in their lives. The husband, Gary, is no longer satisfied with his sexual relationship with his wife, Lisa. So he’s discovered the whole world of Internet porn and sex-tease sites where he allows himself to be seduced by a young woman’s rhetoric and pornographic offerings. Needless to say he is tempted to a secret rendezvous and liaison with the young woman, Sefira who has journeyed to town for a little fun. Not a good thing as Gary finds out too late this is no young woman, but rather an ancient demon in disguise – what type of demon I’ll let the reader find out for herself. His wife Lisa finds out about the affair from her nosey friends, which leads to interesting consequences, and to a story that will draw the reader deeper and deeper into a labyrinth that offers a puzzle: a slow burn of mounting details that weave the reader in between juxtaposed chapters, shifting scenarios and time frames; moving from present to future and back again. Each chapter unveiling just enough details to keep one interested and yet puzzled enough to keep the suspense and mystery of the story ongoing without ever becoming bored.
John introduces into the narrative a third character as a plot device for revealing occult information that would otherwise have seemed out of place in the novella. He provides a modern day Tarot reader and roadside clairvoyant into the mix who provides information on Sefira and the infernal realms she has come from. Her name is Madame Sosostris – a character John has inherited from T.S. Eliot who ironically introduced her in his famous modernist poem, The Wasteland. Strangely, Eliot himself borrowed the name after a character from Aldous Huxley’s comic satire novel Crome Yellow.
What we learn from Madame Sosostris is that the inferno this daemonic creature has emerged from is the “pneumasphere”:
“The afterlife,” Madame Sosostris said, “although I prefer not to use that word. ‘Afterlife’ makes the place sound separate from us. It isn’t. It intersects this world in a multitude of ways. If it weren’t so New-Age-y, I’d say it’s the spirit world. Another dimension, or plane of existence. It has its own ecology, its flora and fauna, its inhabitants. This Sefira comes from an especially ancient chamber known as the Broken Land.”
As if John had been influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of the rhizome we learn that the pneumasphere has no central organization, but is constructed of a “collection of connected nodes” which she describes,
“This is how the pneumasphere is arranged. Each of its chambers is vast, a universe in and of itself. There are links among the various nodes and major events here. You mentioned Aubrey Byrne,” she said to Gary. “He and I thought it possible new chambers emerged in response to significant changes on this plane, to the ascent of new species to the top of our ecosystem. That’s the other thing about the pneumasphere: it’s reactive. Occurrences on Earth can effect conditions there. It takes something significant, something global, but a catastrophe for us has the potential to devastate the environment for them. This was the case with the Broken Land. There was a cataclysm—an asteroid struck the earth. The resulting firestorm killed off most life on the planet.”
It’s this strange vision of Hell that intrigues me and something I hope to see more of in future works by John. The notion of a pneumasphere (Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is an ancient Greek word for “breath”, and in a religious context for “spirit” or “soul”.), a vital realm where the dead exist in an imaginal zone of horror seems almost Gnostic in its intent and purpose, since John sees it as a reciprocal influence between the two environments conditioning each other through catastrophic events of human or daemonic intrusion and intervention. Other writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker have developed Other worlds mythologies to good effect, and we hope John will further this in a larger more expansive vision or dream quest in some future epic work. I think this would be fascinating.
I’ll not say anything more about the novella itself, leaving the reader enough enticement to go out right now and buy this unique work, and I will reserve a future post for the rest of the short stories in this collection. It’s definitely worth reading, and hope you will enjoy it!