“Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.”
In 1929, H.P. Lovecraft published “The Dunwich Horror” in Weird Tales Magazine, in which he told the now famous story of the troubled Whateley family, and their horrible dealings. Full of incantations, misbegotten births, monstrous contracts with great beings from beyond, and a great action sequence, it remains one of HPL’s most revered stories. The geography plays a major part in setting the stage for the story, with the cursed Sentinel Hill being at the center of it. Old Whateley prophesied about it once in the memorable line, “Let me tell ye suthin’—some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!” While I can’t say for certain that it was an influence, A.C. Wise’s masterful novella, CATFISH LULLABY (published by Broken Eye Books, and now available for pre-order), bears some similarities to “The Dunwich Horror.” Only, replace Sentinel Hill for the deep South of the Louisiana bayou, and set it in modern times. I am grateful to Broken Eye Books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
CATFISH LULLABY (defined by the publisher as a queer cosmic horror story) tells the multi-generational saga of Caleb, the son of the county sheriff (a black man) who grows up to follow in his daddy’s footsteps, his life long friendship with Cere, a mysterious girl rescued from a terrible house fire, and their persistent conflict with the Royce family, whose occult dealings run more than skin deep. Oh, and then there’s Catfish John, the folkloric boogeyman used to scare children of the bayou to sleep at night.
The story opens in 1986 with Caleb’s daddy and his men finding a body in the bayou that might belong to a girl who went missing many years ago. Catfish John is blamed among the townsfolk, but Caleb’s daddy knows better. As Caleb goes to sleep that night, “…a terrible sound split the air, echoing over the trees and making [his] skin pucker with goosebumps. It was a snarling, wet sound. A scream that wasn’t animal nor human but both. Like the swamp itself had found a voice, and it was angry that something that belonged to it had been taken away.” With those beautifully composed lines, A.C. Wise has lured you in and viciously set her hook.
We then pick things back up in 1992, when Caleb’s daddy rescues the mysterious Cere from a house fire. Wise amplifies her aural horror here with exquisite prose, “The girl pivoted on her bare heels, and for a moment, Caleb feared she would sprint back into the burning house. Instead she spat in the dirt at her feet. A sound like the one he’d heard the night his father pulled the bones from the swamp, a sound Caleb would never forget—sorrow and rage—split the air. Caleb’s skin prickled, but movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. The smoke above the house shifted. As Caleb stared, it formed a face, impossible but distinct and inhuman.” Something is clearly going on in the bayou that is beyond Caleb, his daddy, and the good folk in town. And somehow, Cere seems to be at the center of it.
The second half of the novella takes place in 2014. Caleb is all grown up and has succeeded his daddy as the Lewis County sheriff. He lives with his partner, Kyle, who is a great calming influence on him when the stress of law enforcement gets too much, or the townsfolk’s racist or homophobic remarks cut too deep. When another body is discovered, it dredges up old history Caleb would rather have left packed away in the depths of his memory. “Terry peeled back the covering over the body, and the world jolted out of time…for a moment, Caleb was twelve, looking at a grainy newspaper photograph.” Like his father before him, though, he cannot afford the luxury of forgetting and is beholden to investigate. The past, it seems, just cannot stay buried.
Wise is known in her short stories for brilliant pacing and incisive plotting, and both are on full display in CATFISH LULLABY for the duration of the increased length. A sweltering, muggy, and oppressive atmosphere saturates the text as surely as it does the bayou, at times making it hard to breathe. The American South is nekkid here, in all its beauty but also with every wart exposed. Wise manages to comment on both racism and homophobia without making social concerns the principal part of the narrative. This is Caleb and Cere’s story, and Wise won’t allow how other people feel about them to steal their limelight. But neither do the bigots get a free pass. As Cere says at one point in my favorite line of the story, “Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.” I think I’d like to have that made into a poster and given to every child. Once I had turned the last page a sadness descended over me, for I had come to love these characters. So much so that I would like to politely request a sequel.
Wise’s writing, as I hope I’ve demonstrated with quotes, is beautiful, controlled, economical, and penetrating. This pair of sentences, for further example, testify to her mastery of her craft: “Overhead, scraps of sky had been torn away, showing stars that had no business there. They made Caleb think of eyes, opening and blinking in the dark.” Cosmic horror tropes on full display, check. But look what she does with sounds. “…scraps of sky…” You almost don’t have to be told that something has been torn. “…showing stars that had no business there…” Hissing sibilants like a snake foretelling a strike warn of imminent danger. “…blinking in the dark.” Harsh “k” sounds, created by preventing air from leaving the vocal track and then releasing it in fury, slams the door on this sentence. Lesser writers bow before prose like this while readers are generally only vaguely aware something magical has happened. As it should be.
If you’re not able to tell, I loved this story and I’ve come to adore A.C. Wise’s writing. Not only are her narratives usually totally up my alley, but her writing is gorgeous, at times mystical. She said somewhere that this was the longest work she has published, and if CATFISH LULLABY is any indication, I sincerely hope that Wise tackles a novel soon. In a brief 115 pages, A.C. Wise has composed a southern gothic, queer, cosmic horror story that will suck the air from your lungs with it beauty, poignancy, and terror, leaving you on your knees wheezing for more. You do not want to miss this one!
Until next time, I remain yours in the black litany of Yug and Neb,
Occult bone scrawlings: “There are stories about him along the Mississippi River from Cottonwood Point all the way down to New Orleans, maybe further still. Every place’s got their own name for him—Wicked Silver, Old Tom, Fishhook—but where my people come from, smack dab in the middle of nowhere Louisiana, it was always Catfish John. Depending who you talk to, he’s either a hero or a devil, one so wicked even hell won’t take him.
—Myths, History, and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou (Whippoorwill Press, 2016)”