Catfish Lullaby, by A.C. Wise

“Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.”

Catfish LullabyIn 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.

c8e919711966425ab13d32580bcdac98[1]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.” 920x920[1].jpgLike 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.” d82058699a653a417b36e5e1bd5dde0f[1].jpgHarsh “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,
~The Bibliothecar

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)”

A Lost Student’s Handbook for Surviving the Abyss, by Gwendolyn Kiste

“We offer plenty of great times around campus, but please remember this one rule: absolutely no underage drinking. Alcohol dulls the senses, and you’re going to need all the alertness you can muster.”

d342d2cf1ba6a29a110ca2dff632144e_original[1].jpgThe University Experience in the United States is not only a defining series of years in a young person’s life, but, if my international friends’ experiences are any kind of tell, also distinctly, and uniquely, American. It should be an easy thing to say that the most important thing you come away with after those four years is your degree, but if I’m being honest with myself, it is not easy to say that at all. There’s friendships and relationships to consider, mistakes made and re-made, lessons learned inside and outside the classroom, the whole Greek system (if you indulged in that), and just a whole lot of growing up that happens in a mostly unregulated environment. Maybe, at the end of the day, the degree is what you came for but you left with quite a bit more besides. That degree may hang on your wall now, proclaiming to the world that you are qualified to do and say as you do, but those other, more intangible lessons are what you carry much closer to the heart on a day to day basis. It is into that kind of collegiate co-ed setting (and not the stuffier, more erudite, cherry-paneled setting you might think of when you imagine the Miskatonic University from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories) that Gwendolyn Kiste drops her readers in this story.

Miskatonic University first appeared in 1922 in HPL’s “Herbert West: Reanimator” but went on to star in “The Dunwich Horror (1929),” where its prestige was first implied, and then it quickly became a favorite prop for many other mythos stories. The fated Dyer Expedition to Antarctica found in “At the Mountains of Madness (1931)” was funded by Miskatonic U’s geology department.  Nathaniel Peaslee, narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time (1936)” was a professor of Political Economy at MU. But in this anthology, WELCOME TO MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY, put out by Broken Eye Books, and edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski, Miskatonic University is brought forward in time to the present day where students email and text one another, join fraternities and sororities, complain about the food, and attend normal sounding and not so normal sounding classes in an attempt to graduate with that coveted four year degree. A big thank you to Broken Eye books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.

michele-botticelli-miskatonicuniversity[1].jpgGwendolyn Kiste, no stranger to the mythos, contributes our present story of a young woman just starting out at MU and finding it all a bit overwhelming. What she manages to accomplish, both masterfully and quickly, is a very realistic campus feel in which the narrator’s problems can, by an experienced mythos reader, all be easily attributed to the mythos. What’s so masterful about it, though, is that they’re all normal college kid problems—confusing class schedules, trouble making friends, sexual pitfalls, and academic woes—that in this case can be blamed on the mythos backdrop, but in real life (certainly in this author’s experience) had no such easy scapegoat. Let’s face it, college is a terrible, wonderful, confusing, and enlightening time. I wish there had been an easy scapegoat for all my difficulties, but there never was. So when Kiste provides the mythos backdrop to those otherwise very real issues, it had the effect of letting me laugh along, sometimes at, sometimes with, the characters. And subsequently, laugh a bit uncomfortably along with myself and my own memories of college.

The narrative is peppered throughout with brilliant snippets from the titular handbook that, again, are funny because they are in a mythos story, but just as easily in most cases, could not be. For example, “Your schedule might seem a little arcane at first, but rest assured, these courses will prepare you for a world that isn’t always as welcoming as it pretends to be.” It’s good advice, really, whether it appears in a mythos tale or not!

Miskatonic_Library_1__41790.1425053206[1]As the story progresses, the weirdness ramps up in the midst of a rather believable account of a first semester freshman. Parts of buildings come and go in the ether at will. Class titles get stranger and stranger. Students disappear. It’s all very unsettling but told in a lighthearted tone. One of the more emotional moments, for me, came in the midst of a typical campus tryst. Kiste writes, “Owen keeps talking about escape and freedom, and I can’t stand the sound of it, so I kiss his lips, his throat, his chest, anything to stop him from saying what I don’t want to hear.” Sex, drugs, and alcohol are time honored student aids to depress the growing and terrifying realization that none of us have a clue. The lie is that you’re supposed to discover that clue in college. The truth that so few manage to discern is that college is actually more about learning how you’ll deal with the fact that you’ll never have as much of a clue as you’d like. It is less about what the answer for any given problem is, and more about how you navigate it, because the darkness is all around and encroaching more and more every day. Somehow, I think Kiste gets that, and it bleeds through into her story.

Kiste’s writing is crisp, clean, and a delight to read. It is not frilly, or indulgent, but just exactly what it needs to be for this story. Her command of the voice of her narrator is great – I think it would be difficult to write a first semester freshman, but she nails it; I never once was taken out of the story.

I had a lot of fun with this one, as well as with the other stories I read in the anthology, but here’s the thing: this is a very niche market book. This anthology is only going to appeal to mythos diehards. It is neither for general consumption (not even as a light introduction to the mythos) nor is it even for all fans of HPL’s stories. It’s a clever experiment and a quirky answer to the theoretical question: What if Miskatonic University was real in 2019? Each one of these authors’ (and it is an enviable TOC) answers to that question is an individual joy, complete with a wink and a nod. But I can’t imagine too many people will find it necessary reading outside of a pretty tight circle.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar