Books

{Book Review} Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

It was Ellen Datlow, as it always is, who introduced me to AC Wise. The tenth annual The Best Horror of the Year brought many new and familiar voices, but it was only Wise who managed two slots on the table of contents. That’s prime real estate right there, and to name just a couple of the other giants in Wise’s midst—there was also John Langan, Carmen Maria Machado, Brian Hodge, Orrin Grey, and Phillip Fracassi. Which means, in no uncertain terms, that whatever Wise was doing, she was doing right. 

Flash forward almost a year later and I’m reading her novella Catfish Lullaby, courtesy of Broken Eye Books (whose motto “Stay Weird. Read Books. Repeat” is admirably apt). On first glance, it is a thing of beauty. The book is a slim 110 page read, with some gorgeous illustrated artwork popping neon-bright in pink. I’m always agonizing over how print books will survive in the age of the ebooks (even if I am part of the problem), but I think small presses going the extra mile with their physical products transforms the physical edition of fiction into an almost boutique industry, allowing it to survive in the digital age much like vinyl records. So, kudos to Broken Eye for teaming with Wise in the name of not only doing it, but doing it right. 

The novella itself straddles Southern Gothic and cosmic horror, anchoring itself on the folklore of the mystical Catfish John—a man or devil, depending on who you ask. The story stars Caleb—the black, gay son of the small town sheriff—who encounters Cere, the daughter of abusive patriarch (and sinister heavy) Archie Royce. Tales of the Royce family form a folklore of their own right, painting the deep south as a place so dark and magical that only stories can properly do it justice. 

The book is divided roughly into two, with half taking place during Caleb’s childhood and the other in his adulthood. It is in my opinion though, that Catfish Lullaby is strongest in its beginning, where we see Caleb struggle with his peers and experience firsthand the implications of Cere’s cosmically-tinged existence. Here, his outsider status forces him to confront demons both literal and figurative, and it results in a deeply affecting coming-of-age story. 

Wise’s prose and dialogue is tight and there are a number of lines that flash vividly off the page. It also features a good heart, even if that same heart derails its unsettling premise. One of my favorite aspects of the story is its moral (yes—just like a folktale), as stated by Cere, and I’m paraphrasing: sometimes you have to be scarier than the monster. In a world where neo-Nazis proudly march down city streets, it’s a sentiment worth considering. As I see more and more people wrestle with the idea of violence in response to harmful ideologies, Catfish Lullaby feels all the more timely and incisive. Here is a story about that very dilemma—employing monsterdom for a greater good. It’s a smart bit of observation, and it works well within the story, even if much of the protagonist’s adversity, and therefore: drama, melts away in his adult years. I’d have liked to see Caleb have a harder time in the story’s second half—but instead he’s rendered as a good man with an excellent support net, and whatever threats he faces, seem to pale in comparison to how decent his existence actually is. Unfortunately, this robs a lot of tension from the latter section as its shown that although Archie Royce may be a threat, he never dwarfs the love Caleb’s comrades have for one another. 

But, here I am judging a story with genre confines that it probably wants to shake off in the first place. Catfish Lullaby is as much of a straight-up horror story as Beloved is, and for a lot of folks that’ll be more than enough of a sale’s pitch. It’s a story of fighting back and keeping your soul. Maybe it’s a fantasy, and maybe it doesn’t get as dark as it could—but maybe, sometimes, that’s what we need. 

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