The Fisherman (2016) by John Langan

Have you ever heard a story that’s just bad, awful in a way that the story itself seems a little malicious? What do you do with that?

This isn’t a review or anything, but I’ll start by saying The Fisherman owns. It’s an extremely solid, dreadful, soggy fisherman’s tale. It reads like you’re hearing it from a friend by a campfire, or some grizzled seadog at a local dive. But what I especially love about it is that it’s a horror story about a story, kind of like The Turn Of The Screw and The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym. I’m not bringing up “”canonical horror classics”” as a flex, but to help bring up what I actually want to talk about: I think horror in general, but horror about stories specifically, inherently conjures up the question “why do you tell a horror story?” The writers could have easily just written the story in the first-person or in the omniscient third person, but for some reason they decide to take a few pages to frame it as “hey, do you want to hear a weird story?” And moving away from the writers themselves, what about “why are our protagonists telling these stories?” Why is Pym telling us this horrible story about a sailing voyage gone wrong, and why is this Douglas guy in The Turn Of The Screw regaling us with how this random woman maybe lost her mind on some Victorian estate? Why do we like telling ghost stories?

Maybe it’s for catharsis, or because we can’t talk about what we really want to talk about, or because it’s a more visceral way to talk about something or illustrate a feeling than just outright describing it, or maybe it’s just because scary stories are extremely fun.

I think those are all workable answers. So then, why is the protagonist of The Fisherman, Abe, telling us his story, especially if he’s already resigned himself to the fact that it won’t make him, or his audience, feel any better? He doesn’t even particularly want to tell it. He admits this before he even starts telling the story even:

“Some things are so bad that just to have been near them taints you, leaves a spot of badness in your soul like a bare patch in the forest where nothing will grow. Do you suppose a story can carry away such badness? It seems a bit much to hope for, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s true for the little wrongs, you know, the kind of minor frustrations that you’re able to turn into funny stories at parties. For what happened at the Creek, though, I doubt there’s such a transformation waiting. There’s only transmission.”

“There’s only transmission.” There’s no catharsis in this story, not for Abe or for us. We learn all of this on the second page. No moral or allegory either. (I feel like this holds true for the book itself too. It lends itself to Readings [tm] of course, but ultimately any time I felt like I was onto something was quickly snuffed out by the bug part of my brain just going “this is spooky!!”) Anyway, The Fisherman is divided into three parts:

1.) Abe narrating the story of him and his friend Dan, leading up to them deciding to visit The Dutchman’s Creek,

2.) Abe retelling the history of Dutchman’s Creek as told by some guy at a diner they visit (this is maybe two thirds of the book), and

3.) Abe narrating everything that happens to him next.

The tale of The Dutchman’s Creek is almost entirely hearsay. It’s cobbled together from dozens of different people, all transmitting bits and pieces of horrible things they’ve seen and heard. It naturally collects a lot of humor and humanity to it as a result, but dread prevails. Something that stuck out in particular was the reference to how one such Horrible Thing (in this case, a guy killing his boss, his lover, and then himself after hearing the whispers of an Eldritch Corpse) was turned into a chart-topping song. That’s transmission too, right? A song’s a story. When we don’t know how to talk about or process extreme violence and cosmic horror (inherently Beyond our understanding,) what else can we do but obsess over it, talk about it constantly, or turn it into art.

The only thing Abe believes telling his story will do is transmit its badness to whoever listens. Does telling a story makes the burden of carrying it lighter? In Abe’s case, it might have made it worse. In trying to describe The Dutchman’s Story, he’s almost possessed by it, recalling details and images he literally did not hear or know about, as if the story itself is being transmitting directly to him across time and space and some other dimension too. It all just tumbles out of him, and he likens the feeling to blacking out. There are shambling corpses and slimy fish people in The Fisherman, but the idea of a story being so awful that its very “badness” animates it into some sort of pathogen is a phenomenal vein of subtle horror running through the book. I love the idea of the tale of the Dutchman’s Creek floating around in the air like a viral agent, just waiting for some unlucky sap to breath it in, turning them into a vector themselves.

And, like an infection, it can eat you alive. Such is the fate of Abe’s friend, Dan. His friend, Dan, infected by the same story and choosing to believe that, yes, the Dutchman’s Creek can bring back his dead family, betrays Abe. In a part that sincerely broke my heart, Abe quietly expresses the pain of knowing Dan chose the story over the reality of their relationship. Their friendship anchored them both as they struggled with their own personal traumas, but alas, Dan betrays him. Abe doesn’t outright say it, but his heart is broken too.

When we hear about something so awful that we can’t even fathom how to feel, it feels natural to just tell other people about it. It might be selfish to bring people into this Bad Spot, to infect them, but when holding onto it threatens to just core you out, what else can you do?

And just like in Pym and The Turn Of The Screw, the story just ends. No fanfare or closure, Abe just finishes on a chilling (and WILD??) image. In narrative sense, yes there’s the whole “rising action – climax – falling action” etc etc. but in terms of a story someone is telling you? All of them end so abruptly and in such a way that it’s easy to imagine the room just sitting in silence after they’re done. But that’s probably the point, there isn’t anything you can say. Now the story’s in you too. The last line of The Fisherman is punctuated by a 100-yard-stare from Abe, maybe before he takes another swig of beer. The weight of his story doesn’t get lighter or easier to bear, but maybe there’s something in the shared experience of telling it, of bearing it with other people. Maybe telling this story is his way of reaching out and wanting to connect. Worse than being in that spot of badness would be being in that spot of badness alone.

The other day at work, my manager came over to me and said she just heard the “most horrible thing” from another coworker. Said coworker, whose name I regrettably can’t remember but will call Alice anyway, was driving home after work last night when a truck and another car collided right in front of her before bursting into flames. There were three young women in the car. Two of them were able to get out with the help of the first responders. The third wasn’t as lucky. The fire had melted her skin, fusing her to the seat of the car and making it impossible to pull her out. She died, screaming apparently. All of this played out in front of Alice, who came into work this afternoon like usual, and told my manager this story, who then told me. “Isn’t that horrible?” she asked. I nodded.

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