Catfish Lullaby (2019), a Nebula Award-nominated novella, might be described as Louisiana swamp monster folklore colliding with eldritch Lovecraftian horror. Author A.C. Wise (who also has a second Nebula nomination this year, for her short story “How the Trick is Done”) visits Caleb, the biracial, queer son of the local sheriff, at three key points in his life. We follow Caleb from childhood to adulthood as he navigates his friendship with Cere Royce, the daughter of a once-prominent and depraved local family, and they try to conquer the black magic that haunts her and has destroyed her family.
When Caleb is about twelve, the Royce home mysteriously burns to the ground, killing Cere’s father and two older brothers. Caleb’s single father takes Cere into their home. Cere manages to freak out the schoolboys who have been bullying Caleb for years (“Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters,” she comments). The two children begin to cautiously develop a friendship, although Caleb is himself a little freaked out by the strange colors he sometimes sees in Cere’s eyes, the terrible dreams he has about her, and the chilling things she sometimes says, like, say, “I was born to end the world.” When a woman is murdered, Cere begins to suspect that someone in her family has survived and is planning to use their dark magic — and Cere herself — to end the world in flames.
Woven through Caleb’s story are the tales of Catfish John, a legendary half-man, half-catfish creature that hides in the swamp and may be devilish or good (the stories disagree). Cere believes in the helpful version of Catfish John. As terrible events build on each other, Caleb can only hope that Cere is right.
Each chapter begins with a quote from a scholarly book called Myths, History and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou, most of them about Catfish John. The book doesn’t actually exist outside of the pages of this novella, but the quotes add a sense of realism to the legend of Catfish John, grounding the story in our world.
In the South, we have our own blood and pain, and time moves different here. People from elsewhere say folks talk slower down here. We’re slower to forget too and slower to forgive. Even the land holds onto its scars… See, there are two Souths: one on the surface, one underneath. Underneath is where we keep our angels and demons both.
It was difficult for me to believe that Catfish John isn’t a pre-existing myth that A.C. Wise wove into Catfish Lullaby, but as far as I can determine it all came from her fertile imagination.
The jumps in time make Catfish Lullaby feel a little disjointed, but the clash between Catfish John’s magical swamp song and the otherworldly cosmic horrors called down by the Royces makes for a compelling story. The theme of otherness is echoed in Caleb’s racial and sexual identity and in Catfish John’s lonely existence, but there’s a countervailing theme of friendship and family, including found family, that adds a note of hope to the song of Catfish Lullaby.