The Fisherman (2016), by John Langan, gets my first five-star review of 2017. The Fisherman is a story about bereavement. It is a story about dead wives and children. And it’s a story about fishing and the things we pull up from beneath the surface. It is horror; it will disturb you while you’re reading it, and sneak up on you for days afterward.
Langan structures The Fisherman as a series of nested stories. The story of Abe, a widower who works for IBM in 1990s New York, brackets the book, but Abe’s story is about Abe and Dan, and their story is about the story they hear from Howard. Howard’s story is really Lottie’s story, and near the end of Lottie’s story, her German immigrant father Rainer tells his story. It might sound confusing, but it is not. Langan’s sure hand on the narrative makes each transition smooth while creating an apparent psychic distance that is deceptive.
Abe and Dan are both widowers who work for IBM and live in upstate New York. The circumstances of their losses are not similar. Marie, Abe’s wife, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after they returned from their honeymoon. It’s safe to say, as Abe does, that she was dying during their entire short marriage. A cataclysmic car accident ripped Dan’s wife and young sons out of his life in one instant. Aside from the loss and their employment the two men share one other thing: a love of fishing.
For Abe, the desire to go fishing pulled him out of his plunge into the abyss of alcoholism after Marie’s death. In fact, when he is fishing he has moments when he feels Marie’s presence close to him, even if one of those instances was strange and horrifying. When he reintroduces Dan to the sport, they head into the Catskills, and soon part of their routine becomes a breakfast stop at Herman’s Diner. Dan tells Abe about an elusive stream named Dutchman’s Creek that he wants to try. On their way, they are stalled at Herman’s because of a downpour, and the manager, Howard (who, wink-wink, used to be from Providence), tells them a long story.
The next one hundred fifty pages of The Fisherman are pure Americana and pure Lovecraftian horror. Howard’s story starts at the beginning of the 20th century. There is a brief introduction of a Long-Gilded-Age style millionaire whose young wife died suddenly and the mysterious man who comes to visit him. He never leaves, and decades later when the millionaire dies, he wills his estate to this man who people call The Guest. There are plenty of eerie tales about the Guest, about late night visitors, people who walk oddly or look strange, but the tale moves on to the building of the Ashokan dam and reservoir (an actual place): a story of immigrants, a towering achievement of engineering and labor, of exploitation and dark magic.
The people who come to work on the dam are European immigrants: German, Austrian, Hungarian, Italian. The men do engineering and stone work while the women work at bakeries and laundries at their encampment. The men, with uncomfortable awareness, work next to the black Americans who are mule-drivers, earth-movers, and day laborers. It is a huge project in the early 1900s, without the benefits of modern medicine or safety technology, and people die on the project. That’s expected. One day, though, a Hungarian woman steps in front of a racing mule-cart. She is struck and trampled. The story in the settlement is that she found out about her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Because of her act, she cannot even be buried in hallowed ground. Her distraught, guilt-ridden husband makes a terrible bargain with the Guest, and the next night the woman, Helen — or something that looks like Helen — is back. Her skin gleams as if it’s wet, her eyes are the flat gold of a fish’s eyes, and she is clearly dead, but she walks, and, after a fashion, talks… and she wants her children back.
I will be interested to hear a male reader’s reaction to this section of The Fisherman. For me, in a book filled with personal, quiet horror and the dark seduction of despair, the most terrifying part was the Helen-thing’s determination to get her children. Images of her lurching up the street to the house where her children now live are nightmarishly vivid. I think this was so frightening because I could not tell if there was still, in the Helen-thing, a spark of human or at least mammalian maternal instinct, or whether this fixation was darker and more sinister.
Baffling, also, in a good and believable way, is how the workers react to the Helen-thing. They try to confront her until they realize that listening to her is nearly deadly. Her coughing, croaking sounds induce a kind of madness, or worse. They lock their doors every night, but she is still there, and every day the men go off to work knowing they have left a deadly creature in the midst of their families, because no one knows what else to do.
Helen goes too far when she tries to infect Lottie, the daughter of Rainer and Clara. Helen traps Lottie in the pantry of the bakery and begins to speak, and Lottie begins to see. She collapses into a swoon and won’t awaken, although sometimes she sobs.
Rainer was a languages professor in Hamburg until some unnamed disgrace drove him out of the university. When his child is threatened, he is forced to revisit his dark past and confront the thing that some people call the Fisherman. Rainer faces down the Helen-thing, and after work the next day, he gathers a small group of men to go confront the Guest.
Yes, after work the next day. You may need to vanquish primordial evil, but you still have to work, because after it’s all over you still have a family to support, and there are more immigrants than jobs. One way The Fisherman departs from conventional American horror is Langan’s willingness, in this section, to honor the historical details of the building of this reservoir. We see the lives of these people clearly and it makes the horror they face much more terrible.
Through the eyes of a junior member of Rainer’s team, we see the terrible seascape, with its ink-dark ocean, and the titanic monster that inhabits it, that has risen in the valley alongside the work on the reservoir. The Fisherman, a millennia-old sorcerer, plans to capture the Leviathan and use its power to change reality. To give him the strength to enslave this monster, he needs lives. Just as a person fishing uses different baits for different fish, the Fisherman knows that for a certain man, the promise of the return of a dead wife, or a dead child, is the most effective bait of all. Back in Germany, Rainer had some experience with this phantasmagorical reality, and he manages to thwart the Fisherman, but the danger is not gone.
There is still more to Howard’s story, but as the narrative shifts back to Abe and Dan, on their way to fish Dutchman’s Creek, Abe realizes that he is remembering details of the story that Howard did not tell them. He also notices that Dan knows more about Dutchman’s Creek than he has let on.
The Fisherman is a story about bereavement, about dead wives and children. Dan’s story is all the more horrible because it is understandable. In a critical moment on the banks of the flooded Dutchman’s Creek, Abe understands it too, and is nearly lured as thoroughly as his friend.
And it’s about fishing, and the place you grew up. Contrasting with the darkness of the story, and part of the lure, is the landscape, the rushing water, the simple details of the small town where Abe lives. Like the moments in the 1900’s work encampment, little touches, like the descriptions of Harold’s Diner or a hardware store in Abe’s home town, bring these settings to life. Langan devotes a lot of this book to the descriptions of landscapes and water, and fishing.
God, but I love that first cast. You pinch the line to the rod, open the bail, lift the rod over your head, and snap your wrist, releasing the line as you do. The motion whips up the rod, taking the pink and green spinner-bait at the end of the line back and then out, out and out and out, trailing line like a jet speeding ahead of its contrail, climbing to the top of the parabola whose far end is going to put the lure right next to those fish…
This is also a story about how stories, for good or evil, infect us, replicate themselves, and pass themselves on.
I vacillated between five stars for The Fisherman and four and a half stars. As good as it is, I thought the final section slumped a bit before the devastating ultimate paragraphs. I wasn’t convinced that it completely worked. While I mulled this over, I noticed how often I ended up thinking about the book. I was thinking about the similarities between the treatment of newcomers during the Long Gilded Age and how IBM treats Abe at the end of the book. I thought about the contagious nature of stories, of the nature of water, and that black sea that is closer than we know. I thought about loss and lures. And I realized when I’m doing that with a book, I have to give it five stars. The Fisherman is five-star horror about the things we pull up from beneath the surface.