Author Topic: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead  (Read 3418 times)

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Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« on: July 20, 2014, 09:04:28 PM »
Pseudopod 395: Fishhead

by Irvin S. Cobb.

“Fishhead” first appeared in THE CAVALIER on January 11, 1913 and can be read here.

IRVIN S. COBB (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, and columnist who lived in New York and authored more than 60 books and 300 short stories. He was born in Paducah, Kentucky, where he began as a reporter for the Paducah Daily News at the age of seventeen. He became the nation’s youngest managing news editor two years later. His career took him to media and artistic prominence in New York City, where his Saturday Evening Post columns reached over two million readers. He was such a well-known and well-loved figure that he hosted the 7th Academy Awards ceremony.

Our reader this week is a long-time friend of the show. He was born in the swamps of south Georgia where he was orphaned as a child by a pack of wild dawgs. He was adopted by a family of gators who named him Maui Threv which in their language means mechanical frog music. He was taught the ways of swamp music and the moog synthesizer by a razorback and a panther. He provided music for the second episode ever released across the PseudoPod feed: Waiting up for Father. He also is responsible for the outro music for the Lavie Tidhar story Set Down This.

Sword & Mythos can be ordered here.

Sounds used in the soundbed for this story can be found at the following links:

Marsh ambiance track

Bullfrogs

Fishhead’s Call



“It goes past the powers of my pen to try to describe Reelfoot Lake for you so that you, reading this, will get the picture of it in your mind as I have it in mine.

For Reelfoot Lake is like no other lake that I know anything about. It is an after-thought of Creation.

The rest of this continent was made and had dried in the sun for thousands of years-millions of years, for all I know-before Reelfoot came to be. It’s the newest big thing in nature on this hemisphere, probably, for it was formed by the great earthquake of 1811.

That earthquake of 1811 surely altered the face of the earth on the then far frontier of this country.

It changed the course of rivers, it converted hills into what are now the sunk lands of three states, and it turned the solid ground to jelly and made it roll in waves like the sea.

And in the midst of the retching of the land and the vomiting of the waters it depressed to varying depths a section of the earth crust sixty miles long, taking it down — trees, hills, hollows, and all, and a crack broke through to the Mississippi River so that for three days the river ran up stream, filling the hole.

The result was the largest lake south of the Ohio, lying mostly in Tennessee, but extending up across what is now the Kentucky line, and taking its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splay, reeled foot of a cornfield negro. Niggerwool Swamp, not so far away, may have got its name from the same man who christened Reelfoot: at least so it sounds.

Reelfoot is, and has always been, a lake of mystery.

In places it is bottomless. Other places the skeletons of the cypress-trees that went down when the earth sank, still stand upright so that if the sun shines from the right quarter, and the water is less muddy than common, a man, peering face downward into its depths, sees, or thinks he sees, down below him the bare top-limbs upstretching like drowned men’s fingers, all coated with the mud of years and bandaged with pennons of the green lake slime.

In still other places the lake is shallow for long stretches, no deeper than breast high to a man, but dangerous because of the weed growths and the sunken drifts which entangle a swimmer’s limbs. Its banks are mainly mud, its waters are *muddled, too, being a rich coffee color in the spring and a copperish yellow in the summer, and the trees along its shore are mud colored clear up their lower limbs after the spring floods, when the dried sediment covers their trunks with a thick, scrofulous-looking coat.

There are stretches of unbroken woodland around it, and slashes where the cypress knees rise countlessly like headstones and footstones for the dead snags that rot in the soft ooze.

There are deadenings with the lowland corn growing high and rank below and the bleached, fire-blackened girdled trees rising above, barren of leaf and limb.

There are long, dismal flats where in the spring the clotted frog- spawn cling like patches of white mucus among the weed-stalks, and at night the turtles crawl out to lay clutches of perfectly, round, white eggs with tough, rubbery shells in the sand.

There are bayous leading off to nowhere, and sloughs that wind aimlessly, like great, blind worms, to finally join the big river that rolls its semi-liquid torrents a few miles to the westward.

So Reelfoot lies there, flat in the bottoms, freezing lightly in the winter, steaming torridly in the summer, swollen in the spring when the woods have turned a vivid green and the buffalo-gnats by the million and the billion fill the flooded hollows with their pestilential buzzing, and in the fall, ringed about gloriously with all the colors which the first frost brings-gold of hickory, yellow-russet of sycamore, red of dogwood and ash, and purple-black of sweet-gum.

But the Reelfoot country has its uses. It is the best game and fish country, natural or artificial, that is left in the South today.

In their appointed seasons the duck and the geese flock in, and even semi-tropical birds, like the brown pelican and the Florida snake-bird, have been known to come there to nest.

Pigs, gone back to wildness, range the ridges, each razor-backed drove captained by a gaunt, savage, slab-sided old boar. By night the bullfrogs, inconceivably big and tremendously vocal, bellow under the banks.

It is a wonderful place for fish — bass and crappie, and perch, and the snouted buffalo fish.

How these edible sorts live to spawn, and how their spawn in turn live to spawn again is a marvel, seeing how many of the big fish-eating cannibal-fish there are in Reelfoot.

Here, bigger than anywhere else, you find the garfish, all bones and appetite and horny plates, with a snout like an alligator, the nearest link, naturalists say, between the animal life of today and the animal life of the Reptilian Period.

The shovel-nose cat, really a deformed kind of fresh-water sturgeon, with a great fan-shaped membranous plate jutting out from his nose like a bowsprit, jumps all day in the quiet places with mighty splashing sounds, as though a horse had fallen into the water.

On every stranded log the huge snapping turtles lie on sunny days in groups of four and six, baking their shells black in the sun, with their little snaky heads raised watchfully, ready to slip noiselessly off at the first sound of oars grating in the row-locks. But the biggest of them all are the catfish!

These are monstrous creatures, these catfish of Reelfoot — scaleless,slick things, with corpsy, dead eyes and poisonous fins, like javelins, and huge whiskers dangling from the sides of their cavernous heads.

Six and seven feet long they grow to be, and weigh 200 pounds or more, and they have mouths wide enough to take in a man’s foot or a man’s fist, and strong enough to break any hook save the strongest, and greedy enough to eat anything, living or dead or putrid, that the horny jaws can master.

Oh, but they are wicked things, and they tell wicked tales of them down there. They call them man-eaters, and compare them, in certain of their habits, to sharks.

Fishhead was of a piece with this setting.”





Listen to this week's Pseudopod.
I'd like to hear my options, so I could weigh them, what do you say?
Five pounds?  Six pounds? Seven pounds?

Sgarre1

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #1 on: July 20, 2014, 09:45:24 PM »

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2014, 09:00:59 AM »
I didn't really find anything about the story appealing.  Much of it was probably in the basis of Fishead's monstrous nature being caused by him being a "half-breed"... because of course interracial breeding will result in half-fish half-human monsters who are terrible to behold but can call on vicious nature to avenge themselves.

But even if you take that out, and just pretend that Fishhead was born the way he is for no reason other than random mutation, well there's not really much story.  Fishhead lives a pretty honest life, but because he's different becomes the butt of an accusation which spurs some stupid teenagers into assaulting him which eventually leads into his death and theirs.  I don't know, it seemed like it was meant to be a story with a moral, but the moral seems to be to not assault people who are different, especially if they have supernatural powers that will allow them to avenge their own death.  Maybe its just modern sensibilities talking, but as far as morals go that doesn't exactly break ground.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTpUVAcvWfU


I admit that song pops into my head every time I see the title.  :)

Fenrix

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2014, 07:29:58 PM »
I love how the setting is a major character of this story. We don't get introduced to the title character until about a third of the way in. Once we meet the Baxters, the pacing and tension and action click along nicely. The gruesome (yet goreless) deaths of the Baxters are nicely told.


I don't know, it seemed like it was meant to be a story with a moral, but the moral seems to be to not assault people who are different, especially if they have supernatural powers that will allow them to avenge their own death.  Maybe its just modern sensibilities talking, but as far as morals go that doesn't exactly break ground.



Considering that the time at which this this story is published is only a couple years off from The Birth of a Nation being the first movie screened in the White House, it is pretty significant to have a moral of not killing someone because they're different from you.
All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”

bounceswoosh

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Re:
« Reply #4 on: July 23, 2014, 10:26:04 PM »
I thought he was supposed to be monstrous not because he had parents of two different races, but because something something fish.

Fenrix

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #5 on: July 24, 2014, 06:33:58 AM »
"...the story was that before his birth his mother was frightened by one of the big fish, so that the child came into the world most hideously marked."

All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #6 on: July 24, 2014, 03:41:39 PM »
"...the story was that before his birth his mother was frightened by one of the big fish, so that the child came into the world most hideously marked."



Yes, but they also referred to him as a half-breed pretty often throughout, so I thought that was supposed to be a major component of his nature.

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2014, 05:18:54 PM »
This story has been celebrated for decades with plenty of appearances in anthologies and radio readings etc. To be honest, I always kinda wondered why. That said, hearing it discussed on the HP Lovecraft podcast as one of the stories Lovecraft mentioned in his critical work and in a letter (He described it as being one of the best stories ever, so he must have really liked it.) I had to agree that it is well written and affecting upon closer consideration.

It's still a bit of a slight story though with the usual just deserts setup and conclusion that does seem a bit familiar in modern times. On the half breed aspect, I can certainly see how that may have influenced Lovecraft and his ideas of fishmen from the deep, and could have nudged his racist fears regarding devolved half casts who are the supposed result of racial impurity etc. Lovecraft seems to assume Fishhead to be an idiot cretin resulting from poor breeding etc.

But I like to think the story leans away from that interpretation and more towards saying at least a little something about justice, and how social station is not everything. Not only does the story's central figure beat up and humiliate his accusers, who are higher in social station by the reckoning of the time, but even nature seems to be on his side in the end. Is this why the story was so well remembered? Not so sure, as Lovecraft seems to have missed that aspect of it. But I think that's the part we notice today.

CuppaJoeBooks

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #8 on: July 28, 2014, 11:57:10 AM »
What I found interesting about the story was that Fishhead was caught in a rift between two different societies; the society of man (that largely rejected him) and the society of the other/the catfish (that apparently welcomed him with open fins). I don't know that this is so much a story about his proto-Aquaman abilities to commune with water creatures, so much as a story about social interaction and acceptance, as the two acts of violence are enacted by the two societies that Fishhead is in contact with.

First, you have the two brothers, members of the human race which, despite any deformities, Fishhead is also a member of. Unfortunately, Fishhead is different enough that he can be cast in this role of the other, allowing the act of violence to be more easily perpetrated.

Second, you have the catfish, a race that, although they have no connection to Fishhead according to species, seem to have become a kind of second family to him, and as such, seek vengeance upon his death.

On the one hand, this dehumanizes Fishhead even further, in that the only society he can find comfort with is in non-mammalian beasts (which are typically alien to mammalian bonds), but it also dehumanizes human society as a whole, because it takes a creature from the muddy depths of a river to accomplish a level of social acceptance that the world still hasn't quite reached.

The catfish do not see deformity or race, they see a member of a society. Unlike the brothers, who are urged to kill for the fact that they are slighted, the catfish only take a life after one of their own are taken. It is a bloody affair, and not ideal, but the catfish abide by the social contract of mankind, until it is shattered. The creepy thing being, that this is also a very human response.
« Last Edit: July 28, 2014, 12:06:27 PM by CuppaJoeBooks »

blazingrebel

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #9 on: July 30, 2014, 02:59:42 AM »

I have wanted to read this for a long time after someone recommended it to me after Shadows Over Innsmoth. So I was really glad to find it here. Others have already touched on this point better but I just wanted to further enforce that for is time this story would have been seen as pretty progressive as far as mainstream acceptance of "the other" went in those days.

Fishhead as a character is not really developed as a main character or given the chance to demonstrate admirable qualities. However his death by the brothers is revenge by an almost cosmic justice so the moral of the story clearly sides with Fishhead. Fishead however is really one with nature and is pretty much deemed a part of surroundings. These were usual troupes given to other peoples who the "white race" viewed that way in order to justify their dominance. I hope some readers back in those days questioned the brothers self imposed right to think of themselves as better than Fishhead or that they could so easily take his life without retribution.

albionmoonlight

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #10 on: August 08, 2014, 11:22:30 AM »
In general, I tend to disfavor stories that are more about setting than plot.  I often finish wishing that more had happened.

Not here.  The setting was so evocative and so tied into the characters and their actions that I loved it.

And just a perfect choice of narrator.

Really liked this one.

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Re: Pseudopod 395: Fishhead
« Reply #11 on: August 08, 2014, 12:40:39 PM »

In general, I tend to disfavor stories that are more about setting than plot.  I often finish wishing that more had happened.

Not here.  The setting was so evocative and so tied into the characters and their actions that I loved it.


"Fishhead was of a piece with this setting. He fitted into it as an acorn fits its cup."

I totally dig that line, and thought it would fit here.

I'll let Threv know you liked his narration. He spent a week in Tifton amongst his folks to prepare and refresh his native accent just for you.
All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”