Fish to Live: The Fisherman and The Dog Stars

The sadness of our world, it underlies everything like a water
– The Dog Stars, Peter Heller

Two different men in impossible worlds find solace at the side of a stream, fishing rod in hand. They have known death and will come to know much more.

The protagonist of John Langan’s The Fisherman (winner of the Bram Stoker award) is a widower who lost his young wife years ago and took up fishing as a better alternative to always being drunk and not having any food in his house. When he strikes up a friendship with another widower who has lost his entire family, the consequences are far beyond what either of them can imagine. When the friend suggests a new fishing spot, a place called “Dutchman’s Creek,” they are gifted with the story of Der Fisherman, a dark, otherworldly tale that occupies the middle bulk of the novel. The tale is one of reanimated corpses and a black ocean full of creatures that churns just on the other side of reality. Do they go to the creek anyway? Duh!

Nominally a horror story about a power mad goon summoning dark powers to bring back the dead and capture the hellish nightmares occupying the black ocean, it’s the black ocean of grief that looms over this novel like a thundercloud. It’s the hellish places our own grief takes us, the extremes to which we would capture that which we have lost.

Aggie seems to think everything’s about her

What the protagonist in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars has lost is the entire world, in fact. A deadly flu epidemic has wiped out most of the world’s population, and he lives at an abandoned airplane hanger with a scary man and his dog, Jasper. He laments the disappearance of trout, but fishes still. He flies reconnaissance missions in his little plane and desperately wonders if there’s someone out there who doesn’t want to murder and eat him. His grief at losing everyone he’s ever known, and the world at large, is only compounded by the knowledge that his dear dog, like all living creatures, won’t live forever. He places his hope in a stray transmission that implies there’s another operational airfield somewhere out there, if only he has the courage to seek it out.

The Dog Stars is bleak, for sure, and its prose is similar in cadence to that Lord of Bleakness, Cormac McCarthy. But interlaced with harsh reality is a sense of hope, for humanity, for love, for the small pleasures of life to outweigh the pain.

I hate to invoke the work of Hemingway, almost as much as I hate to evoke McCarthy, both writers hewing within a strict definition of masculinity and not a little misogyny to share between them. Heller upends that traditional narrative with the character of Bangley, a “man” in every old-fashioned sense: merciless, gun-loving, recalcitrant, reserved. An irredeemable and menacing character, until he isn’t.

Both novels find solace in fishing and friendship, in finding a thing or person (or dog) to help assuage the gaping voids in their hearts. They’re certainly not fun beach reads, but hey, you know what you’re asking for. The moral of the story is neatly summarized by Heller:

Admit it: you don’t have the slightest idea what you are doing, you never ever did With all the nets in the world, real or unreal. You swam around in a flashing confused school following the tail of the fish in front Pretty much. Nibbling at whatever passed, in whatever current you swam in.

  • I listened to The Fisherman on audiobook, narrated by Johnny Campbell, and it was pretty damn good.
  • The “black ocean” in The Fisherman, a dark reflection of our own world, reminds me a certain TV show’s “Upside Down.”
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