Some of my fondest memories are of the weekend fishing excursions I went on with my father and grandfather. We would dedicate an entire Saturday or Sunday to fishing. We enjoyed laughs, good conversation, the outdoors, and the thrill of having a potentially monstrous fish on the end of our lines. More than that, though, we enjoyed spending time with one another. Fishing was the one thing we all loved to do together, so whenever we did go, we cherished every minute of it. Knowing this about me, it should come as no surprise that I take to Weird tales involving fishing. One such tale is Steve Rasnic Tem's short story, The Fishing Hut, from the pages of Black Static #45.
Steve Rasnic Tem is a name that every horror fan should know. He is a legend in the field, revered and respected by his contemporaries. He is synonymous with exemplary writing, creating haunting landscapes, eerie atmospheres, and fantastic character relationships. I loved his novel, Deadfall Hotel, an odd, creepy novel that pulled at my heartstrings; filled with loss, rites of passage, emotional pain, liminality, transition, and much more. The Fishing Hut is yet another example of Tem's ghostly and superb writing.
The Fishing Hut begins with a man named Bishop, who, on the suggestion of his doctor, is driving to a campsite to go fishing. Bishop is a rather irritable, impatient individual, and his doctor tells him that fishing is a form of meditation, and will help him relax. Despite having no desire to go fishing, Bishop goes anyway. He purchases a brand new fishing vest that has several pouches, putting an old boy scout compass in one, and leaving the rest empty, making him stand out as the goofy looking, stereotypical fisherman. Stuck in a line of traffic leading into the campsite, Bishop loses his patience and pulls into the opposite lane, speeding ahead of all the other cars. He ends up driving past the designated camping and fishing areas and winds up on a gravel road leading away from the river. Well past the hustle and bustle of campers and fishermen, Bishop comes across and old man who directs him to a fishing hut, a place where he will find peace and quiet, if that's what he's looking for. What transpires is an unsettling, haunting experience that offers Bishop a chance to let go of who he is and change. It's an experience he will never forget.
The character of Bishop is an impatient individual, treated like a child by his wife Irene, yet his lack of patience makes him childlike. There seems to be a lack of control over his life, as well. Irene wants Bishop to see doctors that will directly tell him he needs to lose weight and exercise more, and it's clear that Bishop isn't too fond of being told what he shouldn't or shouldn't do, which is why he likes the doctor he is currently seeing. Rather than express concern over Bishop's weight and prescribe exercise, the doctor simply suggests a bit of peace and relaxation will do wonders for him; however, Bishop's doctor brings his childlike behavior to his attention, when he informs Bishop that he stares at the secretary "a bit too long," telling him that he doesn't have to check back until six months. What that really means is, don't come back.
Bishop is clearly an outsider in this story; he's out of his element amongst the camping and fishing grounds, wearing a brand new fishing vest for the occasion, along with new gear. He even practices putting worms on hooks at home, so as not to embarrass himself, which is something he is quite concerned with throughout the story. When Bishop meets the old man who directs him to the fishing hut, his eyes are described as "strained, watery, as if he were about to cry." The look of the old man is one Bishop saw in the mirror almost every morning, perhaps to indicate an unhappy life; a life that constantly irritates him to no end, greatly adding to his impatience.
When Bishop asks the old man he meets on the road if there is some place quieter to fish, away from all the other campers and fishermen, the old man says, "I guess there's the old fishing hut. Some still use it, I reckon. It's quiet, and it's shady enough, if that's what you're looking for." Now, that seems like a normal enough response, but when Bishop says it sounds perfect and asks where it's located, the old man says "perfect," as if he's examining the word, and follows with, "I don't know. Good enough for some. Depends on what you're looking for." The old man's second response indicates there is more to the fishing hut than meets the eye, which Bishop doesn't pick up on. The old man makes the fishing hut sound as if it is beneficial to some people, if beneficial is a word we can use to describe what it does. Others may spend ample amounts of time in there and have nothing happen to them at all.
The fishing hut itself, like many other locales in Weird tales, is a place where the impossible happens. It's a place that tears down the barriers and constructs we have each created through our individual perceptions of the world we live in, and how we view it. I can't stress enough that locales, such as buildings (down to their architecture), villages, houses, cities, forests, caves, and the like, are just as important as the characters themselves, and, more often than not, are characters themselves; place as character. They often *are* the story. Those who enter these locations find themselves in a liminal state; they undergo an initiation process, or rite of passage, having many truths revealed to them. Those who survive are reintegrated into the world with new knowledge that has transmutated their conception of the world around them. The fishing hut puts Bishop through some sort of test or initiation. It's appearance is somewhat deceptive to Bishop, especially when he walks inside. The outside of the hut is described as such:
He caught his first glimpse of the roof of the hut as he descended the slope: a broad expanse of shiny tin with significant areas of furry rust. He didn't see the walls until he was almost at water's edge: they were gray, streaked green and a dull, damp black. The structure looked solid enough, except some of the boards going into the water had warped. The building had been erected in the near half of the stream. Square openings at each end allowed the river to run through.
Looking through a black opening on the side of the hut, Bishop could see "deep shadow inside scarred with brilliant slashes of light." At this opening, Bishop hesitated, emphasizing his outsiderhood and overall being out of his element. Bishop will be walking into a place that sits between light and dark; between two worlds, a nexus of sorts. When Bishop walks in, he is greeted by an old man.
The hut was longer inside than Bishop would have guessed. Now that his eyes had grown accustomed to the light he could see that there was no floor; the man was sitting on a shelf two planks wide stretching the length of the interior and supported by triangular brackets of blackish two-by-fours. There appeared to be a matching shelf on the other side, but he could see only part of it - the rest fell into murky shadow and confusing reflection.
Once inside the fishing hut, things progressively get weirder and weirder. The old man greets Bishop, yet Bishop isn't sure where he should sit; he's nervous and reticent, afraid something may be lurking in the water. You can see the dichotomy between the two: Bishop with his pristine vest, carrying only a compass, and the old man, weathered by time, wearing a flannel shirt and paint-stained jeans. The conversation between the two, to say the least, is odd and uneven. When Bishop asks the old man if fishing in their family is a tradition, the old man says, "Tradition, obligation, obsession - it's all shades of psychology, I suppose. We're all onions." What? Bishop doesn't know how to respond. Us being onions obviously denotes we are comprised of many layers of characteristics, quirks, qualities (both positive and negative) etc. But the vibe I got from the old man is that we are too caught up in all of it. So concerned about such things, when we shouldn't be.
From there, things continue to spiral into the weird. Bishop asks the old man if any of the fish have taken an interest in his bait, and the old man says, "The fish here like to defy expectation." Next, he says, "Oh, they're there. If you look closely, you can find their shadows." Are we fish? Do people come to the fishing hut unknowingly to defy the expectations of life? Of the universe? Bishop stares into the water, acclimating his eyes. He thinks he sees a fish and tells the old man, who says, "A commitment of patience is required. This life is not meant for everyone." Which life? Is the life Bishop and others live not for all of them? Or is the old man talking about another life, a life lived somewhere else? The shadows, perhaps? The next scene warrants this question. By this time, Bishop is slowly losing his patience. He didn't want to be here in the first place, but being here now, he wanted what he came for. The old man asks, "How about you? Are they biting any better where you are?" Only, the old man didn't ask Bishop, he asked someone was in the "deeper darkness on the other side." The old man glances at Bishop and says, "We always think it's better over there. But apparently it's not No, wait...apparently there have been some recent nibbles." The old man clearly possesses knowledge beyond someone the likes of Bishop, or anyone akin to him. It occurred to me that, perhaps, the old man has been on the other side. Maybe he is from the other side. Perhaps he wanted to see what our side was like. I can't be certain. Or, maybe he's known about the other side for some time. It may be that he has been attempting to cross over, but hasn't met the requirements to do so. Thinking about it, I'm sure he has seen others come and go. Some made it over to the other side, while others failed and left, continuing on with live their normal, complex, onion-layered lives.
By mid-afternoon, Bishop is fed up, and is ready to grab his gear and leave. Suddenly, though, it begins to rain. At first, it is rather pleasant; however, a breeze begins to stir, and things are lightly falling onto the tin roof: leaves, seeds, and other debris. It then begins to downpour. Things really take a turn for the surreal, when the fisherman fixes his gaze on the rain:
The fisherman turned his head to gaze directly into the rain, his silhouette back-dropped by water blended seamlessly into sky, a curtain of shimmering pewter scored with thousands of shallow parallel scratches. Now and then the scratches would shift and ripple, pushed sideways by the wind, and sometimes a needle would pierce through the thinner bits, and Bishop had to avert his eyes. And sometimes there would be wind and rain and sun and lightning all, a blend Bishop had never known possible.
To me, it seems Bishop is not only experiencing the otherworldly qualities of the fishing hut, but the chaotic nature of life; symbolizing the vicissitudes we experience on an almost daily basis. The downpour causes the river to run more swiftly, carrying all manner of debris: leaves, twigs, vines, feathers, nesting material, and even trash. The last thing to flow into the hut is the corpse of some animal, missing some of its fur. The claws on its outstretched paw caught on the opening leading into the hut, making it spin and drift further into the hut, hide spinning. Bishop fears it will become trapped in the hut with them, and he has no desire to look at it. Going back to what the old man said to Bishop earlier, "This life isn't meant for everyone. At least not for very long," I imagine the animal corpse represents the inevitable trip we must all take: death. All the debris and rapidly changing weather could serve to act as the passage of time, and Bishop sees that we all have the same fate; we all have our day. It could possibly serve as a message that tells us we only live once, and we have to live our lives to the fullest, and if Bishop wants to do so, he must take the next step.
Suddenly, the old man says, "I've been sitting in this same spot for years. The same view, the same attitude, the same luck." With that, he gets up, faces the darkened part of the hut, stretches his leg to the other side, and then falls headlong completely across and into the shadows. Bishop, confused, isn't sure if he should do something, move, or leave. He thinks maybe he should just do what he came here to do, but is even sure what that is anymore? He hears the old fisherman from the other side: "You're not ready." Bishop doesn't quite understand. He says, "I lack the skill? What's so special about sitting over there? What do you mean?" Bishop heard nothing else from the fisherman. He waited for a rather long time, but eventually left. I'm thinking the old fisherman had completed some kind of process, initiation, rite of passage, whatever you want to call it, that allowed him to cross to the other side. Perhaps he realized he was ready to change something about himself. His view? His attitude? Or maybe his whole outlook altogether. He got rid of all the layers, no longer an onion, and became liberated. It would seem that Bishop was not ready for such a change, as he never went back to the fishing hut, and even avoided the entire county. He went back to his...I'll call it a comfortable rut. The fishing hut is a sort of way station. It's a place where one goes to change some aspect of their life, or even their life as a whole, to cast off the meaningless layers that comprise us, but you must be ready and willing to make the change, and it requires great patience. Bishop just wasn't ready; he failed his trial.
The Fishing Hut is a beautifully written, eerie, and ambiguous tale. It can be viewed from multiple angles and viewpoints, and neither one will be wrong. It's the kind of story you can come back to numerous times and find something new you didn't see before. It evoked in me a sense of nostalgia, thinking of times past and cherished. Tem's fluid writing and use of language transfers right off the page and into you. You experience Bishop's awkwardness and uncomfortability. And Tem's vivid details put you right inside the fishing hut, surrounded by light and shadow, and murky green waters. He created a masterful tale that centers around change, life, initiation, the readiness and willingness to acknowledge who and what you are. The Fishing Hut has left me with a lasting impression.