In his Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft described Irvin S. Cobb as “a gifted and versatile humourist”. Cobb was a successful journalist, author and actor, producing hundreds of short stories which he wrote during the first four decades of the 20th Century. Some of these were adapted to movies—silent films initially. He also published over 60 books. For a time he covered the First World War for the Saturday Evening Post. He tended to write humorous pieces about his home state of Kentucky, filled with local color.
Lovecraft praised one of his earlier stories, Fishhead (1913), which originally appeared in The Cavalier, one of the Munsey Magazines. Some have suggested that Lovecraft got the inspiration for his well known The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) from Cobb’s story. Both works share the notion of a half man-half fish hybrid, so perhaps Lovecraft found the germ of an idea here.
However, the stories are very different in tone, style and perspective. Fishhead is a simple story of revenge, effectively delivered through careful attention to the details of setting and the violent ending. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is much more complex, dealing with themes of idolatry, apostasy, hereditary evil and self-discovery.
Irvin S. Cobb will remind some readers of Manly Wade Wellman, another southern writer. Both employ a folksy, matter-of-fact presentation of the details of their stories. But Cobb is much less whimsical or lyrical than Wellman, and his story contains more graphically violent imagery.
Fishhead opens with a description of Reelfoot Lake, which straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border. “It is an after-thought of creation,” the narrator writes, the result of an unusual earthquake back in 1811. “In places it is bottomless.” He goes on to describe the water, the land and its denizens in affectionate detail, not forgetting to mention the enormous and hazardous catfish that inhabit the lake.
It is interesting to compare this landscape to one of Lovecraft’s. Cobb’s setting is a warm, sunny place brimming with creatures of all kinds. The reader hears about frogs, turtles, garfish, duck, geese, buffalo gnats, wild pigs, pelicans, snake birds, bull bats, big speckle legged mosquitoes, and of course, the catfish. The vegetation is similarly inventoried. In contrast, a Lovecraftian hill or forest is almost completely devoid of life forms, save for some “barren, gnarled and terrible old trees, long, queerly pale grass and nightmarishly misshapen weeds…” and perhaps some fungus. Most of the time it is pretty quiet and still on Lovecraft Mountain.
Fitting perfectly amidst the busy ecology of Reelfoot Lake is the individual known as “Fishhead”, locally feared because of his repulsive ichthyic features and strange reclusive habits. The narrator explains that Fishhead’s mother was frightened badly by one of the big catfish shortly before giving birth to him, “so that the child came into the world hideously marked.” This superstitious explanation gives the story the feel of a folk tale. But Fishhead is also the product of a mixed marriage. His father was an African American and his mother a Native American—so the horror of miscegenation is also in view. Not fitting in with the people around him, Fishhead develops a closer relationship with the lake dwellers he resembles.
Two local men falsely accuse Fishhead of messing with their trout lines. He bests them in a fight, but the altercation sets into motion a plan for vengeance against him. The narrator’s sympathies are clearly with the outcast, despite his frightful appearance and the fact that he is a half-breed. It ends badly for all involved, except perhaps for the catfish.
The story is interesting as a snapshot of race relations circa 1913. The “N-word” is used several times. This may offend the linguistically sensitive, but the word is used as Mark Twain would have used it, not necessarily in the derogative fashion it is used today. The author clearly sides with the strange outsider despite his mixed ethnicity—in a way that Lovecraft, a decade or so later, never did. Also striking is that Fishhead lives on several borders, materially and figuratively. His cabin is on the state line, his lake straddles two states, and he himself is nearly amphibious, inhabiting land and water. His blood intermingles two races, and perhaps a third. What other borders would he have been able to cross, had he lived?