This 1913 novella opens with a description of the oddness of Reelfoot Lake, an “afterthought of Creation,” a product of the earthquake of 1811. Fishhead—if he has another name, no one recalls it—iss part and parcel of the lake. His father was black and his mother of mixed Indian descent. The story goes that late in her pregnancy, his mother was frightened by a big lake fish and hence, Fishhead’s appearance:
His skull sloped back so abruptly that he could hardly be said to have a forehead at all; his chin slanted off right into nothing. His eyes were small and round with shallow, glazed, pale-yellow pupils, and they were set wide apart in his head, and they were unwinking and staring, like a fish’s eyes.”
Fishhead lives alone on the isolated lake, hunting and fishing for his living. At the time of the story, both his parents have been dead for a long time and he has no family. People generally avoid him, though he makes some extra money as a guide on the lake.
They avoid him especially at night when they hear a cry around the lake. This cry, they say, is Fishhead’s call to the big cats before he sends them out to do his bidding. Not everyone believes this, of course, but enough do.
One day, the Baxter brothers pick a fight with Fishhead, accusing him of “wantonly and without proof” of running their trout line and stripping it of its hooked catch. Fishhead’s only response was a silent stare. One brother or the other slapped his face. Both brothers get a good beating in return.
But, in the language of the story, the brothers decided they weren’t going to take getting a “licking by a nigger” and plot revenge.
This horror tale is cited as in influence on H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 story “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which features hybrid sea monsters that can interbreed with humans. Both stories speak to Lovecraft’s dislike of miscegenation. In Lovecraft’s essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” he refers to “Fishhead” as “banefully effective in its portrayal of unnatural affinities between a hybrid idiot and the strange fish of an isolated lake.”
The descriptions of the Reelfoot Lake, its origin in an earthquake as well as the odd fish that live in it and the wildlife around it all lend the story an eerie atmosphere. The racial hatred and the portrayal of the separate, hostile worlds of black and white add a sad dimension to this story its author probably was only partially aware of.
This was not a happy or enjoyable story to read.