"God's Hooks!" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
When I first stumbled onto Howard's work, it was "The Ugly Chickens" and I nearly cried for the main character and his doomed search for dodoes, long after the dodo was extinct. What made Howard's writing so outstanding was a combination of meticulous detail--I saw the old photograph, I saw the book of birds on that bus with the old lady, and I saw and sweated as the protag fought his way through the overgrown old farm . . .
Alas, someone else claimed "The Ugly Chickens" first. But now that we're doing seconds, I was immediately drawn to "God's Hooks", which I read on the SCI FICTION site for the first time just a few weeks ago. Amazing how many stories I've (re)discovered on SCI FICTION since this Appreciation business began.
The story "God's Hooks" concerns a number of men who meet after the Great London Fire of 1666 to reestablish their friendship, toast their fortunes and mourn their losses--and pine for getting away for some serious fishing. Then they get wind of a monstrous fish away from the city which is attacking people. That's enough to give them a mission to catch this fish. Tied up in this is some superstition and some good old fashioned Biblical end-of-the-world paranoia. So far, you might be left scratching your head as to where the spec fic element is hiding, but fear not, gentle reader--things are going to get downright weird from here. There's a sense of evil and doom where the great fish hides, and then there's the stranger. I'm not sure what really happens at the end and I don't care! This is a fish story to end all fish stories--the one that got away (and thank God for that!).
What can I say about Howard's meticulous research on The Great London Fire? It's like some lurking iceberg--no matter how many details creep into the story, you can be assured that there's ten times the detail hiding in his notes. With some writers, James Michener comes to mind, the research fills long thick novels. Howard plays his research notes as if they were a fine instrument--just the right leitmotif to perfect a short story. Star-gazey pie indeed!
High and thick, it smelled of fresh-baked dough, meat and savories. It looked like a cooked pond. In a line around the outside, halves of whole pilchards stuck out, looking up at them with wide eyes, as if they had been struggling to escape being cooked.
What better feast for a group of men obsessed with The End of the World and fishing?
Ah, the fishing . . . if Norman Maclean hadn't written "And A River Runs Through It" then Howard Waldrop might've had to. I have read that friends of Howard get wind of his various projects and so know about "the bicycle story" or "the dodo" story for months or years before he gets them written. I remember someone talking about "the fishing story" and methinks it has to be "God's Hooks." And a what a fishing story it is!
There's a brotherhood of ironmongers, of whom one of our group is a member. For a great task against a leviathan, a great fishhook is required--and the metal used once fell from the sky. There's a mysterious "prophet" who accompanies them on their quest, even though he doesn't believe in their mission. It's Modern Men (at least for 1666) up against ancient fears. It's a ghost story, a tale of a doomed quest (is there any other kind?), perhaps even a tale of unrequited love. It's a tale of salvation and damnation.
It's the damnedest story I've read in a long time--probably since I read Howard's "bicycle story."
You know, I attended Clarion in the summer of 2004--and deliberately not in 2003 when Howard taught. I didn't want to go to Clarion just to be a fan--I wanted to learn to be a better writer. But oh it was a hard decision, mediated only by the fact that I wasn't yet ready for Clarion in 2003, and didn't have the money that year either. So I've yet to meet Howard. But through his writing and stories like "God's Hooks", I am happy to know Howard. And I hope you have (or will) discovered him, too. Thanks to the efforts of Ellen Datlow and SCI FICTION--you can.
Link to story.