Exclusive Interview: “The Legend Of Charlie Fish” Author Josh Rountree


Between The Shape Of Water; Mallory O’Meara’s biography of Milicent Patrick, The Lady From The Black Lagoon; and the new version of The Little Mermaid, fish people are in the midst of having a moment. And now you can add to that The Legend Of Charlie Fish (paperback, Kindle), Josh Rountree’s new neo-Gothic Western novel. In the following email interview, Rountree discusses what inspired and influenced this fishy tale.

Josh Rountree The Legend Of Charlie Fish

Photo Credit: Leah Muse


To start, what is The Legend Of Charlie Fish about, and when and where does it take place?

The Legend Of Charlie Fish is a novel set in turn-of-the century Galveston, TX. A lonely middle-aged man, Floyd Betts, forges a found family with a gill-man, who is trying to return to his ocean home, and a pair of orphans: Nellie, a twelve-year-old witch, and her brother Hank, a pint-sized gunslinger. They’re being pursued by scoundrels who want to capture the gill-man, the eponymous Charlie Fish, and make him part of their travelling sideshow. All the while, a deadly hurricane approaches from the Gulf, and it will change all their lives forever.

Where did you get the idea for The Legend Of Charlie Fish?

I love The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and other gill-man tales. And I’m fascinated with the city of Galveston, its history, and the Great Hurricane of 1900 that remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. That event is central to this narrative. There are many great books about the storm and the city, but I happened to be reading Issacs’s Storm by Erik Larson, an absolutely harrowing history of the hurricane, while trying to sort out how I might feature a gill-man in one of my old west stories, and the two ideas collided. The old west is dry and dusty, right? Not along the Texas coast. Not with a hurricane bearing down. My gill-man would feel right at home there.

In the book, Charlie smokes cigarettes. Is there a reason why he smokes cigarettes as opposed to cigars, a pipe, a vape pen…? And why does he smoke in the first place? I would think fish people would be especially protective of their lungs.

From a storytelling perspective, making Charlie a smoker was a way of showing that he’d been living in the surface world, or at least at the fringes of it, for a very long time. I can imagine him watching us from the murky river, learning the way we walk and talk, what we eat and what we drink, and in this case, even learning our bad habits. When Floyd arrives with his hand-rolled cigarettes, Charlie knows exactly what to do with them. Certainly, if Floyd had fancied a pipe or a cigar, Charlie would have been happy smoking either one. Beggars can’t be choosers.

I imagined Charlie as being amphibious, more at home in the water, but not uncomfortable on land. And I couldn’t resist the imagery of Charlie, puffing smoke out of his gills like a locomotive. Is it bad for his lungs? It sure is. But it’s bad for you and me, too. Charlie’s had a challenging life, so hopefully we can forgive him this lapse in judgement.

Now, the press materials call The Legend Of Charlie Fish a “neo-Gothic Western.” What exactly does that mean, and can you give us examples of other neo-Gothic Western stories in any medium?

I’ll admit, I’m not always good at nailing down genre distinctions, but to my mind, a neo-Gothic Western is a work that’s influenced by classic Westerns, and contains many of the tropes we expect from those stories, but introduces the trappings of the weird tale into the mix. A little bit of dark fantasy or horror, maybe a dash of crime. In my case, an orphaned witch and a Gulf Coast sea monster. Not unlike southern Gothic, these stories are peopled by characters haunted by their past, broken or at least eccentric, and often burdened by dark secrets. The characters in The Legend Of Charlie Fish certainly share that vibe.

Great book examples would include Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Territory by Emma Bull, and a more recent example, Lone Women by Victor LaValle. And while we think of Westerns as being nineteenth century narratives, these stories can be set in contemporary times, where the memory of the old west still holds sway. I’m thinking of movies like Near Dark or Bone Tomahawk fit the bill. To broaden the scope, these stories don’t necessarily have to take place in our world at all. A fine example of this is The Gunslinger by Stephen King, and a truly bizarre novel of more recent vintage is The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar, where the imaginary western landscape is populated with clowns, and giants, and all manner of unexpected strangeness.

Someone else might have a better definition, but this is my flavor of neo-Gothic Western. I think what I’m gunning for when I write these sorts of tales is Flannery O’Connor in cowboy boots.

So, do you consider those things to be big influences on The Legend Of Charlie Fish?

Absolutely, those books and movies are an influence. But I’d say that traditional westerns are more of an influence on The Legend Of Charlie Fish than any of the truly strange ones. Especially, True Grit by Charles Portis, one of the greatest Western novels ever written. The voice in that book is so perfect, we become very close to the narrator, young Mattie Ross, and the prose propels us through the story, even when thing get dark. That’s the sort of voice I was shooting for with The Legend Of Charlie Fish, and with Nellie in particular.

Larry McMurtry is another writer who’s had a profound effect on my writing style and voice. Not only with Lonesome Dove and his other traditional Westerns, but also his books with more modern settings like The Last Picture Show and Horseman, Pass By. And, of course, the great Joe R. Lansdale. I’ve read his books for close to thirty years, and there’s nobody with a more recognizable, authentic prose voice than his. His novella The Big Blow also concerns the Great Storm of 1900, and of course influenced my hurricane book.

And what else do you consider to be the big influences on The Legend Of Charlie Fish? And I do mean books as well as such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games. You mentioned The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Of course. And other monster movies. I mentioned a lot of books and films above, and I think Charlie Fish emerged from the great sea of science fiction, horror, and Western stories that I’ve always loved. Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kelton. Michael Moorcock and Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. Spaghetti westerns and low budget VHS horror. Books on Texas history, creepy folktales, and old west mythologizing. It’s all there in Charlie Fish.

Now, The Legend Of Charlie Fish sounds like it’s a stand-alone story. But you never know. Which is why I’m asking: Is it?

The Legend Of Charlie Fish exists in a universe of stories I’ve written that I think of as my Old Texas stories. Essentially these are all monster tales set in Texas between about 1830 and 1930. I have at least a half dozen short stories in this universe published so far, including “February Moon,” [which appears in his collection Fantastic Americana], “The Guadalupe Witch,” and “We Share Our Rage With The River.” The Legend Of Charlie Fish is the first longer work in this series, and while it doesn’t connect directly to these other stories, a couple of them are alluded to in the novel.

Right now, I’m working on what I hope will be the follow up novel to The Legend Of Charlie Fish. Not a sequel, and not tied very closely to Charlie Fish, but there might be a character or two who make an appearance in the new book. My plan is to keep growing this series, and finding more connections between stories and characters.

Hollywood loves making movies about fish people. Do you think The Legend Of Charlie Fish could work as a movie?

I’d certainly like to think it would. There are plenty of quiet character moments for the actors, and the climax is hopefully harrowing and cinematic. I can see the whole thing clearly in my mind, and would love for that vision to transfer to the big screen someday.

And if someone decided to make a movie out of The Legend Of Charlie Fish, who would you want them to cast as Charlie, Hank, Floyd, and Nellie?

If we’re talking a dream cast, I’d start with [Justified‘s] Walton Goggins as Floyd, and Jessica Chastain [George & Tammy] as Abigail. They’d both fit my perfect image of those characters. For Kentucky Jim, I’d love to see the great David Bautista [Guardians Of The Galaxy] fill those shoes, and I think [M.O.D.O.K.‘s] Patton Oswalt could bring the right mix of humor and menace to the role of Professor Finn. As for the kids, Julia Butters had a small role in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and absolutely killed every scene she was in. She’d be the perfect Nellie. And I’d love to see Roman Griffin Davis [Jojo Rabbit] as Hank. We’d likely have to tweak the characters’ ages a bit, but they’d make a wonderful pair in the roles. Charlie is probably the hardest of all. I’d want a monster suit and makeup, not CGI. Let’s go with Nick Cage [Renfield], if for no other reason than he’d bring the right type of quirkiness to the role. And if I had the chance to meet him on set, I could torture him with my encyclopedic knowledge of Raising Arizona.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Legend Of Charlie Fish?

My wife has read the book three times now. She told me that each time it made her cry. But on the most recent read, she took me to task over the fate of certain characters. I can’t change anything now, but here’s hoping you don’t get too attached to the wrong characters in the book. Else you may wind up writing me a strongly worded letter.

Josh Rountree The Legend Of Charlie Fish

Finally, if someone enjoys The Legend Of Charlie Fish, what neo-Gothic Western novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out?

In addition to the books mentioned earlier, I’ve read a few others recently that really hit the mark. The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud, is a science fiction Western of sorts, set on a retro version of Mars. Hungers Old As This Land by Zachary Rosenberg features likeable and diverse characters, and ancient evils. And The Massacre At Yellow Hill by C.S. Humble is a great cosmic horror western, with two sequels on the way soon if you love the first one like I did.



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