Josh Rountree’s debut neo-Gothic Western novel, The Legend of Charlie Fish, is a bit difficult to describe briefly. It is definitely a western given the time period, and some of the story elements. It is also a love letter to early 20th century Galveston, a city for which Rountree admits a fondness in his afterword. Nellie’s abilities, and family history, add a generous amount of fantasy, while Charlie, the amphibious humanoid, will bring to mind science fiction films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shape of Water. Rountree expertly weaves these disparate story threads together into a gripping tall tale, which is anchored by the historic storm, the largest to hit the US before or since, in which part of the story takes place.
Floyd Betts meets orphaned siblings Nellie, a 12-year-old telepath, and Hank, a nine-year-old marksman, while in Old Cypress, Tex., for his father’s funeral and decides to take them back with him to Abigail Elder’s boarding house in Galveston. On the way, Floyd, Hank, and Nellie infuriate of a pair of circus charlatans calling themselves Professor Finn and Kentucky Jim by liberating the scoundrels’ big score, a human-fish hybrid the children name Charlie Fish. Nellie’s “whisper talk,” or empathetic telepathy, allows her to communicate with Charlie, who longs to reunite with his fellow fish people.
Rountree’s characters are marvelous, working as both archetypes of the western genre and also nicely developed individuals, who at times are a pleasant surprise by being just a bit more than the reader may have been expecting. Charlie is the central mystery of the novel. Rountree provides just enough background, sensed by Nellie in her mental exchanges with Charlie, to make his appearance in a Texas creek seem plausible and his desire to return home a necessary goal the other characters feel compelled to help him achieve. Rountree’s descriptions of Texas, in general, and Galveston specifically, are lush and evocative.