The bayou by Arden Powell (Self-PublisheD 2022)
Reviewed by Frankie Locsin
The Bayou is a Southern Gothic novella by Arden Powell. Despite its brevity, it weaves together a lyrical ghost story about queerness, religion, and monstrosity.
In Bayou, a sickly, unremarkable man named Eugene lives in a small town in the South called Chanlarivyè. Eugene is a journalist, but he’s more invested in hiding his secrets than seeking sensation and fame. Eugene is a lonely man who desires other men; his encounters are all fleeting and anonymous, as cold as his own life. This is a town so quiet that citizens begin vanishing without a trace, their belongings untouched, as if they got fed up and just decided to drive away. Friendless Eugene is doomed to be forgotten—until trouble comes to Chanlarivyè in the forms of Johnny Walker and Angelique Monnet, two fearless bank robbers immortalized by the police and media alike. Walker sets his sights on Eugene, and the man is forced to confront his true self: his desires, his memories, and his fears.
The pre-war setting is as hazy as Eugene’s memories, and the author’s luscious prose is as syrupy as the humid air that ravages the protagonist’s lungs. As readers, we soon realize the specter of death haunted this town long before this Bonnie and Clyde duo marked its existence on the map. As more and more townsfolk vanish, as the water of the bayou rises and threatens to swallow the town whole, Eugene dreams of his past. His greatest regret, the memories long repressed: his childhood friend who was murdered and found rotting in the swamp, and the ghost of a man who haunted them even then.
The Bayou reveals itself in fits and spurts, enticing the reader with small snippets of information before cloaking itself once more in mystery. It is unclear what is made-up or memory, what is supernatural or simply human cruelty. The only thing that holds true is the strength of Eugene’s emotions: his fear of being exposed, his guilt for his best friend’s death, his unwise desire for Johnny Walker—who is sometimes more monster than man.
“They paused on the threshold and Johnny turned to him, his gaze searching. He looked less like the devil then, his eyes wide and earnest, but Milton wrote that Lucifer knew how to cry.”
But Johnny Walker isn’t the only monster that Eugene has to face.
“And there were the gators, too, their teeth sculpted before the dawn of time and waiting to sink into something soft and easy like a child. And more, even besides the gators: stories of ghosts and spirits made manifest, creatures lurking deep in the swamps, the rougarous and the Haitian zombies—
But it wasn’t the ghost stories or the threat of gators that made Eugene sick with panic. There was a sense of something greater and more terrible in the bayou, a sense of dread and wrongness that took up residence in his guts and made the hairs on the nape of his neck rise up, shivering at the back of his skull, urging him to check over his shoulder to see that nothing had followed him in.”
Eugene must solve the mystery of his childhood friend’s murder and the disappearances of the townsfolk along with the reader. If not, he’ll become a victim too.
But this isn’t just a straightforward mystery story. As a Southern Gothic tale, the friction between Eugene’s closeted sexuality, his Christian upbringing, and his experiences with the supernatural are given equal weight. Despite how dangerous Johnny Walker seems, the reader can’t help but root for Eugene; their attraction is electric. For the first time, Eugene has found someone who sees him for who he truly is. The reader can only hope that it won’t end badly.
Eugene must come to terms with monstrosity in all its forms—supernatural and human. He learns that the church cannot protect him from the devil. And perhaps his greatest sin wasn’t his queerness at all; perhaps it was running away from the truth.
The Bayou is a hidden gem of a novella. Its non-linear writing style rewards multiple rereads. The quiet creepiness is just as suffocating as the Southern setting, and the town of Chanlarivyè is vivid enough to be its own character. Most importantly, I think queer readers who grapple with the pain of their religious upbringing will find a home in this novella. It isn’t just about faith. It also questions what happens when faith is linked to community—the isolation when one falls out of it, and the consequences of mythologizing fallible men. It is a complex story that doesn’t provide clear cut answers on good and evil, but it is breathtaking in its raw honesty, in the way it looks at the human darkness that many would rather blame on the supernatural.
Frankie Locsin is a Filipino cultural worker and writer with an interest in Asian art, history, and literature. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Ateneo Art Awards — Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism.