John Hornor Jacobs
Night Shade Books, 2011
John Hornor Jacobs’ Southern Gods blends blues culture with Lovecraftian horror to create an entertaining brew. Bull Ingram, a giant former marine is hired by a shady record producer to track down a missing employee and find the source of a mysterious pirate radio station that plays the eerie and otherworldly music of a blues musician known as John Hastur. The blues is not stranger to the supernatural and Jacobs’ story is influenced just as much by Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues as it is by H. P. Lovecraft. The myth about Robert Johnson (a myth later fictionalized/sensationalized by Walter Hill in 1986’s Crossroads) selling his soul to the devil for mastery of the guitar is one endemic to blues culture and one of the more well known American myths of the 20th Century. In a clever twist Jacobs’ take on the myth of a blues man selling his soul ditches the Judeo-Chrisitan binaries (in part, more on that in a bit) in favor for the mythos of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors. It’s a combination that wins me over on concept alone.
Thankfully Jacobs’ writing chops are up to the task and he weaves a convincing and well fleshed out tapestry of invented and borrowed mythology to create a chilling and wholly entertaining novel of cosmic horror. While Jacobs keeps the horror elements and violence fairly light at the start of the novel (at least by horror standards) he really cranks things up in the novel’s climax. It might be a bit too much for the faint of heart but Jacobs careful work early in the novel lends this shockingly violent climax the appropriate level of emotional heft and segues into an interesting ending that leaves room for future stories. I’m being deliberately vague here I known but while it would have been easy to feel slightly cheated by the novel’s ending Jacobs manages to avoid that in a fairly clever way.
One of the most important aspect of Lovecraft’s fiction is the New England setting. Lovecraft’s fiction is absolutely steeped in the flavor and smell of sleepy New England towns whether its the dilapidated failing seaside village of Innsmouth or the immaculate streets of Providence there is always a distinct sense of place. That sense of place is an integral part of fiction and in the hands of the right writer an important tool of setting the tone of a novel. Jacobs takes his setting and really makes the most of it; particularly when it comes to individual set pieces. The blues bar where Bull has his first face-to-face with Hastur to the idyllic mansion home of Sarah there is a well realized sense of place that lends the novel a certain feel of authenticity.
The introduction of Father Andrez somewhere towards the middle of the novel is where I really sat up to take notice. The disenfranchised Catholic priest lays down a bit of heavy exposition but in a way that really sets a particular atmosphere of dread. The novel had some horrific moments earlier but once Father Andrez tears away the veil hiding the truth the world (and the novel) becomes a much darker place. Jacobs’ take on the mythology here, and the role of the church in this world, is wonderfully inventive and absolutely fascinating; so much so I’d love to see to novel just about this. Jacobs’ weaves an interesting story regarding Sarah’s Uncle Gregor and I feel like the surface was barely scratched with regards to her family history. There is some absolutely fantastic world and character building with Father Andrez and Sarah’s family and I desperately want more.
As a fan of the blues and a fan of horror Southern Gods is a wholly unexpected fusion of two things that on first glance shouldn’t go together. It is difficult to believe that Southern Gods is Jacobs’ first published novel (though he has some short fiction under his belt). Anyone who enjoys horror and dark fantasy looking for something new and exciting need look no further the John Hornor Jacobs’ Southern Gods. This is definitely one of my favorite novels of 2011 and I will be look forward to seeing what Jacobs has to offer in the future.