John Hornor Jacobs
Night Shade Books
Trade Paper, 300 pages, $14.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
An often quoted line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is: “If music be the food of love, play on.” The novel Southern Gods takes an opposing view; music is the source of hate and violence. The tale is imbued with a monstrous melody, which author John Hornor Jacobs plays to the hilt. Lovecraftian sensibilities and references abound in this Southern Gothic. The narrative, however, is not a mere mélange of motifs. Jacobs performs fantastic feats with the plot. He doesn’t comply with compromise or the obvious. There are many horrific deaths; including a few that are utterly shocking.
The setting is the South in 1951. World War II vets fight the battle of adjusting to civilian life. One such disenfranchised individual is Bull Ingram. Bull, as his nickname suggests, is a huge guy. He works as a muscle man; a physically coercing debt collector. His boss refers him to the head of a recording studio for a different kind of job. The honcho has an employee who has gone missing. In his attempt to locate the fellow, Ingram hears an eerie Blues record. The tune is seductive yet tormenting, and the weird lyrics ask the questions: “Have you seen the yellow sign? Have you found the yellow sign?” Readers familiar with the work of Robert W. Chambers will grasp the allusion.
Bull’s response to the song reflects the power of the musician: “More than the rhythm, more than the guitar, the man’s voice made Ingram feel like something was wrong, like something was not right with the world and this man’s words were the first outward sign of a deeply buried, world-spanning cancer.” The singer is known as Hastur, a name which has resonance to those who have read Chambers and H.P. Lovecraft.
While Lovecraftian themes and imagery are pervasive, it is the tale’s depth of emotion that profoundly haunts. Bull becomes allied with lovely and bruised Sarah, an abused wife and mother of an adorable little girl. Sarah’s ancestry is tied to the supernatural horrors afflicting Arkansas. Escaping to her family home following an assault by her husband, she finds a more expansive torment: “For an instant, she felt like she stood at the precipice of a gigantic vortex, massive and unknown. The rim of the abyss. At the center, she sensed something vast and monstrous moving through limitless dark spaces.”
Sarah is complicated and compelling; passive and dutiful until confronted with insidious evil, it’s as though she blossoms in darkness. The characters, in general, are fascinating. They are easy to visualize courtesy of the author’s attention to detail concerning mannerisms, dress, and demeanor. Their dialogue well conveys the accents and speech patterns of the period, region, and class structure. Yet, the novel’s greatest strength is the way it builds to a shattering climax.
John Hornor Jacobs doesn’t allow the narrative to lapse into predictability in its last chapter. And the epilogue is highly unsettling. Yes, Southern Gods does call upon dark deities popularized by other writers. In composition and tone, however, it creates a malign magic all its own.