Night Shade Books, 2011, 300 pages
Recent World War II veteran Bull Ingram is working as muscle when a Memphis DJ hires him to find Ramblin' John Hastur. The mysterious blues man's dark, driving music--broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station--is said to make living men insane and dead men rise.
Disturbed and enraged by the bootleg recording the DJ plays for him, Ingram follows Hastur's trail into the strange, uncivilized backwoods of Arkansas, where he hears rumors the musician has sold his soul to the Devil.
But as Ingram closes in on Hastur and those who have crossed his path, he'll learn there are forces much more malevolent than the Devil and reckonings more painful than Hell . . .
In a masterful debut of Lovecraftian horror and Southern gothic menace, John Hornor Jacobs reveals the fragility of free will, the dangerous power of sacrifice, and the insidious strength of blood.
The year is 1951. Bull Ingram, a Marine who survived Guadalcanal and now works as a freelance debt-collector/finger-breaker, is sent by a music producer to find one of his reps who's gone missing in Arkansas. Oh, and maybe ask around about this mysterious pirate radio station that broadcasts music that drives people insane.
There were more hisses and scratches, then sound came from the speakers. A guitar, liquid and buzzing. But something else was layered over it, under it.
The guitar slurred out a melody, the player’s fingers obviously dexterous, quickly alternating from finger picking to buzzing the slide, always returning to a minor melody. The guitarist kept time by stomping his feet.
Ingram shifted in his seat, fists balled into hard knots. Something was coming with the sound that he couldn’t understand.
The stomps went beyond dull treads reverberating on wood. The percussion sounded like the foot of a slave still shackled and possessed. The percussive beat held the sound of a thousand slaves, bloody and broken and murderous, each walking forward with the rattle and clank of their broken shackles, knives whisking in their hands, walking through the night under black skies. The guitar’s atonal buzz reached places in Ingram that had been deaf until then, each note curdled with madness and hatred, each measure meted out in some ethereal range that was perceived by more than ears—as if Ingram, not the radio, were the receiver and the invisible transmissions emanating out of the deep and dark fields of Arkansas held some frightening and terrible message just for him. As he listened, Ingram’s skin grew clammy, and each hair stood on end.
Beyond the sun, beyond the stars
Beyond the long black veil
It whispers in the dark
Where light and love both fail
Where do you sleep?
Where did you fall?
Beyond the sun, beyond the stars
Waiting for our call
Beyond the sun, beyond the stars
Waiting for our call
This is the point where our boy should have said "Fuck this" and refused the job, but then there wouldn't have been much of a story.
Bull Ingram is one of two main characters. Chapters alternate between Bull on his missing persons quest and Sarah Williams née Rheinhart, who has just left her abusive husband with her young daughter and returned to her family's old estate, a former plantation where her mother lies dying. Of course this is a place of secrets and mysteries, like all Southern gothic tales, but the secrets here are particularly sinister:
“You had a scare, girl. I got something to settle you down.” Alice moved to the counter, pulled out a small glass, squirted raw honey into it from a bee-shaped plastic container, set a pan of water on a blue burner of the stove, and set the glass in the water. When she cut the lemon, the kitchen was filled with the bright scent of day, pushing the shadows and uncertainty away. Alice squeezed the lemon into the hot honey, stirred it with a spoon, and handed the drink to Sarah.
“Go on to the library and add a finger of whiskey, stir it up good, girl. A hot toddy’ll settle anybody down. Sometimes, it’s the only way I can get Fisk to sleep. Should do just fine for you. Go on.” She winked, and shushed Sarah out of the kitchen, Alice’s slippers whisking on the old floorboards. She yawned. “Whoo, girl, I’m tired. Big day tomorrow. Running. Playing. Cleaning. Gotta go get some sleep.”
In the library, Sarah flipped on the small lamp near the desk and looked around at the shelves of books. She went to the dry bar, unstopped the bourbon decanter, splashed a good amount into the toddy, and stirred.
Sipping the drink, she walked about the library, reading titles of books. Three ornate Bibles, Episcopal and Presbyterian Hymnals, Dante’s Divine Comedy with lithographs by Dore. Ars Negril. The Brothers Karamazov. Quanoon al Islam. The Collected Plays of Shakespeare. A Latin to English Dictionary. Magnalia Christi Americana. A Light in August. Theographica Pneumatica. Magia Naturalis. Tom Sawyer. Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Hinzelmeier. Opusculus Noctis. The History of Freemasons. A Compendium of Vesalius Illustrations. Gone With the Wind. A Farewell to Arms. Strange Covenants. De Natura Deorum. The Life of Hermes Trismegistus. Pecheur d’Island. Occultus Esoterica. Eibon Libris. A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave. And hundreds more.
The story is full of sly insertions like this that are big red flags to anyone who knows their Lovecraft.
At this point, one more character is added to the ensemble: a Catholic priest who reveals what the Vatican has really been up to for the past 2000 years. Our Call of Cthulhu adventuring party is now complete, and the rest of the book proceeds very much like a CoC game, as the characters piece together clues, gear up to face the Big Bad, and mount a rescue mission when the Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal happens.
It ain't Lovecraft without a little racism
Being set in Arkansas in 1951 (as several characters point out, large portions of Arkansas at that time really were deep, dark, scary backwoods territory that made even the rest of the South look modern), one might naturally wonder how racial issues play out in the book. Jacobs writes as a modern writer, and I think he did a pretty good job of portraying white characters who would have been considered broad-minded and tolerant in their own era but recognizably racist in ours. Bull deals even-handedly with the black people he meets, without any racial animosity, but clearly the segregated nature of the world is just something he takes for granted. Sarah has a "Mammy" figure in Alice, a black woman who grew up as her best friend and protector, whom she genuinely loves, and yet there are painful moments when her own embedded racism is apparent -- not to her, but to Alice. I am not sure what to make of the black characters Jacobs populates the book with: they are realistic and consistent with the time and place, and none of them were made into caricatures. They all demonstrated plenty of independence and awareness of their own situations. Still, the only significant black characters were basically "Nice White Lady's Bestest Black Friend" and "First person to get killed when Shit Goes Down." The most important characters, both the heroes and the villains, are all white, with non-whites playing only supporting roles on both sides. And it's mostly black people who go into an orgiastic frenzy thanks to Ramblin' John's music, so there's a not-so-nice Heart of Darkness vibe here.
Jacobs may have been trying to subvert Lovecraft's ideas a little. (Lovecraft himself was a racist like hoooooly shit you cannot imagine...) The non-white subhuman savages who worship evil gods was a frequent theme in Lovecraft's work, and so it manifests here with a twist (and without Lovecraft's depiction of non-white people as subhuman). I'm not entirely sure it works in terms of subverting the racism of the original material, but if you can excuse the basic fault of the story being told from a white POV, it's less offensive than offerings I've read from some authors who fancied themselves ever-so racially sensitive.
A Tiny Little Lovecraftian Rant
As Lovecraft purists know, in the original Mythos tales there were only the Old Ones. The universe is a cold, harsh place. There is no afterlife, no omnipotent creator deity who loves and cherishes us; humans are a fleeting happenstance, a bit of cosmic bread mold that the universe does not notice or care about. This sense of existential futility is essential to a proper Lovecraft tale, and balancing that sort of ultimate, abject hopelessness with the very human virtue of finding hope where there isn't any and persevering just because is hard for any author. (Lovecraft usually bailed; rocks fall, everyone dies -- or goes mad.)
Some of Lovecraft's contemporaries who continued to write in his universe, such as August Derleth and Lin Carter, invented the white knight "Elder Gods" who are, if not benevolent, at least not malevolent and will occasionally intervene on humanity's behalf to oppose the Old Ones. Cop out.
So, Jacobs punts a little. He includes a couple of Elder Gods. But he still makes the universe a pretty bleak place, and one of the things the characters have to face is that there really is only them and this life, and how each individual deals with it sold me on Jacobs's understanding of the essential nature of a Lovecraftian universe. Though he still should have left the white knight Elder God in its box.
I enjoyed the heck out of Southern Gods. It's a synthesis and a loving tribute more than it is anything truly original, but it's paced nicely, has an entertaining and varied mix of characters and the requisite amount of violence and gore, Things Man Was Not Meant to Know and accompanying SAN losses, and it's brooding and dark and Southern, y'all. John Hornor Jacobs is a talented storyteller and his writing is full of nice descriptive prose and Southern gothic atmosphere. I found it a little hard to really feel for the characters, as their feelings were sometimes opaque to the reader and then trauma would suddenly bring about an abrupt shift in attitude, but for the most part their backgrounds and personalities were developed well enough for them to serve their purpose.
It's something a little different and a little fun and a lot gory, and while the ending is not exactly unpredictable, it's definitely suspenseful and dramatic and has a pretty decent balance of grimdark and hope.
Verdict: Southern gothic horror, a blues man named Ramblin' John Hastur, and Unausprichlen Kulten. This is a tasty, bloody gothic snack of a debut novel, and for any fan of Cthulhu or the blues, a must-read.
You can read the prologue and the first six chapters here, and the Baen ebook is cheaper than on Amazon and DRM-free.