John Hornor Jacobs is quickly making a name for himself in the Horror fiction world. I recently finished his debut novel Southern Gods and now find myself compelled to tell everyone I know about this book. When it comes to Horror fiction, I tend to be very fussy and extremely critical. With so many titles hitting the shelves every month, I don’t have time to weed through the duds to find a gem. Fortunately, my own social media connections brought this book to my attention, and for once I’m glad I’m on Twitter.
From the description at Amazon: 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.
Let’s get something out of the way right now. I already know what some of you are thinking. “Blues guitarist, sold his soul to the Devil. Isn’t this Crossroads (NOT the Britney Spears movie!) and Angel Heart mixed up together?”
Though the initial premise is the same, Jacobs’ novel simply uses that motif as a springboard to delve into deeper and darker things. Truth be told, William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel more than likely served as a massive influence. Of course, that’s like saying the Bible is influential to Christians. Hjortsberg’s novel is paramount to understanding how the Horror/Noir genre works.
Southern Gods shows us a different path for the Horror/Noir genre, a path that is fresh and new and so well-written I’m pissed I didn’t think of it myself. This is the kind of story that spurs feelings of inspiration. Jacob’s writing is confident for a debut novel, and it’s obvious he’s studied his craft. The story opens with a Prologue, something of which I haven’t seen in a while. The opening could serve as a short story on its own, something reminiscent of T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies. While Klein’s novel was an homage to Arthur Machen, Jacobs’ novel leans in a very welcoming Lovecraftian way, and this is definitely where he gets the brownie points from me.
Lovecraft’s themes of cosmic chaos and madness fit well here, and I must applaud Jacobs’ ability to tie it all to a story set in the 1950’s American South and not make it feel forced. This is a very personal story for his characters, and what they have at stake, what they have to risk, is what drives the plot. The dual main characters are strong and memorable. Bull Ingram is a tough guy for hire who isn’t afraid of anyone and doesn’t mind using his fists to achieve his goals. As tough as he is, Bull is also vulnerable and caring. The other main character, Sarah, has just returned to her childhood home with her daughter Franny, escaping a loveless marriage to take care of her dying mother. Through the course of the story, Sarah learns that not everything is as it appears, and that she cannot always follow in someone’s footsteps, sometimes you have to take the lead.
What makes fiction work is an unlikely mix of the unpredictable with the logical. Reader’s don’t want to see what you have in store for them, yet the twists and turns in your story must make sense or they are going to get frustrated. While reading this book, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next, Jacobs threw something else my way, a twist I didn’t see coming, yet it made so much sense that there really wasn’t any other direction the story could go.
I hate using a rating system, but if I could rate this, and I’ll have to do that when I rate the book on Amazon and B&N, then I’m going to give this one a STRONG 4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. If you like your Horror a little on the Noirish side, and want to read something refreshing and unique, then you must give this book a try. You will not be disappointed.