BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A WWII veteran’s search for a missing record label promoter leads him into the backwaters of Arkansas and straight into the darkness spreading from a mysterious bluesman and his pirate radio station. Meanwhile, a woman’s return to her ancestral estate reveals long buried secrets that man was not meant to know.
PROS: A fresh locale and take on the Lovecraftian Mythos; spot-on and evocative sense of time and place for early 50’s Arkansas; genuinely forceful moments of horror and dark fantasy.
CONS: Problems in Act III (including deus ex machina and a misfired Chekov’s gun) weaken the last portion of the novel.
VERDICT: The elements of Southern Gothic in Southern Gods brings a new setting and sensibility to the Lovecraftian Mythos.
It’s 1951, in the Deep South. The Jim Crow South is still a festering swamp of racism. On the music front, Rhythm and Blues is slowly starting to break free of its minority origins, threatening to increase in popularity. Not yet — it’s still the music of African Americans, but the seething power of what would turn to rock and roll is a few short years away. There is other music being developed, too, besides rhythm and blues. Over in Arkansas, across the mighty Mississippi from Memphis, a mysterious, scratchy, wandering pirate radio station is broadcasting a different new sound from one Ramblin’ John Hastur, music that is said to induce lust, violence, madness and worse in any who listen.
Southern Gods is the debut novel from John Hornor Jacobs, a combination of music, Southern gothic and his own brand and spin on the Lovecraftian mythos. It’s the story of a pair of characters, brought together to oppose an Elder God’s plans to return. For when the music plays, and sacrifices are made, the stars indeed will be right…
‘Bull’ Ingram, a WWII veteran, has been asked by a Memphis record label mogul to find a missing salesman/promoter of his records. The trail leads out of Memphis and into the backwaters of Arkansas where Ingram soon discovers that dark forces are at play, including music that threatens the very sanity and soul of those who listen. In the meantime, Sarah Williams nee Rheinhart is taking her daughter away from a marriage gone sour, back to her ancestral estate of Gethsemane (and all things considered, an extremely potent and appropriate name it turns out to be). Back in the safety of her estate, even with an overbearing and dying mother, in the Southern Gothic tradition, Sarah accidentally starts to uncover some dark family secrets that have lain buried for a long time, and that the estate is not so safe as she might believe or hope. Circumstances draw Sarah and Bull together, as their problems and discoveries and challenges turn out not be so unrelated as one might think. For if they don’t act against the forces of darkness, the stars will indeed soon be right.
There are a couple of strains to the writing of Southern Gods. When Jacobs focuses on Alice, the mood is southern Gothic, as if the reader has wandered into Faulkner territory. The book is replete with lush descriptions of life on a former plantation turned farm. Also, the characterization and personalities of the characters at Gethsemane continue that aesthetic. For most of Ingram’s story, it feels a little more of a hard boiled feel, as if Sam Spade had wandered into a Mythos novel, and not unarmed, either. Ingram is a tough and sometimes unlikeable character that takes a while to warm up to. He’s not a character you fall in love with easily, especially since he is very willing to get his hands dirty. But would I want him on my side in a rumble or the man I’d send into darkness and danger? You bet. For example:
Ingram stood. He moved across the room and rummaged in the kitchen cabinets and closets. In an adjoining hall, he found a cylinder of nylon rope and returned to the kitchen. He bound Miller’s hands and feet. He tied his body to the chair. Taking a pot from an open cabinet, he filled it with water and dumped it on Miller’s head.
Miller spluttered. He twisted his body, looked down in surprise at the rope binding him.
Ingram patted Miller’s cheek. “Here’s the deal, pard. I’m not gonna hit you again. You’re gonna tell me everything you know about Ramblin’ John Hastur or I’m gonna pick up this chair, with you in it, and take you outside, where that fucking thing attacked me. I’m gonna set you down on the edge of the wood, out of sight of the road, and let you think about what you know and you don’t know. I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll have this conversation again, if there’s anything left of you.”
A growing horror filled Miller’s face as Ingram spoke, and Ingram felt it too. The blackness. The memory of a silhouette approaching. A black, open mouth, emanating sound. The idea of leaving Miller out there, on the edge of the woods like a sacrifice–no, an offering, he thought suddenly–horrified him. And just as suddenly, Ingram knew–he knew–that if he did leave Miller on the wood’s edge, the offering would be accepted and he’d be able to parlay with the black creature.
“No,” Miller said. “I’ll spill.” “Then spill, goddammit. I’m tired of waiting. And I might not like it–you definitely won’t–but I’ll do as I fucking say and put you out there.” Ingram motioned toward the dark windows at the front of the house.
“They call him the Yellow King. Or the Tattered Man. He plays and sings his songs with the Devil’s voice.”
Although the author’s main borrowings from the Mythos focus on Hastur, the King in Yellow and other stuff from Robert Chambers (rather than Lovecraft), the novel presents its own ideas on the Mythos. In a bit of exposition toward the end of the book we get a sense of the differences in Jacobs’ brand of the Mythos from other ones I’ve seen. I have to say, his take on the Mythos is consistently logical and inspiring. His ideas are food for thought for one of my role playing games, and just in general. Heck, based on it, I think a collaboration between John Hornor Jacobs and James Enge would be a most interesting pairing.
I don’t want to spoil the ending and the plot, but is there is pain, sacrifice, and darkness in the novel. It’s not quite as nihilistic as most Mythos stories, but readers who pick up novels like Southern Gods are not looking for shiny happy settings and plots anyway, and shouldn’t expect them. The last act of the book, though, did feel more than a little deus ex machina. Even though the characters themselves remark on a chain of coincidences, that chain does strain at credulity and plausibility. And, there is unfortunately a Chekov’s gun that really doesn’t fire off more than a wet firecracker, although I expected it to do so in a much more important and explosive way. This last act is the major shortcoming of the novel. That said, the book doesn’t let up on the sensibilities and consequences of tangling with the forces being dealt with.
Jacobs has proved, if there is any doubt, that Cthulhu and the rest of the Mythos can thrive being transplanted to settings, eras and motifs beyond the usual suspects one finds in Mythos stories. I’m extremely curious and interested as to what else Jacobs will bring to the table next.