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REVIEW: Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

Title: Southern Gods
Author: John Hornor Jacobs
Pub Date: July 26th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A reasonably-well structured debut novel with near-perfect Southern Gothic world-building.

Fiction has been mining myth since the first storyteller hushed a campfire crowd. Myths are – at some level – the foundation of every story, and in speculative fiction we often rely on them to shortcut the audience’s emotional response: to get the reader “in the mood”. In doing so, we rely on the oldest, most primal images: eyes glowing red in the night, footsteps behind us in the fog, etc. These images are rooted in our reptile brains, and there’s no way we won’t respond to them. But what about myths of newer vintage? The kind that haven’t been percolating in our collective unconscious for centuries? In his debut novel, Southern Gods, horror author John Hornor Jacobs does a solid job mining two recent American myths: the Blues, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Southern Gods tells the story of Bull Ingram, a WWII-vet hired to find a missing radio promoter, and Sarah Rheinhart, a single mother from a wealthy Arkansas family who comes back to her childhood home. The book opens with an incredibly well-written prologue set seventy three years before the events of the main story. Too frequently, I find that such prologues merely delay the story’s real beginning and serve no narrative purpose. And looked at unemotionally, one might accuse Jacobs’ prologue of being superfluous: the information it imparts might have been easily revealed through the principal narrative. But in this case, I am more than willing to forgive Jacobs’ his prologue because it is hands down the best writing in the entire book. The prose is mellifluous, rich, and evocative. It draws you in, and makes you feel every moment of emotional heartache and fright. By the conclusion of the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story and the unfortunate character the prologue introduces us to. From a plot standpoint, it might not have been necessary, but from an emotional standpoint it earned my complete engagement with Jacobs’ world.

After the prologue, the story jumps seventy three years to 1951 and introduces us to our real hero: Bull Ingram. The main story opens with a classic noir setup: a world-weary and battle-scarred vet is just scraping by as muscle for a Memphis gangster when he gets hired to do a seemingly simple job that turns strange and very dangerous. Noir fiction is just as much about feeling as it is about its tropes, and Jacobs executes very well by taking his time. While the prose in the main storyline is not quite as evocative as the prologue, Jacobs focuses just enough attention to give us a real feel for Ingram’s values and personality. We understand that he is a hard man, able and willing to do hard things when he has to. But he’s also not a bad guy: he’s just trying to get by, like everyone else. By not rushing into frenetic action, Jacobs more fully earns our investment in his hero and our engagement with his southern world.

I found Sarah Rheinhart, the female protagonist, to be far less engaging than Bull. While thematically much of her story arc revolves around re-establishing her own agency (we first meet her leaving her abusive husband), I nevertheless found found her overshadowed by supporting characters for much of her storyline. In particular, her childhood friend Alice upstages Sarah throughout the book’s first half, only to recede to unimportance in the book’s second half. I understand that Sarah’s storyline is necessary for the book to function as a whole, but the role she is given is by nature more receded than I would have liked. If the supporting character of Alice were less engaging, or evidenced somewhat less agency than she does, perhaps I would not have noticed this relative weakness. But as it stands, I found Sarah to be less engaging than Bull.

Bull gets hired by a Memphis music promoter to find a radio promoter who went missing somewhere in rural Arkansas, and to track down Ramblin’ John Hastur, a mysterious Blues musician whose powerful songs are played on a pirate radio station that nobody knows anything about, and which drive people to commit primal acts of lust and rage. And here, within that one sentence description of the book’s plot, we already have the merging of those two quintessential American myths: Hastur’s name is itself taken from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Haita the Shephard“, from which it was lifted by Robert W. Chambers and then H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth in turn. This progression – from benign god of shepherds in Bierce’s story, to the spawn of Yog-Shoggoth in Derleth’s work – is plainly an example of the “folk process” at work on fiction. It also gives the reader an immediate insight into the Cthulhu-flavored horror that awaits them as the book progresses.

Jacobs’ depiction of Ramblin’ John Hastur also reconfigures the legend of Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal, in which the Delta blues legend supposedly sold his soul at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for mastery of the guitar. This legend is probably one of my favorite aspects of the Blues as American myth, and I love encountering it time and again whether it’s in books like Southern Gods or in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Both this legend and the harsh peripatetic lifestyle of early Blues musicians infuse Jacobs’ lush descriptions of the music, his immersive imagery of the early 1950’s rural south, and especially his characters’ dialog.

Jacobs has an excellent ear for southern dialect, and his characters’ speech patterns do a fantastic job of grounding the story in its setting. He does a particularly good job conveying characterization through his characters’ sentence structures, which is done so subtly that I didn’t even catch the mechanism until my second read through of the book. The dialog is easily my favorite part of this book’s writing, because unlike the prose, it is consistently excellent throughout the entire book.

Much as I enjoyed Southern Gods, I did find a number of weaknesses. I have already mentioned the relative weakness of the female protagonist. But in addition, I felt that themes, characters, and plot points introduced in the first half either fade into insignificance in the second, or get ignored fairly completely. Alice, a strong, compelling supporting character is marginalized once Bull and Sarah get together. The intimation of Alice’s ability to perform little acts of magic is dropped with only a cursory handwave. And I found a frustrating asymmetry between the themes of family explored in Sarah’s storyline and the corresponding themes in Bull’s arc. And finally and perhaps most significantly, I found the treatment of religion to be the one glaring weakness in Jacobs’ otherwise excellent world-building.

The Cthulhu Mythos have a long and complex relationship with Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, the Great Old Ones are an American myth purposefully divorced from traditional religious concepts. But regardless of the cosmogony employed by Jacobs and gradually revealed in the text, the human characters in his Deep South setting would be steeped in their own more traditional religious heritage. Yet religion is almost completely absent from Southern Gods, unless one counts a Roman Catholic priest’s proclamations of atheism. The story repeatedly references Ramblin’ John’s Faustian deal as a deal with the devil, yet nowhere is there any other religious dimension applied to the whole affair, or even referenced in passing. I would have expected some nod towards Southern Baptist or Pentecostal traditions, but I didn’t find any.

By its very nature, Lovecraftian horror operates in opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian religious concepts. That is one of the reasons why Cthulhu and his ilk are so unknowable and terrifying: they are gods inimical to our more comfortable conception of divinity. And yet Jacobs leaves this opposition implied, without even a cursory exploration in the text. In a less well-written book, this weakness would not have stood out so strongly for me. It is precisely because the rest of Jacobs’ world-building is so excellent that this omission becomes so prominent.

Nonetheless, Southern Gods is a very well realized debut novel. It is atmospheric horror that skews into blood-and-guts when necessary. From a violence standpoint, it is not for the faint of heart, and yet both the execution and the narrative purpose of its violence is well considered. When Jacobs depicts violence, he does so well and for a good reason. Nevertheless, squeamish readers may find it a little off-putting. Fans of Southern Gothic will particularly enjoy the book’s first half. Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will probably get a kick out of the book in its entirety. Southern Gods is a really solid book, and I am definitely looking forward to Jacobs’ next book (This Dark Earth, due out from Simon & Schuster in July 2012).

And to close out this review, here’s a clip of Robert Johnson playing some awesome Delta blues:

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