Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Southern Gods, by John Hornor Jacobs

If, like me, you are intrigued by the concepts explored by H.P. Lovecraft, but struggle with his often dense and impenetrable prose, not to mention the habitual casual racism, then Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs could well be the book for you.

Drawing heavily on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and the legend of Robert Johnson, Southern Gods is a modern horror masterpiece. Nominated in the 2011 Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, I’m staggered it didn’t win. Also staggering is the fact that this is Jacobs’ first novel. It’s that good.

Set in America’s Deep South during the 1950’s Rhythm & Blues explosion, Southern Gods follows the story of Lewis ‘Bull’ Ingram, a huge hulk of a man in the employ of a shady Memphis businessman, whose main purpose in life is the recovery of debt by means of extreme violence.

A former US Marine and battle-scarred veteran of World War II, Ingram is good at what he does. So good, that his boss recommends his services to a business associate, Helios Records label owner, Sam Phelps.

Phelps tasks Ingram with finding Early Freeman, a Helios record plugger who has mysteriously disappeared somewhere along the murky backwaters of Arkansas, while visiting radio stations armed with a case full of Helios forty-fives and two-thousand dollars’ worth of payola cash.

Phelps wants his money back. But that’s not all. He wants Ingram to track down the mysterious Delta bluesman, Ramblin’ John Hastur. Phelps plays Ingram a bootleg recording of a broadcast by an unknown pirate radio station, in which Hastur plays his song, Long Black Veil, described by the DJ as a perfect tune to finish the night with. To finish all nights with.

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

The recording continues, and as the song thunders towards its discordant, frenetic climax, Ingram can barely stand it. Something is hidden in the mix. Something that makes him want to kill. Himself, or Phelps, it doesn’t really matter. As long as the music stops. Then, just as Ingram begins to lose control, the song comes to an abrupt end.

Ingram asks why Phelps would want to put such music on a record. No-one would buy it.

Phelps sucked his teeth. “Well, you’re wrong about that. People would buy it. Maybe not in droves, but they’d buy it. Cause it’s powerful, son. It’s got something. I watched you listening to it. It got to you.” He fanned his hands out, like a child framing the sky. “And someone who can write a song that powerful, well… maybe he’s got other songs… nicer songs.”
“Or maybe songs that aren’t so nice. But you’re right, it does got something, and it’s something I don’t want.”
Phelps guffawed, slapping Ingram on the shoulder. “But you’ll do the job anyway, won’t you, son?”

Personally, I’d have run a fucking mile. But Ingram takes the job, and embarks upon a journey that will take him deep into the heart of darkness, to the very edge of insanity. During his search, rumours abound that Ramblin’ John has sold his soul to the Devil. But as Ingram is to discover, the truth is much, much worse.

Meanwhile, Sarah Williams has had enough of her drunk, abusive husband. Along with her six-year-old daughter, Franny, she flees the matrimonial home in Little Rock, returning to the sanctuary of The Big House, her ancestral home on the Reinhardt Estate in Gethsemane. Little does she know that The Big House has a bloody history all of its own, a dark family secret, buried for generations, that still has the power to destroy everything she holds dear.

I’ve read this book four times now, a personal record. And when I consider that, these days, I find myself abandoning books more often than I finish them, Southern Gods has to rank as one of my favourite books of all time.

The tone is firmly set with a brilliant, unnervingly dark prologue, in which Jacobs brings us face to face with the appalling evil stalking the land. The prologue itself is so good, there is not a horror anthology in print today that would not be improved by its inclusion.

In Southern Gods, Jacobs takes an excellent concept, and delivers an almost flawless execution. I say ‘almost’ simply because while Bull’s chapters are absolutely gripping from start to finish, Sarah’s story takes a while to get really interesting. Don’t get me wrong, her early chapters are more than satisfying, building character and mood, and really bringing the setting to life. But it’s when her and Bull finally come together, halfway through the book, that everything really clicks.

N.B. I’ve seen more than one review complaining about the seemingly fortuitous way in which the two main protagonists are brought together. But as Jacobs himself has said, this is a story about, amongst other things, the nature and fragility of free-will. And, given the forces at play, it all makes perfect sense to me.

Southern Gods is a fantastic achievement. Dark, deeply atmospheric, this is a book dripping with menace. But be warned. The violence is frequent, and graphic in the extreme. There are some extremely disturbing descriptions of sexual violence contained within the ancient texts discovered by Sarah in The Big House’s library. And Jacobs serves up an ending so brutal, so disturbing, it will leave you numb with shock for days. Shit, I still get the shivers just thinking about it.

As the story hurtles towards this gripping, terrible climax, Jacobs cranks up the pace like some wild, demented drummer, struggling to keep pace with Ramblin’ John’s frenetic, diabolical axe-work. And, just like Bull Ingram, standing in the Helios studios being subjected to the discordant cacophony of Hastur’s Long Black Veil, it’s almost too much to take.

And then it’s over, and you’re reduced to a raw, gibbering pool of liquid emotion, dripping like blood from the tortured, gore-soaked walls of your fractured mind.

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