A Lush and Seething Hell brings together – in The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow – two very different novellas located within the “found history” tradition.
“I am fucking jealous as fuck of John Hornor Jacobs” – Chuck Wendig, foreword
The foreword – in which Wendig heaps praise on Jacobs – is a bold way to open a book. However, within a few pages, I found this praise was justified. It’s a rare author who manages to imbue mundane, simple statements with such endless horror. The cold open of My Heart shows us the widowed narrator recollecting his wife taking a day off work in their rickety house to look after their sick son, the scene ending: “On his way out, he turned on the heat.” I skipped past this initially – thinking it was simply a sweet gesture, an act of love by the narrator – and it was only when I turned back a page that I noticed the chapter heading: “Cromwell: Carbon Monoxide”, neatly contextualising that (horrifying) sentence. This economy of description, with an eye to the reader reading in their own subtext, stands Jacobs in great stead throughout both works, particularly in The Sea, where it gets co-opted into the polite euphemisms of a threatening and murderous state bureaucracy: “But, Señor Blanco wrote, he would love for Rafe Daño to come to his office so they might discuss his interests in missing persons more in depth”.
Jacobs is also capable of shifting registers into flights of sheer narrative exuberance, the seething horrors of the title (“The terrible figure of a man, wearing a crown and bearing a sword, drenched in blood, wormed his way up out of the cavity, into the world of men…”) and it’s this control of the prose that really struck me. However, I felt My Heart suffered from comparison with The Sea, which was so saturated with a powerful sense of the heat and rhythms and chaos and cruelty of Magera that the writing in My Heart – though still deft and accomplished (a garage is packed with “old newspapers and [other] offal of an old house”) – appeared a touch fainter and paler by comparison.
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Placing these novellas back-to-back in one volume, such comparisons are inevitable, and personal taste will come into it. To increase the degree of comparison, both share a framing device: a modern-day narrator uncovers, through artefacts and diaries, a secret history which proves to have a supernatural element. However, The Sea and My Heart are two profoundly different works. If I hadn’t read them together, I doubt I’d have noticed the similarity of set-up; it’s testament to Jacobs’ skill as a writer that the idea of forbidden knowledge has been deftly spun out into such different themes, settings, and sources of horror. And personal taste played a large part in why I particularly enjoyed The Sea – it chimed so completely with my love for the Lovecraftian and cosmic horror tradition – whereas My Heart felt like a more intimate, human work: dwelling on the grief and pain of a people rather than a country.
Gazing too long into the abyss: The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky
The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky opens with Isabel, a poetry lecturer in exile from the fictional South American country of Magera (located pretty firmly in the book’s list of sources as Pinochet’s Chile), encountering a mysterious one-eyed man who turns out to be Avendaño, Magera’s most infamous poet. When he returns to Magera – leaving Isabel with keys to his apartment and access to a journal in which he recorded his attempts to translate an obscure and maddening set of photographs entitled “A Little Night Work” – Isabel is drawn into his story of torture, bargains with occult entities, and the very real horror of a country tearing itself apart.
At the heart of The Sea is the idea of observation. Avendaño finds that to study and observe “A Little Night Work” – something of a handbook for making bargains with the supernatural – draws the attention of not only Magera’s state torturers but also the “exterior brigade”, whose smartly suited envoy tells him: “You’ve been desperately signalling us for quite some time,” and “I could have never come to you if you had not been so invested.” It’s a classic “found narrative” horror trope done extremely well, and the exterior brigade are located well within the cosmic horror tradition, being “mighty… prodigious. The vast and numberless”. Satisfyingly, Jacobs avoids description of precisely what has come to Magera to do deals with its corrupted and sadistic state apparatus.
Isabel’s role – as Avendaño’s confessor via his journal – is also to bear witness. She is uncomfortable with his vivid depictions of torture, “the rampant horde of imagery: body parts, blood, outrage, loss, guilt, mutilation, fecal matter, chiaroscuro”, but as a character within the work, she has the ability to take action; the reader does not. I’m a seasoned gore fan, and found myself incredibly discomforted by the scenes depicting Avendaño’s disappearance and interrogation, which are utterly unflinching. The writing conveys precisely the horrific location of the torture facility, which is “full of the silence that comes from the cessation of loud, painful noise” and takes us on a journey through “an eerily quiet room full of people, all nude, who stared at [Avendaño] with hollow eyes” to “a windowless stone room with a bare metal bed frame” where terrible things take place. Jacobs manages to force us to apply the same intensely uncomfortable voyeuristic gaze on torture – “a pornography of excruciating psychic pain” – which is exactly the gaze, and pain, which drew the attention of the exterior brigade to Magera. I never thought I’d be placed in the same position as a Lovecraftian entity, but one of Jacobs’ messages is that what happened in Magera – wherever it’s located – demands observation. It demands that the rest of the world bears witness, and doesn’t turn away.
There are lots of other things to love about The Sea, though. I particularly enjoyed Avendaño and Isabel’s distinct narrative voices. Avendaño has shades of “men writing women” (describing his student-activist girlfriend’s breasts: “they were modest”), and his grief, guilt and horror at his own actions, interspersed with the humour of the bluff old veteran who befriends young women in cafes, make him jump off the page. Isabel, on the other hand, is practical but a dreamer – the way she reacts (and overreacts) to the aftermath of her night with Claudia is perfectly pitched – and transforms, a little incredibly but very satisfyingly, into something of an action heroine.
Jacobs’ writing also makes for an incredibly lush travel guide, and portrayal of location – whether it’s a café in Malaga, Avendaño’s “Moorish” style bedroom, or the poinciana tree covered with childrens’ shoes dipped in red paint outside a bruja’s house – is one of his absolute strong points. At times that travelogue might have felt like it went on a bit too long, but I’d have happily borne with it for much longer, waiting for the next piece of beautifully-pitched horror action.
Hell is empty, and all the devils are here: My Heart Struck Sorrow
My Heart Struck Sorrow tells the story of Cromwell, a researcher of folk songs who is mourning the sudden accidental death of his wife and young son. When the estate of Harlan Parker – 1930s folklorist, obsessed with uncovering the songs of the Deep South and in particular a varying and obscure ballad called “Stacker Lee” – comes into his hands, he discovers the original vinyl recordings of Harlan’s research trip and his journal. These reveal a quest through Harlan’s personal experience of murder and sorrow, his service in the First World War, and a dark backwoods tradition of ghosts and “bad men”.
Jacobs returns repeatedly to two separate themes which come together in the story’s climax. The first – Cromwell and Harlan mourning for their respective families – is that of ghost voices communicating with the living. I’m not a vinyl enthusiast, but I can imagine that someone with a love for the atmospheric reproduction quality of old records would particularly enjoy the reverence with which both narrators depict the work of the SoundScriber, capturing folk songs and narrative alike. The scene in which Cromwell uncovers Harlan’s work has a real feeling of a séance (plus the delicious phrase for record static: “an atonal buzz steaming from sizzling bacon grease”) and the ghosts of Cromwell’s wife and Harlan’s mother continually intrude into the narrative; a little too continually for my liking. I found myself constantly looking for the connection to be made between the two – in terms of each narrator’s role in the story of their deaths – and have to say I found the answer to be a little too predictable.
The story also explores Harlan’s personal experiences in the trenches of the First World War, which are vividly brought to life in all their mouldy, muddy, horrible detail. For a while, I was convinced we’d see an explicit exploration of that location – like the torture facility in The Sea, the geographical location of hell – but they’re dotted throughout the text, as Harlan’s assistant Bunny finds his War experiences still present in his day-to-day life. Both Harlan and Bunny know from experience that “the only devils are men”, which is the message behind the apocryphal Stacker Lee song, in which a bad man is executed, challenges the devil, and becomes a king in hell (echoed in Honeyboy, a prisoner met later in Harlan’s story, who has – deliberately – made himself a king in the alter-society of the state’s prison farm). Race is explicit and ever-present for Harlan, a white man interviewing and recording the songs of largely black narrators, but I found myself – like Hattie, one of Cromwell’s colleagues – really quite sceptical of Harlan’s continual assertion that, as an outsider, he has a special connection with the experience of poor black men in 1930s America. She deftly punctures him as “virtue signalling” – I felt this wasn’t so far from the truth.
As a reader, my difficulty with My Heart was that I wasn’t sure what was meant to be so compelling about the Stacker Lee song, with its “infernal verses”, and why it should be a source of dread, compulsion and narrative drive in a story which is certainly horror-adjacent. The lyrics are creepy, but they’re not that creepy – and it takes a very long time on an extended road-trip for each part or variation of the song to reveal themselves. Towards the end of the novella, Jacobs takes us on a journey into a beautifully imagined backwoods fairyland, crammed full of ancient mountains, old growth forest, black orchards and rotten apple trees. While I absolutely loved all the fey motifs being explored – ageless white-haired women with bare feet, sexual and amused and utterly terrifying (the reference to Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in the next chapter is both arch and laugh-out-loud), I found it wasn’t as seamlessly incorporated with the rest of the narrative as I’d have expected from Jacobs’ normally deft touch.
My lasting impression was that this would be an excellent novella to read while listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, with their gothic blues, murderers and religious-revival Americana. It’s less relentless than The Sea, and leaves the reader with more of a feeling than a narrative – and the feeling is one of beautiful decay and backwoods poverty.
Finally, I’d like to note that Jacobs thanks his cultural sensitivity readers for their assistance with both pieces. At a time in which there’s a lot of discussion – both positive and negative – about writers writing outside their own lived experience, it’s heartening to see an open acknowledgement of the good that sensitivity readers can do, particularly in two works which are so strong in their depiction of voices and experiences outside Jacobs’ own.
Reading this book is like getting two novels for the price of one; although both are novellas, they felt as fleshed-out and complete as a much longer work. Both showcase Jacobs’ beautiful, lush, haunting prose, so effortless and accomplished I couldn’t stop myself turning the pages, eager to see where it would go next. There isn’t a single character who doesn’t feel drawn from life – their voices recounted with a real love for speech patterns, idiom, and vocabulary – and it’s this ventriloquism that both impressed me and meant that I didn’t mind (particularly in the case of My Heart) a narrative that in some places seemed to run out of pace and drive.
A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs is published by Harper Voyager. Buy the book.