Things would have gone so much easier for Bull Ingram if only someone long ago had heeded that warning. Instead, when the WWII vet is hired to find a missing man in rural Arkansas things get really weird, really fast.
Turns out it’s not only a missing music scout that his employer, a Memphis DJ, wants Ingram to find. He’s also charged with tracking down a pirate radio station that plays the haunting music of a mysterious blues man known as Ramblin’ John Hastur.
Whispers and rumors hold that Hastur’s music is evil, the result of him selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his gift. A hard man and former Marine, Ingram isn’t daunted in the slightest by such mumbo jumbo and sets off to earn his pay.
Meanwhile, a woman, Sarah, and her young daughter have fled an abusive situation and found their way back to Sarah’s childhood home, a sprawling plantation in rural Gethsemane, Arkansas. It slowly becomes clear that something is very wrong in Gethsemane, and that the darkness shrouding the old plantation goes far beyond family secrets thought long hidden and buried.
Exactly how the darkness Ingram is following and the darkness following Sarah and her ancestral home are connected is expertly woven together by debut author John Hornor Jacobs in one of the most intense and enjoyable books I have read this year.
Though most reviews have noted the Lovecraftian touches in Southern Gods, as well as used the term “horror” in describing it, I have to say neither of those things ever consciously crossed my mind while reading the book. It’s not that they are inaccurate descriptions, not at all. Lovecraft’s influence is certainly there, and that some truly horrific things occur there is no doubt. One passage in particular that takes place at Ruby’s on the Bayou, a music club deep in the woods on the bank of the bayou, devolves into a scene of truly disturbing, nightmarish events which signals a turning point in the book from which neither Ingram nor the reader can go back.
It’s just that Jacobs has crafted such a tight, well paced story with characters so interesting and engaging that I was thoroughly absorbed by the tale he was telling; I never had time to step out of the story and analyze it to that degree. So well drawn and crisp is the imagery of the backwoods of 1951 Arkansas, so lush the atmosphere established, that I wasn’t just reading a story. I was there. I knew these people, and I could see and smell and hear everything that they did. So real is the experience created by Jacobs that I got a chill right along with Ingram when he first heard the music of Ramblin’ John Hastur:
The guitarist kept time by stomping his feet.
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 guitarist’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.
And Ramblin’ John Hastur isn’t the only one sending a message. With Southern Gods John Hornor Jacobs has clearly and unequivocally sent a message to the writing world that he has arrived, and both readers and his fellow writers would be wise to take note.
One of the greatest compliments I can pay a book is to say it is so well written, so utterly absorbing, that I desperately didn’t want it to end. Southern Gods is one of those books. Reading it was terrifying and exhilarating, engaging and repulsive, humorous and horrifying all at once, and it all felt like coming home to a place and people I hadn’t even realized I knew until Jacobs introduced me to them. And I can’t wait to visit with John Hornor Jacobs and his creations again.
Southern Gods is available from Night Shade Books (ISBN: 978-1597802857).