Grimoires share shelf-space with Gone With The Wind in Southern Gods, the debut novel by horror author John Hornor Jacobs. Accordingly, the book traffics in both human melodrama and inhuman horror. Half of it concerns Sarah Williams, a determined single mother in 1950s Arkansas who’s drawn to solve the secrets—familial and supernatural—hidden in her uncle’s library. The other half is a hardboiled detective yarn about Bull Ingram, a tough-as-nails World War II vet hired to track down a missing radio-promotion man. Too much of the book oozes by before its two protagonists intersect, and when they finally do, it’s via a massive coincidence that’s only delinquently, perfunctorily explained away. That’s the most glaring of Jacobs’ occasional missteps; thankfully, they don’t overpower what’s essentially a sumptuous Southern Gothic thriller steeped in the distinct American mythologies of Cthulhu and the blues.
To his credit—and in the true spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, whose “The Call Of Cthulhu” skirts the Deep South’s swampy mystique—Jacobs lets the Lovecraftian elements simmer before boiling. At the root of the menace is Ramblin’ John Hastur, an elusive bluesman whose music incites listeners to perform orgiastic rites of primal lust and violence. But rather than degenerating into some retro-themed True Blood arc, Southern Gods cannily recycles real-life blues history, from Robert Johnson’s apocryphal deal with the devil to the appropriation of black music by Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips (winkingly re-imagined as Sam Phelps of Helios Studio, employer of the missing promotion man). Jacobs’ view of the blues as a reservoir of arcane power and awe—which was how much of white society did view the blues at the time—is brilliantly conceived and subtly filtered into the plot.
For a little while, anyway. Once Bull and Sarah’s paths (and private parts) are jammed together with authorial heavy-handedness, the book’s rich musical undercurrent dries up. Southern Gods’ final third is sluggish; as threats and tensions build and deflate haphazardly, the gross-outs start piling up. The cast begins to go through mechanical paces, with their loss of agency worsened by the infernal intervention of certain Lovecraftian elder gods. Worse than the excesses, though, are the omissions; certain characters are revealed to possess some form of everyday magic, but that tantalizing subplot is utterly abandoned. Roman Catholicism is mashed into the story where homegrown Pentecostalism—mentioned once, then dropped—would have been much more resonant. And the promising appearance of undead revenants is so underdeveloped, even the most hardcore zombie fan might wish they’d never popped up at all.
What keeps Southern Gods moving is Jacobs’ dark heart and graceful pace. Even when knee-deep in gore, his prose bears a perverse, leisurely politeness, and that down-home drawl renders his quiet moments of tenderness especially poignant. Jacobs’ absorbing passages about music shine brightest, though. Everything from the blues’ ritualistic rhythms to the Stonehenge-like radio antennae dotting the landscape are brought into vivid, poetic focus, even as they’re suffused with ancient weirdness. “You’d think I was going into Transylvania,” Bull quips early in the book, when he’s about to leave his relatively cosmopolitan Memphis for the unknown terrors of rural Arkansas, just across the Mississippi. That joke could also serve as Jacobs’ statement of intent; barring some niggling hiccups, Southern Gods beautifully probes the eerie, horror-infested underbelly of the South.