A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs
Publisher: Harper Voyager | Release Date: October 8, 2019 | Pages: 384
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Lush and Seething Hell is the kind of novel that you hope will, and even expect to, take an author’s career to the next level. It’s the sort of work that, if you haven’t been reading John Hornor Jacob already, you’ll be kicking yourself for this oversight and scouring bookstores for his past releases. The good news is that you’re getting two sublimely literary tales of cosmic horror here, one a novella and the other a short novel. The first, The Sea Dreams It Is Sky, is one I had read previously when it was released as an ebook-only edition in late 2018. It subsequently made my best of the year list, and below is a very slightly modified review of what I wrote about it then and published elsewhere. The second story, My Heart Struck Sorrow, is exclusive to this release and was a read I’d been anticipating ever since finishing The Sea Dreams It Is Sky last year.
The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky
Although H.P. Lovecraft is the most familiar name in the genre of cosmic horror, a number of other authors writing in this vein have shown themselves to be far better wordsmiths and storytellers - Victor LaValle, Brian Hodge, Laird Barron, and Caitlin R. Kiernan immediately spring to mind. I feel comfortable adding John Hornor Jacobs to this list now, with his novella The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky proving to be one of the best titles I've read in 2018 (and 2018 was absolutely flush with incredible horror titles, I might add).
Racism was absolutely endemic in Lovecraft's work, with the man's total fear of Otherness, which is to say blacks and immigrants, pervading his mythos. Jacobs, however, writes entirely from the perspective of The Other - his central characters, Isabella and Rafael Avendaño, are South American expats living abroad in Spain. Their home country, the fictional Magera, has fallen to a Pinochet-like military junta. If either were ever to return home, it would mean certain death. Isabella is a lesbian, and, perhaps worse for those in power, both educated and an educator. Avendaño is a poet and outspoken critic of the despot ruling Magera.
Whereas Lovecraft's horror arose from racist anxieties, in Jacobs's novella, political anxiety is the topic du jour, and certainly one that's far more relatable for this reader. Although set in 1987, The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky is unfortunately timely. The far-right threats of political violence stemming from the fictional Vidal's rule that threaten Isabella and Avendaño echo current global trends and the rise of nationalism. Brazil recently returned to a military dictatorship with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the 'Trump of the tropics,' and with him came military raids of that country's universities earlier this week, a turn of events that makes Isabella's fears of returning to Magera sadly relatable. The threats to Avendaño's life simply for being an outspoken critic of an authoritarian regime vividly echo life under Trump part and parcel every bit as much as they recall life under Augusto Pinochet, and one can't help but wonder if a bomb is going to make its way into Avendaño's mailbox at some point in the narrative. The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky functions as a fictional examination of historical incidents that occurred in the 1960s-1980s, while also encapsulating the worries of political extremism circa 2018.
Much of the horror stems from the fear of the Mageran junta, with the comic elements playing only a minor role in the story's backdrop. The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky certainly has its share of horror, and a few squirm-inducing scenes to be sure, but it's of a quieter, slower, and highly literary nature. The characters come first in Jacobs's story, and we get small hints of their history and past lives in the homes they were forced to flee. It's not until nearly the half-way mark that we experience a fully unflinching view of the junta's atrocity as told through Avendaño's view, and the horrors that unfold therein are almost entirely human, with only brief glimpses of the supernatural.
Primarily, we experience this story, and Avendaño, through Isabella's eyes. Her position as an educated woman informs Jacobs's style, as does Avendaño's pedigree as a poet, and the writing is whip smart with the prose taking on a deeply literary aspect. Avendaño speaks with a poet's grace, his words reflecting his perspective. When he speaks on even minor topics, such as the luchador horror films he routine frequents at the cinema, he speaks of grander philosophies: "Misery is a condition that we are all promised," he tells Isabella early on. "On the screen, painted in light, that misery is very small." Isabella lives the life of a professor, but is far from cloistered within the halls of academia - she has passions and love interests, and can be tough when required. Jacobs subverts one's expectations of the nerdy damsel in distress, and even Isabella reminds us in her narrative that "I am as sensitive to situation and intuition as any person. The idea that academics—especially female academics—are cloistered aesthetics that retreat from the real world to content themselves only with books is nonsense."
The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky is a smart and deeply layered novella, and its depth routinely belies its page count. This is a lushly literary narrative, one that is first and foremost a character study of political exiles, and Jacobs's authorial skills are tack sharp.
My Heart Struck Sorrow
Reeling from the death of his wife and son, Cromwell returns to his job at the Library of Congress’s folklore division in time for news of another’s passing. Matilda Parker, the grandniece of a former employee of the folklore division, Harlan Parker, has bequeathed her estate to the department. In cataloguing Parker’s belongings and readying the estate for sale, Cromwell and his partner, Hattie, discover a hidden room holding a number of acetate recordings made by Harlan, as well as his journal, which slowly reveals a number of mysteries of Cromwell. Before his death, Harlan had become convinced that there was an ur-version to the song “Stagger Lee,” and that an arrangement of infernal lyrics had been forgotten, or deliberately hidden, and his obsession leads him into the darkest corners of the American South. Cromwell, for his part, finds himself growing obsessive over Harlan’s journal and the dead man’s stories of his search.
As with The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a masterfully written piece and the concept of a bedeviling and arcane version of an old American folk song is a top-notch premise. As with the preceding story in A Lush and Seething Hell, the horror elements are supremely quiet, but Jacobs still manages to pull the rug out from under his readers on a few occasions, and to startling effect. The real meat here, though, is the grief shared across time and space by Cromwell and Parker.
These two men of the folklore division present a truly intriguing duality that Jacobs slowly unravels over the course of the story. Both are grieving and blaming themselves for the loss of their closest loved ones, while also carrying the guilt of their various transgressions. We learn early on that Cromwell had an affair with a coworker, which only ratchets his guilt and self-blame up a few more notches. Parker’s journal and decades old recordings are opportunities for Cromwell to lose himself in, but also to connect with a man he never knew but whose interests are shared by him — and possibly reconnect with those he has lost.
Grief is a sort of madness in its own right, and if left untended can lead to a sort of insanity. The question then becomes just how far down the path of irrationality are these men willing to let their wounded hearts lead them, despite knowing better and despite the dangers of the unknown. The infernal verses of “Stagger Lee” and their own particular illustrations of a very different kind of descent into hell have been left unsung for a reason, and yet Parker persists in his search, jeopardizing his own safety, as well as that of his partner, even as they encounter the inexplicable. But in the throes of grief, how much of Parker’s writings can be taken reliably, or has he been lost to madness?
Jacobs layers My Heart Struck Sorrow with levels of meaning, raising a number of questions along the way while providing little in the way of certainty, even as some answers seem wholly resolute. It’s a story that sticks with you and keeps you pondering its mysteries for days after.