July 30, 2020


A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. By John Hornor Jacobs. Harper Voyager. $19.99.

     The phrase “cosmic horror” in the subtitle of John Hornor Jacobs’ new book implies something Lovecraftian, something of indefinable dimensions and oddly, frighteningly wrong assembly, a tentacled horror whose very existence shows how miniscule humans are and of how little import are their wants, fears, plans and desires. But even though Jacobs has a character write of “lands made strange by impossible geometries and vile arcologies my mind could not comprehend,” that is not quite what the author delivers in A Lush and Seething Hell, and certainly not all that he presents. Still, what he offers here is, in its own way, quite creepy and eldritch enough. “We are but small vibrations on the face of the universe,” he writes in the second novella here – a clear declaration of adherence to some version of the Lovecraftian ethos.

     Jacobs, however, finds horror not in Red Hook or a similar setting teeming with urban humanity (or inhumanity), but in quotidian journals, a fictional South American country, and the American South. The journal in the first, shorter novella, the evocatively titled The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, has a distinct Lovecraftian reference: a young academic named Isabel Certa, who has become involved with a famed one-eyed poet named Rafael Avendaño, discovers a journal of his that points her toward a text called Opusculus Noctis, a clear reference to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. “Horror makes siblings of us all,” says Isabel, but the context is scarcely otherworldly: she and Rafael are both exiles from the fictional South American country of Magera, which is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. They both yearn to be able to return to their homeland, but only Rafael decides to do so – under mysterious and portentous circumstances. When he goes, he leaves Isabel money, his apartment, and – supposedly for her protection – a cat. Isabel finds that he has also left behind a strange poem called “A Little Night Work” that is not only lyrical but also anguished and distinctly creepy, with its references to the “sweet aroma [of] the killing and the letting of blood.” The poem is old, and Rafael has been working on translating it from Greek and Latin into Spanish. The echoes of a dark past are, again, Lovecraftian, as is the importance and danger of literary discovery, although again Jacobs gives the material his own angles and twists. The more time Isabel spends with Rafael’s journal and the poem that obsessed him and comes to obsess her as well, the more deeply she finds herself descending into a world of profound evil and corruption dating further and further back in time – a very Lovecraftian notion, indeed. Jacobs’ atmospheric style makes the creeping horror of Isabel’s discoveries grow with diabolical inevitability. But The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky has more of an inward focus than do Lovecraft’s tales, being ultimately about the way personal trauma is reflective of things that may or may not lie beyond human ken. The novella is scary for the way it handles people’s internal secrets and unsettling discoveries, not because Jacobs reveals the workings of creatures from beyond the known universe that take an unholy interest in the vastly unimportant beings of Earth.

     Many of Jacobs’ themes in The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky reappear in My Heart Struck Sorrow, despite the second and longer novella’s very different setting and characters. This story too revolves around the dangers of obsessive literary exploration and discovery. Its protagonist is a man named Cromwell, a Library of Congress researcher who specializes in oral tradition and who stumbles upon a set of blues recordings from the 1930s, along with the diary of a man – an earlier library researcher – named Harlan Parker. It turns out that Parker was intensely focused on performances of a song called “Stagger Lee,” which happens to be a real-world folk song, published in 1911 and first recorded in 1923, about a murder that occurred in 1895. Cromwell soon discovers that Parker made acetate recordings as he traveled through the American South, listening to various performances of “Stagger Lee.” And Cromwell soon finds himself playing the recordings as he reads Parker’s diary and, through it, retraces the earlier researcher’s explorations. The Lovecraftian element here is that Parker discovers that some people seem to know new, undiscovered verses to the song, verses that imply depths and darkness and disturbances of reality. Cromwell is presented by Jacobs as somewhat unbalanced by events in his own life even before he discovers Parker’s material; as for Parker, his field journal shows his own sanity teetering on the edge, with liquor and his possibly liquor-induced visions pushing him toward madness. Cromwell, in a very Lovecraftian narrative manner, soon falls into a pattern similar to and repetitive of Parker’s, and as the mystery grows, so does the tenuousness of Cromwell’s own hold on reality. In My Heart Struck Sorrow, Jacobs is at pains to distinguish the narrative voices of Cromwell and Parker, and perhaps does too good a job of it: the Cromwell sections move rather languidly by comparison with the adventure-propelled speed of those in Parker’s telling. But if My Heart Struck Sorrow is not quite as tightly paced as The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, and does not have the shorter novella’s sense of inevitability, it is still a deeply unsettling tale about a descent – one of so many in literary works – into a heart of darkness. Both novellas in A Lush and Seething Hell are skillfully structured, well-paced, plotted to maximize their chilling effects, and written in a style that, if scarcely as over-the-top as Lovecraft’s, is certainly evocative of occurrences both lush and seething.

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