A Lush and Seething Hell [book review]

Horror is many different things to different people. What scares one person isn’t the same as what frightens another. For me, the best horror is a deep examination of our negative emotions; those thoughts and fears that disquiet in the depth of the night: moments left undone, words unsaid, the strange, the weird, the obscene brought to light. Done well, it is a cerebral exploration of the darkness that lies within everyone.

If that is your vibe, too, then here are two stories done exceptionally well and collected in a single volume entitled A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs:

The first story
The Sea Dreams it is the Sky

Lush.jpg

I read this story as Word document last year. It immediately reminded me of the Jorge Luis Borges story, “The Gospel According to Mark,” which I read many years ago. Stylistically, both works begin in the most mundane of ways and make a slow, steady progression, first into the surreal and then into horror. Jacobs takes the unsettling imagery of a country at war with itself and gives us, what I like to call, Borges meets Lovecraft.

Refugees from the fictional Latin American country of Magera chance upon one another in their self-imposed exile in Málaga, Spain. One is the poet, Rafael Avendaño, and the other is a teacher, Isabel, who is our narrator. Avendaño is thought by most to be dead, murdered by the fascists who now rule Magera, but instead, he escaped with his life, but not with his art. Since his exile in Spain, he no longer writes poetry.

Isabel, on the other hand, doesn’t approach her friendship with Avendaño with any sense of reverence. She finds his poetry to be misogynistic and puerile, nor does she teach his works in her classes. He invites her to a movie. She goes. Their strange friendship begins.

When Avendaño leaves Spain to return to Magera, he gives Isabel the key to his apartment and asks her to look after his place. There, she finds a book authored by Avendaño entitled Below, Between, Beneath, and Beyond. Here, she finds the story of Avendaño’s days before, during, and after the fascist takeover of Magera, where Avendaño is required to translate a book, Opusculus Noctis, which he titles A Little Night Work.

As she reads Avendaño’s autobiography and discovers his notes on A Little Night Work, Isabel decides to return to Magera to find Avendaño. Here, their stories converge, and the Lovecraftian aspects of the story emerge in full bloom.

Lovecraftian stories can be hit or miss for me, primarily because the endings can swerve into the obscure with the ending so ambiguous or arcane that the reader is left foundering for a solid landing. Jacobs avoids that pitfall here. He keeps the narrative tight, and as the story seeps into the surreal, leading the reader to a logical ending that seems neither too real, nor too opaque.

It’s a hard balance to write, but Jacobs handles it like a virtuoso, drawing the reader into his world and unveiling the strange, the weird, the obscene, to bring the true horror of evil into the light. This is the kind of dark fiction I love to read, and I offer it to you, highly recommended.

The Second story
MY HEART STRUCK SORROW

My Heart Struck Sorrow is my favorite of the two. While Lovecraftian stories have their allure, southern stories with the devil are some of my personal favorites. Primarily because the devil and his kin are often stand-ins for those aforementioned emotions. Stories that entwine music and madness are also some of my favorites, so with My Heart Struck Sorrow, I got the best of both worlds.

This is one of those stories that the less you know going in will enhance how the story works for you, so I’ll only give a very basic overview of the plot.

Cromwell is a music librarian in the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. His wife and son have recently died, leaving Cromwell in a state of grief even as he returns to work. There, he finds that the grandniece of Harlan Parker has died and bequeathed their rather massive collection to the Library of Congress.

A war hero, Harlan Parker once worked for the Library of Congress, travelling across the south to collect and index folk music on a commission of ethnomusicology, but something strange happened during Parker’s travels, causing him to abandon the commission and simply disappear into his sister’s Springfield home, where he remained until the end of his days.

Cromwell and his co-worker, Hattie, go to the Parker estate to catalog and preserve the estate’s records. In doing so, they find a secret room, because all horror stories should have at least one secret room, and in this small chamber Cromwell and Hattie find acetates of folk music that Parker recorded during his travels, along with Parker’s diary from the late thirties.

Soon Cromwell is immersed in Parker’s writings and infatuation with a song known interchangeably as “Stagolee,” “Stackalee,” or “Stagger Lee.” As Cromwell listens to the recordings Parker created and follows the events within the journal, he is led into Parker’s increasingly bizarre adventures in the rural south, which at times, seems to mirror Hell itself.

Yet, in the end, Jacobs loops the story back to Cromwell, and the two seemingly divergent trajectories are brought together in a startling conclusion that is both poignant and horrific in its intensity. My Heart Struck Sorrow moves like a song with the refrain of “Stagger Lee” as the backbeat, a thumping baseline of desire for power, for revenge, and finally, as the music winds down, for remorse unanswered by forgiveness.

While I enjoy and admire many writers, it’s rare I stand in awe of another contemporary author’s work, but this is one of those times. If you love horror and genuinely excellent storytelling, you should enter A Lush and Seething Hell. You won’t regret the trip.

Tell the Devil I said hello.