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.

Swept away in the mainstream of life ...

Some friends of mine have a saying about getting back into the mainstream of life. These last few weeks, it seems like I was swept away in a stream that became a flood, and I mean that literally and figuratively.

I haven’t been blogging and only recently got back into my writing groove.

My husband had some health issues with his heart for which he was hospitalized. He went to see his cardiologist and they admitted him that day. It was all very frightening and sudden, but he got the absolute best of care. I spent nine days holding down my day job, visiting him in the hospital, and doing all the things I do in addition to all the things he does. My daughter was an absolute lifesaver for me. She stayed with me and picked up all the slack. I don’t know what I would have done without her and my sister-in-law. I’m so very lucky to have them both in my life.

While my husband was in the hospital, Hurricane Florence decided to visit. We’re far enough inland that we’re usually safe; but on Wednesday of last week, NOAA predicted a Category 4 hurricane. A Category 4 will produce high winds for us, even as far west as we are, and although it’s usually downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it arrives here, those winds can be fierce, especially when you’re living in a rural are with a lot of trees. When we lose power, we lose our well, which leads me to the next part of this story …

Needless to say that my stress levels were somewhat higher than normal. Let’s all recall that I’m a little high strung in the first place. So when I went to the grocery store and saw all of the bottled water had been sold, I had a mini-breakdown on the aisle. I eventually managed to score some bottled water. I panicked and purchased about six cases. We’re good on bottled water, thank you.

By the time my day ended at 8:00 p.m. each evening, I was so exhausted that I fell into the bed and died until it was time to get up and do it all over again. My husband’s cardiologist is wonderful. He did all the right things, so now I have my husband back home again. Florence was evil, but we weren’t affected with anything other than some blustery weather and rain.

The first part of September was wild, and there is still a couple of weeks left, but I’m sort of hoping that it’s a case of in like a lion and out like a lamb. I’m so happy to have my husband home and feeling so much better. We’re making some lifestyle changes that will benefit us both.

I’ve finally had a chance to see Black Panther. It is a wonderful movie filled with all of the things I love: a nuanced villain, wonderful acting, a clear recognition of history and how it affects our lives, and a wonderful theme. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, check it out.

Sea.jpg

I also had the opportunity to read an advanced copy of John Hornor Jacobs’ new novella, The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, which is due to be published on October 30.

It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure to read such a cerebral work of cosmic horror. The last time I enjoyed a horror novella this much, I was reading Stephen King’s 1922.

In Jacobs’ novella, Isabel meets a fellow ex-pat, who is simply known as the Eye. When the Eye receives a mysterious note, he returns to their homeland and leaves Isabel in charge of his apartment. There, she finds that the Eye is none other than the reviled poet, Rafael Avendaño.

As Isabel reads the manuscripts the poet has left behind, I was immersed into a creeping sense of dread that intensified with every page. Like Isabel, I was drawn into the terror of Avendaño's life during the military coup that left him maimed in body and soul. And behind the coup, seen only by Avendaño, is an ancient horror that Jacobs reveals by masterfully stripping away one layer of reality after another.

Equal turns poetic and hypnotic, Jacobs resurrects the surreal imagery of Jorge Louis Borges and couples it with visceral prose that cuts to the bone.

It gave me nightmares.

Needless to say, I loved it, and I send it your way highly recommended. Pre-order it if you can so it drops into your magical device just in time for Halloween.

So that is what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been. I’ve also been reading Pitch Wars entries and having to make some hard choices. Everyone who submitted to me is talented is so many different ways.

On Monday of this week, I got my page proofs for Where Oblivion Lives. They get the priority, because deadlines. I’m also working on the next Los Nefilim novel, Carved from Stone and Dream. After many false starts, the story is beginning to take shape.

I can also now confirm that I will be a guest at MystiCon (February 22-24, 2019) in Roanoke, Virginia! That’s really exciting for me. I’ve been wanting to attend this con for quite some time, so I’m looking forward to being a part of their program.

I’ll also be attending World Fantasy Con in Baltimore this November, so watch for me there. As always, take care. I’ll be around.

Watch for me.

short story cover reveal ...

I'm still hammering out a few details, but I wanted to show you the cover art for a short story project that I'm working on. The cover was designed by John Hornor Jacobs and I'm thrilled with it:

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Sometime within the coming weeks, I will have something very cool for all of you, so stay tuned ...