Light spoilers in this review. Deal with it.
The Lovecraft Mythos has ground itself deeply into our modern fairy tales and horror stories. Sometimes it’s subtle and not directly mentioned. But some modern stories have Lovecraft as the centerpiece. Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs does the latter. The story takes place in the early 1950s, starting in Memphis and then shambling over to rural Arkansas.
The main problem is that of a pirate radio station, changing frequencies and locations. On this station, dreadful music is played. The musician is mysterious bluesman, Ramblin’ John Hastur. Listening to his music will incite deep hatred and despair within you, causing you to claw at your face and murder.
Because of the setting, race played a major part in this story. The deep south in the early 50s was not a pleasant place to be if you were black. Jacobs does a good job of making sure that even though the main characters are white, the people of the south are not whitewashed. They were real – not caricatures – and you felt the history of struggle that had soaked into the soil of the south.
The 50s were also not a good time to be a woman. Again, Jacobs does an admirable job portraying female characters (in fact one of the two main characters is a woman). Being a guy, I couldn’t say how true or accurate the character really was. Still, everything I read rung true to me.
There are two main characters that begin the story having nothing to do with each other and no reason to know each other. By the end, they team up, miraculously being the only ones who have a chance at beating the baddie. The circumstances of the team-up struck me as a convenient Deus Ex Machina setup. I’m not particularly fond of ridiculously convenient and contrived-feeling plot devices. But after some discussion with my local Lovecraft expert, I was reminded that such things were normal in the world of that Mythos. There is an invisible hand guiding the lives of miserable peons (not unlike the invisible hand of the free market, god of libertarians), creating circumstances in which they will shine and work the will of the gods.
Another of my potential problems with the story is a secondary character that seems so out of place (and almost unnecessary) that no amount of explaining and hand-waving could make me believe it. I think that he was just invented to try to broaden the scope of the horror and setting of the story. It seemed artificial to me, but it wasn’t too distracting in the end.
Southern Gods is a story that takes a while to take off, but when it does, it gets terrifying. I rarely get frightened by anything. But this book evoked frightening images and situations so intense that I had to occasionally put the book down and come back to it later for when I was ready. It’s an intense story. If you don’t like horror movies or horror stories, you won’t like this book. But, if you’re like me, you just can’t get enough of the stuff.
Being an American, I’ve obviously been affected by the very American trope of “every story has a happy ending,” especially in movies. But in my recent readings, I’ve been pleased to encounter more stories with realistic endings. Not simply happy. This book is no different. Nobody comes out of this story unscarred.
I liked this story. I’ll be picking up more books by John Hornor Jacobs, like The Twelve-Fingered Boy. I suggest you read Southern Gods if you’re a Lovecraft horror story fan like me.