Review: Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

Southern Gods is the debut horror novel by John Hornor Jacobs. It’s also a well crafted piece of historical fiction set in the 1950s, and it was recently in the running for the 2011 Stoker award for best first horror novel. Part Lovecraft, part noir, the story centers on Bull Ingram, a WWII veteran haunted by the war who finds work as a private investigator and muscle man for hire.

The writing is sharp, the historical era, southern gothic setting, and characters all gracefully drawn with detail and atmosphere that never feels overburdened with description, even though one of the things I enjoyed about Jacobs’ prose is the touch of poetry that suffuses the narrative.

The tale moves along at a brisk pace with a gripping opening section, and it didn’t take long for me to care about the characters. As Bull pursues Ramblin’ John Hastur, a mysterious Blues Man, into the delta swamps we are with him on the trail of a singer whose music has the power to drive people insane with murderous rage. It’s a wonderfully harrowing premise that leads to some great scenes of confrontation with zombies who have been victims of the hellish music, and Hornor (also a guitarist) writes about music with authenticity and passion.

As the plot develops, an Elder Gods mythos comes into play. For me this cranked up the cool factor at first, but when these elements are explored in a couple of dialogue scenes with a priest, the story lapses into a bit of info dump. Nothing wrong with a nod to Lovecraft in my opinion, but I ultimately felt that the story could have been told without borrowing anything. At times the Lovecraft references feel like little more than atmospheric name dropping mingled with historical mythology. That said, I do love the way Jacobs handles the Necronomicon, and how Bull Ingram is tied to the bull god Mithras in some wonderfully magical scenes.

Jacobs is especially gifted with dialogue. The voices, wit and grit of his characters often carry the story, and you never have to go for long without good line.

It’s a little daunting that this is a first novel when you consider how good the writing is. It’s clear that the author has read a lot of great southern authors, and is to some extent paying tribute to them here as well as to Lovecraft. I suspect that as Jacobs develops his style in future books, he will only improve with greater use of subtlety.

But this is a horror novel and there are places where it should be anything but subtle. Southern Gods delivers some real shocks, especially in the climax.

I will avoid spoilers here, but I have to say that long after finishing the book, I still don’t know how I feel about the ending. In fact, I’ve put off writing this review hoping that my feelings about it would cohere, but I still have strong mixed reactions. Maybe that’s a good thing. On the one hand it feels like the author wants to have his cake and eat it too, but on the other, he does stay true to the rules established at the outset. There’s some truly horrific stuff at the climax, enough to make me a little uncomfortable, but it is a horror novel, and Southern Gods, like its protagonist, pulls no punches.

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