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Southern Gods – review

January 13, 2012

He nailed it. That’s my take on John Horner Jacobs’ novel Southern Gods. He f*cking nailed it.

There are two main characters here. First we’ve got Bull Ingram, a WWII vet dispatched to find the secretive, strange musician broadcasting his devil music from some unknown pirate radio station in the murky American south; second is Sarah, fresh from leaving her deadbeat husband she returns home with her daughter and rediscovers her family’s past. Yeah-yeah, but what’s it about?

A lot of strange stuff happens in Southern Gods from terrific access to the southern culture of backwoods Arkansas in the 1950’s to a supernatural horror and violence that sets the bar high for modern Lovecraft-interpretation. While none of it is cutesy and some of it is gross I have to say I am impressed that the violence is not gratuitous. Jacobs uses those opportunities to explore deeper emotional pains for his characters. Ingram, who survived the war, is dragged through a madness more horrible than any mere boogie-man, and Sarah has the curtain pulled back on some hard truths and in some ways has the more interesting journey of learning how to stand on her own two feet. Both of these characters get through it–if you can call it that–not because they are tough but because they just haven’t given up, not yet. So then I guess if you’re the kind of person who wants to pigeon-hole a novel by asking, What’s it about, then the answer you deserve is probably: Hope.

It’s a dark novel about hope, about putting one foot in front of the other. But reading this novel is also like taking a vacation into the hot deep south. Jacobs writes about place as lovingly as he writes about people. He’s got chops, no doubt about it. He’s got a solid handle on the hardboiled genre and Southern Gods proves he knows how to bring a little Cthulhu into the modern world.

What I find particularly interesting about Southern Gods is also something of an embarrassment to admit. You see, I just graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University. For my thesis I wrote a novel, a hardboiled Cthulhu novel set in 1905 Portland. My book’s antagonist is built from some of the same source material Jacobs uses and frankly there are similarities. They’re totally different books, totally different characters, but I saw enough similarities that I was a bit crestfallen at how well Jacobs accomplished his story. Not daunted, just impressed, especially since I’m creating a similar tapestry.

In my review of Jacobs’ short story The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife I mentioned that he first caught my attention when he contributed to The Big Idea. Look for his second novel coming out in summer 2012, This Dark Earth.

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