A Lush and Seething Hell is not a novel, but a bind-up of two horror novellas by John Hornor Jacobs, an author who has a proven affinity for surreal scares—his debut, Southern Gods, is a sinister blending of rural Americana and Lovecraftian unease, while the YA-leaning Twelve-Fingered Boy trilogy melds the X-Men and the X-Files as it explores how truly terrible growing up with otherworldly powers wold be. His books are imminently readable but hard to categorize—of the second volume of The Twelve-Fingered Boy, Booklist said it “fits uncomfortably in every box in which you’d try to put it”—but hopefully the transfixing power of this latest work will help him find a wider audience at last.
These are short novels filled with strange wonders and horrifying beauty, inviting you into the depths of Jacobs’ prose alongside the characters, who are likewise falling into unfathomable mysteries. The first story, The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky, follows a young Literature professor in South America as she reads a manuscript on behalf of an enigmatic poet known as The Eye; the work is accompanied by a disturbing set of photographs that ultimately leads her deep into the turmoil at the heart of the fictional country of Magera, and to the borders of something powerful and terrifying. My Heart Struck Sorrow follows another academic, a folklore and music researcher for the Library of Congress tasked with digitizing recordings of Southern music made by his dead predecessor, who encounters a horrifying tale of an ancient evil slipped into a recording of a popular folk song. The stories are linked by the themes of art, obsession, what an act of artistic creation means in the greater context of the world around it, and how often beauty—and terror—are in the eye of the beholder.
Jacobs’ writing has a hypnotic quality; his prose shapes each horrifying event into the next surreal turn in an unending waking nightmare. The supernatural intrudes into the lives of his characters not in the form of tangible monsters so much as sensations of unease— a boiling heat-haze that feeds on suffering and occasionally emits a suggestion of tentacles; the transfixing power of a traditional murder ballad. Even before the horror comes to the fore, the stories are packed with nigh-surreal levels of detail, moments of melancholy grace captured in lonely images: a TV tuned to cable news in a vacant apartment; South American revolutionaries smoking U.S. cigarettes, betraying the vast and insidious reach of their allies. By the time Jacobs stops offering teasing glimpses and shows you the horrors head-on, the sense of wrongness that’s been rising in the background has become a flood: a man named Wilson Cleave, who should not exist as he does; the odd creatures of the “black wall” from beyond Hell.
The interplay between the surreal and the grounded gives the collection its power, if only because the latter proves just as horrible as the former. Both stories are about art in a sense—the way it is shaped by both a larger historical context and by the person experiencing it. While the odd story of Wilson Cleave drives the events of The Sea Dreams…, this emissary of the unknown is only drawn out by the military and political upheaval ongoing in the fictional South American country; as much of the horror comes in the form of the endless clashes between the competing factions in Magera, continuously rolling over the protagonists—that’s even how The Eye and the professorial narrator first meet; each recognizes in the other the scars inflicted by a life of constant strife.
My Heart Struck Sorrow calls out its narrators for the fact that their relative privilege—they are well-off and white—has a lot to do with their fascination with the customs of people they see as “rustic” or “lower” than themselves. The dark history of the ballad “Stagger Lee” underlines the theme of race relations between Blacks and whites, and of the presence of certain legends and spiritualism within that milieu. It’s an interesting spin on the “haunted artwork” story, suggesting that it is their interpretation of the song and its history that leads to the narrators’ brush with the supernatural—the art is only haunted due to the context in which it exists.
A Lush and Seething Hell is a fascinating collective work, considering questions of the power of art and the weight of history via wildly surreal imagery and an unnerving, but still oddly beautiful tone. With a gift for lurid detail and well researched historical reference, Jacobs demands your attention and holds it tight, refusing to let go until the last page turns. For horror fans, certainly, it is an absolute must-read.