A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs

Horses die. Men die. Mothers, brothers, sisters. We live down in the mud and there we run the course of our lives with very little hope of an end to our pain, or a release once the pain is gone. Our lives spin out, unraveling, and we have to live them.

This is not a comfortable book. It is brutal. It is often gory. It is violent, torturous, and painful. It is not palatable. And yet, A Lush and Seething Hell is perhaps one of the most polished and seamless books I have read. As Chuck Wendig put it in the foreword, “his magic tricks remain pure fucking magic. These murder ballads are ones we have not heard before.” I cannot find it in myself to disagree with him. When I review a book, I tend to pick it apart to see what makes it tick. Then, I reduce it down into a format that will give a reader a good idea as to the tone and content of the book while also allowing some of my own biases and voice to come through. I fail to pick this book apart. I fail to see the specific gears that make it tick, though I can certainly see the hands turning and hear the bells chiming.

A Lush and Seething Hell is a duology of two novellas, The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, the latter being closer to a novel in length. However, neither of these two books feel like novellas. It is shocking to think back and realize how short they actually were. It is an illusion, a conceit, but never a façade. They are so well-crafted that they have the feel of length due to their depth. They are two very different stories, yet they complement one another perfectly. The expectations set up in the first novella are subverted and twisted in unexpected ways, almost a sucker punch to the reader. 

-The Sea Dreams it is the Sky-

A thousand voices caromed in my head. From such a remove, I can see now it was just the tugging of the flesh, trying to find something to grasp onto to protect itself, the quivers of an organism in distress sorting through experience and conditioning.

My life up until then was just a fabric of verse and poems. 

Now my life was no longer mine.

While reading The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, I found myself searching online repeatedly for the country of “Magera,” located somewhere in South America. This country is fictional, and I suspected as much while reading and due to the futility of my online searches… and yet, I doubted myself. This felt real. This felt like a country that ought to exist. And, perhaps, in a way it did exist – only to slip down a voracious, toothy gullet that had been coaxed open with a surfeit of human suffering and cruelty. 

The book opens on two refugees from Magera who chance to meet in Málaga, Spain. Isabel, a teacher at the university nearby, develops a strange friendship with the one-eyed and once-famous poet, Rafael Avendaño, now also known as The Eye. Isabel initially finds Avendaño to be quite off-putting: he is misogynistic, often rude, and overall incredibly rough around the edges. Even so, she finds herself drawn to him as a curiosity in her otherwise predictable world. When Avendaño departs from Málaga to return to Magera, he leaves his home and all its contents in Isabel’s care… along with the request that she ensure to always feed the cat, for her own protection. 

I could not say I liked The Eye. I think I disliked him the way one dislikes a cousin or uncle. But he was interesting. And so familiar. We agreed on a meeting time. 

He stood, drained his coffee to its dregs. “I will be up all night now,” he said. He placed far too much money on the table. When I indicated it was ten times his share, he said, “Go, buy yourself a book. I’ve enough to spare. Allow me to spend my money on young women in ways that won’t get me chased out of town.”

Avendaño’s home is younger than his years, a den of sin and gluttony. The beds are large, hung with colorful fabrics, decadent. It is the home of a young man in his prime, intent upon woo-ing women, and living large in all respects. Isabel takes full advantage at first, bringing her own lover, Claudia, over to the home where they enjoy themselves thoroughly. When she begins to dig deeper into just what Avendaño was doing here in Málaga, however, she uncovers a manuscript he had been working on titled Below, Between, Beneath, Beyond. This manuscript details his work on a translation of a book called Opusculus Noctis, which he titles A Little Night Work, during the fascist takeover of Magera. Thoughts of this book creep through Isabel’s mind, both waking and dreaming, and ultimately, she follows Avendaño back to Magera to discover the truth. 

[Claudia] stubbed out her cigarette and rose. She looked in the fridge. “Did you get tomato juice?” Something about the question irked me. There had been no thanks from her, for anything. The breakfast. The date. The lovemaking – not that I demand assurances. But she was ungracious. 

“I think you should go,” I said. “I’ve got work to do here.”

She turned to look at me, incredulous. I ignored her, picking up the manuscript of Below, Between, Beneath, Beyond. “Okay,” she said. She disappeared into the Eye’s bedroom. When she emerged, she had her purse and was putting on her earrings. “See you at school,” she said, and left unceremoniously. 

I sighed. I felt as if a great weight had lifted. Surely, Sartre had it right. Hell is other people. I found myself holding Avendaño’s secret manuscript. 

I opened it and began to read.

After Isabel leaves for Magera, the surreal, Lovecraftian elements begin to seep into the narrative. They take root, forming fruiting bodies within the text. The spores release and the reader breathes them in, becoming a host in turn to the ideas within the pages. The normal becomes the uncanny. The uncanny becomes the surreal. The surreal becomes horror. The horror becomes intolerable. The intolerable must be plucked from the host. So it goes. Isabel is pushed further than she realized she could go – she is transfigured by her own hand. She encounters death. She is an animal. She is death. Death permeates, and that which is beyond death clutches at her. 

And as Isabel pulls through to the conclusion – hers and Avendaño’s – the reader is not left dissatisfied. Lovecraftian horror too often becomes overly ambiguous and surreal. Jacobs walks the tightrope between the cosmic and the mundane, bringing the reader to a close that feels just strange and uncanny enough to satisfy without being overly opaque and impossible to parse. The prose is both purple and clipped simultaneously, creating a tone that transports you into the lush, seething hells of Magera’s dictatorship. The Sea Dreams it is the Sky hovers in the liminal spaces, lurking at the edges of your vision.  

-My Heart Struck Sorrow-

Come think on death and judgment,

Your words have all been said,

A soldier home from warring,

His hands and heart stained red.

No water flows will clean you

No ocean wash away

The stain that now corrodes you

Until your dying day.

My Heart Struck Sorrow takes a sharp turn from the subject matter of The Sea Dreams it is the Sky. Where the former was set in Spain and Latin America, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a tale woven from the fabric of North America, the United States. This is a story of Southern Devils, of the hell that exists in the hearts of men and women. A story of racism, sexism, discriminations large and small, present and past; a story of the sheer disregard we hold for our fellows. 

The book follows Cromwell, a middle-aged white man working for the Library of Congress examining folk songs. He is not a good man. While it is revealed early on that he has recently lost his wife and son, snatching a morsel of sympathy from any reader with a heart, it’s also revealed that he’s been involved in a years-long affair with another woman at work. He has justified this to himself, argued for it, even as he recognizes it for the moral failing that it is.

He and his partner, Hattie, are assigned to document the contents of a house that has been left to the Library – former residence of a famous cataloguer of folks tunes, Harlan Parker. In the house, they discover a locked and boarded up room behind a dresser, which contains a myriad of old records and a journal that takes Cromwell back in time through music and old hatreds. Cromwell is enraptured by the story that unfolds in Parker’s journal, quickly developing an obsession with uncovering the truth. Hattie accuses him of taking advantage of historical black music for his own gain, pointing out that his motives have nothing to do with the community that created this music and mythos, but only with the wants and desires of the old white men in charge of his department.

She tilts her head. “It’s a matter of perspective, Crumb. I see this shit for what it really is and you’ve got your blinders on. Ever think that, back in Parker’s day, the mission of the Library was coming from a race-based viewpoint? That these fine, upstanding, woke-as-fuck dudes from 1938 were collecting for the archive, but the archive itself was geared toward a white audience? Academic circles were almost wholly white. And all these fellas would go back from collecting and make the speaking circuit to audiences full of white faces wanting to hear ‘primitive’ music and stories of the proletariat.” Cromwell shrugs. “Whatever else it is, or represented at the time, it’s data, to be interpreted how it’s interpreted. You’re here now.”

As his digging into the journal becomes deeper, the imagery contained within becomes ever more disturbing. He seeks to find the roots of the song “Stagger Lee,” a song about a “bad, bad man” with devilish themes and nightmarish connotations. This song, also titled “Stackolee,” “Stagolee,” and other permutations, becomes a fugue throughout the novella, reappearing time and time again. The refrain, “I am an ocean, a black and churning sea,” follows Cromwell, haunts him. As he comes closer and closer to the conclusion of the journal, his own flaws come to the forefront: he is a sad, pitiful man. The denouement of the novel pulls each piece together to  cast his heart in sharp relief as both his story and the story of Harlan Parker converge.

While this is not a book I would recommend to everyone given its often gruesome and painful content, it is a novella duology that is undeniably a masterpiece. I stood enthralled by his storytelling. It has been polished to a bloody-black gleam, cutting when you are least ready for it.

Thank you to Harper Voyager for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

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