‘Southern Gods’: Cthulhu sings the blues

John Horner Jacobs in his debut book Southern Gods lets us into a little known fact: Cthulhu is a blues fan. I’ve read traditional horror, I’ve read H.P. Lovecraft and I’ve listened to the blues. Never, however, I have seen all three whipped into one disturbing dish. The book was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a first novel.

However, I was willing to give it a try. So, I cranked up my Sonny Rhodes Station on Pandora and settled down to read.

While Stephen King and Lovecraft has demonstrated, over and over again, that New England is scary and perhaps those damned Puritans brought something really evil with them from Europe, the South is no bed of roses either. Edgar Allen Poe showed how scary the South is as did Robert E. Howard with his classic Pigeons From Hell.

Marvin Kay explained it best in his anthology, Haunted America “New England’s ghost stories principally were moral parables, while faintly iconoclastic laughter rang in the East, but may of the eerie tales (of the South) bear the stamp of verisimilitude, and  anyone who has traveled through the Southern United States will understand why- for preternatural foreboding lurks in the lush, dismal bayous of Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, while the lonely mountains ridges, secret forests and fresh running stream of the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee seem to hide dark mysteries in their shut-away splendor.”

My grandmother lived in the back hills of Louisiana in a four room shack. Let me tell you,  in those secluded hills, you could well believe that ghosts, monsters and other horrors stalked the night. It didn’t help that granny was superstitious as all get out. She’d sleep with a 38 across her chest and periodically wake up saying “Did you hear that?” Fun times.

So when I say that Southern Gods was reminded me of visiting my granny, I don’t mean it in a good way.

The books takes place in 1950. Bull Ingram, who fought in the Pacific theater is living in Memphis. He does work finding people and sometimes convincing them of the wisdom of paying their debts. Sam Phelps, who runs a record company selling this new music, the Blues, hires Bull to find a wayward salesman/PR man, Early Freeman. Early makes the circuit of the small radio stations handing out sample records. He went missing in Arkansas. “I sent Early out with a box of these here forty-fives and two grand to hit as many stations as he can. Now, he’s two weeks late getting back and his wife hasn’t heard from him for at least ten days. I’m out a good man and two thousand dollars.”

Phelps also tells Bull that he had Early also looking for a new Blues man named Rambling John Hastur. A pirate radio station has been irregularly broadcasting and playing Hastur’s music. Phelps played some for Bull. “The chanting continue, Ingram clenching his fists, grinding his jaw. He reached for his glass and downed the whiskey. He felt like the only way to make this feeling go away was kill. Phelps or himself, it didn’t really matter.”

Astute scholars of the Necromonicon will have recognized the name of this blues man. However, let Lovecraft explain it from the Whisperer in the Darkness, “There is a whole secret cult of evil men (a man of your mystical erudition will understand me when I link them with Hastur and the Yellow Sign) devoted to the purpose of tracking [elder gods] down and injuring them on behalf of the monstrous powers from other dimensions.”

Bull goes off to the wilds of Arkansas to find Early and Hastur.

Meanwhile Sarah Williams, nee Rheinhart, has left her husband back East, and has taken her daughter Franny back to the family plantation. Her mother in the long process of dying. Unpleasant when well, mother Rheinhart has become worse as the ends draws near.  The bright spot in the house is Alice, Sarah’s childhood friend, and now housekeeper.

Alice is the one false note in the book. She is the wise African-American servant-slash-friend who is closer to the mystical world.  She is strong, smart and without her Sarah would not be able to cope with the destruction of her marriage. But, not only is this a rather cliche character,  is demeaning.

Other than that, the book is a credible and fun dive into the Cthulhu mythos. Jacobs does not jump into the deep end, rather, like a languid Southern summer day, he take his time to bring the dark gods into play. However, things take a turn for the weird when he hits a backwoods blues radio station. The owner is dead on the floor, and a record on the turntable has played to the end. The record is badly scratched as if someone has racked the needle across it. When Bull moves the needle to an undamaged section, Hastur’s disturbing song is played. Even more disturbingly, the dead man rises.

Sarah meanwhile is trying to cope with the breakup of her marriage and her mother’s impending death. Franny is enjoying herself playing with Alice’s children, while Sarah tries to literally hold on to her little girl like a life preserver in the maelstrom of her life. In the plantation house’s old library, intermixed with the classics are some old and odd tomes in Latin.  Trying to divert her mind, Sarah tries to translate one work. When it becomes too difficult she locates a priest, to see if he’ll help her.

Sure, we can all see where this is going. But, that’s part of the fun.

Jacobs has done a credible job of bringing out the inherent horror to be found in the backwoods and byways of the South. The merger of Blues and Cthulhu was smart and a nice touch. I’m sure the old boy was tired of showing up in New England, the South Pole and the oceans and appreciated the lazy warmth of  a hot Southern night.