Review: “A Lush and Seething Hell,” John Horner Jacobs

Pros: Deliciously eerie
Cons: Slow
Rating: 4 out of 5

John Horner Jacobs brings us A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. It includes two novellas/short novels, both in the vein of cosmic horror. In “The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky,” poetry lecturer Isabel Certa meets a famous poet called simply “The Eye” (he wears an eyepatch). The two are both from a country called Magera, but they’re living in Spain. When The Eye has to go back to Magera for a time–not a wise choice, given the political situation there–he pays Isabel to house-watch for him. There she discovers that he’s been translating an old and mysterious manuscript. Since she’s a better translator than he is, she starts to do the translation as well, while also reading the manuscript he’s written about his experiences translating the manuscript. It’s clear that he had some very odd experiences while working on the manuscript, and she starts to have them as well.

In the second story, “My Heart Struck Sorrow,” Cromwell is a man who works at the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, collecting and documenting folk music. He has just lost his wife and child, and has distanced himself from his lover. He is sent with a coworker, Hattie, to examine a bequest they’ve received. They find a number of old acetate recordings along with the journal of the man who collected them. He seemed obsessed with finding rumored extra verses of “Stagger Lee,” and his experiences on the road become stranger and stranger. Some of his recordings, too, are equally bizarre.

Both stories, obviously, deal with found manuscripts and hallucinatory weirdness. I found both stories slow to start and had trouble getting into them. It’ll depend on your taste as a reader–many readers are fine having the setting slowly detailed before starting to get to anything unusual. I tend to prefer my genre trappings a little more up-front and center. It’s up to you whether this book is likely to appeal to you in that area. Certainly those parts of the book are quite well-written.

The characters are really interesting. I’m not entirely fond of some of them (I really didn’t like Cromwell much, for example), but they have a fair amount of depth and interest to them. I would have liked a bit more of Hattie in the second book; she just seemed like a more intriguing character.

I loved the creepiness factor once it crept in! I was glued to the page as soon as things got weird. Jacobs’ treatment of the bizarre is wonderful–it slips in and grabs hold of you before you know what’s happening. I did think the end of the first story was a little abrupt, but it was still good. All in all this is a great book.

Content note for racism, torture, and sexual content. The second story mostly takes place (via the manuscript) in 1938 in the American South, so there’s a whole lot of racial tension.

There are no endings, just beginnings.

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