I'm a sucker for eldritch horror, no doubt about it. Whether we're talking Lovecraft or Laird Barron or Thomas Ligotti, you can count me in. Add another name to that list: John Hornor Jacobs.
You know what else I'm a sucker for? Novels with a strong sense of place. Whether we're talking Richard Russo or Pat Conroy (let's leave the disappointing South of Broad out of this conversation) or William Faulkner or William Gay, you've got my attention. Add John Hornor Jacobs to that list too.
Southern Gods is the story of Bull Ingram, a World War II vet who makes his money as a hired thug in the early 1950s South. Bull is hired to find a mysterious blues musician named Ramblin John Hastur whose music can raise the dead. But what he ends up finding is something much worse.
In lesser hands, this premise might fall flat on its face. Jacobs, however, runs with it. It helps that he creates fully realized characters in a fully realized place. It helps that he seems to know a lot about the blues, which gives the novel a strangely affecting touchstone to our own world. And it helps that he knows enough to not overdo things when he doesn't have to--a quality severely lacking in the majority of horror novelists.
The only problem Southern Gods has is that the first 3/4 of the novel are too good. A silly problem to point out, I know. But hear me out. The mystery of Ramblin' John is all kinds of cool, and the explanation is only a few kinds of cool. Stephen King seems to have this problem a lot. Terrific, jaw dropping set-up with a really good ending that doesn't quite measure up to the rest of the novel.
Being the armchair novelist that I am, I tried to come up with something better than Jacobs did, and I couldn't. I was left with a number of vague and contradictory half-thoughts. I wish he wouldn't have explicitly ties it to the Cthulhu Mythos. Why? I'm not sure. It seems to have somehow cheapened an otherwise terrific novel. I wish the Cthulhu Mythos would have played a more prominent role. Why? I'm not really sure about that either. Maybe because Southern Gods is so good that it deserves to interact more with Lovecraft's mythos. Maybe I wanted the scope of the last 40 pages to be less personal and more cosmic because, well, the Cthulhu Mythos is all about cosmic terror.
This is a confusing review, I know. Your takeaway (and mine) should be this: John Hornor Jacobs is a really, really good writer. Southern Gods is well worth your time. As a first novel, it stands heads and tails above just about any other horror debut I can think of. And, if Southern Gods is any indication of what Jacobs is capable of, we're all in for a treat when his next novel, This Dark Earth, is released in July.