Even the Old Ones Get the Blues: An Interview with John Hornor Jacobs
By Molly Tanzer
31 October 2011
As mutable, many-faced, flexible, ever-changing, enduring, and all-encompassing as the deities which appear in it, Lovecraftian fiction is a genre unto itself—though, of course, it has quite a bit of overlap with others. Like politics, affection for Lovecraftiana makes strange bedfellows: A well-rounded anthology of "Lovecraftian" fiction should contain stories set in a variety of fascinating times and places; it should take readers into the minds and madnesses of a host of interesting characters. While Lovecraft himself might have focused on the male, the academic, the white, and the privileged, the fiction his Mythos has inspired has been populated with characters as diverse as those who make up his enduring readership, and with as varied tastes and interests. For example, other than Cthulhu himself, there are few points of comparison among the jolly chant-happy cultists found in one of the chapters of Jonathan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the bleak Cold War-era spooks in Charles Stross's "A Colder War," and the wild and dreamy Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsburg of Nick Mamatas's Move Under Ground. But all, through invoking Lovecraft's Mythos, tap into notions of insanity, unknowable intelligences as ancient as they are uncaring, and the limited potential of humankind in the face of such.
Enter John Hornor Jacobs with his debut novel, Southern Gods. Set in rural post-WWII Arkansas, Southern Gods has a little bit of everything: pulp thrills, Lovecraftian-style madness, orgies, blues music, kissing, and spooky river boats, all of which Jacobs fuses together into a southern Gothic novel as fast-paced as any modern horror flick. Southern Gods puts elder deities into juxtaposition with magnolia groves thick with peafowl; the Necronomicon with R&B. It offers a portrait of human goodness in a time of vitriolic racism. Its scope is as broad as the mind behind it, and in this interview Mr. Jacobs was kind enough to chat with me about a variety of subjects: the elements of a good genre mashup, the classics, writing about what really scares us, and books his dad recommended to him.
Molly Tanzer: Southern Gods artfully fuses elements of the Southern Gothic with Lovecraftian horror, and the execution shows your deep affection for both traditions. If you had to make a series of recommendations for the uninitiated out of both canons, what would be your go-to texts, and why?
John Hornor Jacobs: Hmm. I'd say that if you enjoy Southern literature—which is often considered "gothic" because of the air of decay, the natural grotesquery of living in the rural south, its themes, and the preponderance of family issues—you can't go wrong with reading William Faulkner. Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams all address these issues as well, but I think Faulkner casts the longest shadow.
MT: As I Lay Dying was always my favorite Faulkner.
JHJ: I enjoyed it, but it's not one of my favorites. Parts are a little precious, like the chapter "My mother is a fish." My favorite Faulkner books are Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, Go Down Moses, Sanctuary, The Reivers. Pretty much in that order.
MT: I think for me it was the genre-ish component. I was a tough sell with things considered to be "literature" in high school.
JHJ: Right. I like how As I Lay Dying ties into Absalom, Absalom with the Quentin Compson story, and the confluence of some of the themes.
MT: What about Lovecraftian fiction?
JHJ: As for the essentials in that tradition, I would say Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness are absolutely essential. Beyond Lovecraft himself, I would say that T. E. D. Kline's The Ceremonies and his short story collection Dark Gods are a must. I would also like to add that the long out of print collection of Michael McDowell's Blackwater series was a huge influence on the writing of Southern Gods.
But I'll tell you a little secret. I'm not an expert in the Lovecraft lexicon. There are authors—guys like Joe Pulver, W. H. Pugmire, and S. T. Joshi—who have encyclopedic knowledge of his fiction, and the traditions he carried forward from people like Robert Chambers and Ambrose Bierce. I am more of a dilettante of weird fiction.
MT: What sort of weird fiction inspires your dilettantism?
JHJ: I've enjoyed some weird western comics, like Cullen Bunn's The Sixth Gun. I like most horror and fantasy. And I really enjoy genre blends.
I just received two of China Miéville's novels, The Scar and The City and The City. But I have problems with his writing. I tried for months to finish Perdido Street Station—I found it had some excellent and exciting imagery—but the constant barrage of $64 words started to become laughable and the story was sluggish. But I'm going back in. Everyone is proclaiming his genius and I'll be damned if I'm not gonna get through one of his books and form my own opinion.
Other than that, my new favorite "weird" writer is Norman Mailer. Some of his work, like An American Dream, is utterly bizarre. Or Ancient Evenings, or The Castle in the Forest. That man had experimented with some acid, or something.
MT: You said you enjoyed genre blends. What do you think makes a quality genre fusion?
JHJ: I think a respect of the genres is necessary. You can't write a crime/fantasy without respecting the readers, the tropes and conventions, of all the components. It's a matter of loving the peanut butter and the chocolate. Otherwise it can become a little contrived and insincere.
MT: Discussion of R&B and blues music infuses the first half of Southern Gods. What music were you listening to when you were writing?
JHJ: Well, I used Robert Johnson as a starting point for Ramblin' John Hastur but quickly parted ways. Ramblin' John's music would sound more like penitentiary field hollers as recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress back in the '30s and '40s. The album is called Negro Prison Blues and Songs. You can listen to those tracks online (if you have a Spotify account).
But if I'm listening to blues for pleasure, there's only three that really get me, every time. The holy trinity of blues is Muddy Waters, Albert King, and Howling Wolf. There are countless other of note, but those are the big three for me.
MT: I'm curious, do you write about the stuff that really scares you? Much of the horror in the Lovecraftian canon isn't necessarily so much "scary" as, perhaps, cosmically awful.
JHJ: I do write about what scares me. My fears for my children, their safety and well-being, dictated some of the story. Whatever its supernatural origin within the fabric of the novel, most of the evil perpetrated in Southern Gods is one human committing it against another.
MT: I'm more frightened by "people on people" horror, too. Getting torn apart by a werewolf would suck, but on some level it's less believable than someone you know and love just snapping and stabbing you to death.
JHJ: Right. While Southern Gods is a horror novel, and there are supernatural shenanigans occurring all around—and to—the protagonists, it's all done through human agents, and for very human reasons. I tried to keep the camera on the human drama and not delve too deep into supernatural going-on. Like in the prologue, the black entity—the erlkönig or Hastur or whatever—makes a bargain with the dying boy and he kills his family. And later, even with the "infernal" music of Ramblin' John, it's really a force, a magic, a glamour—whatever—that brings out the basest human emotions, rage and lust and hatred.
MT: I think humans hurting other humans is a theme in your short story in The Book of Cthulhu too.
JHJ: Yes, I guess it is.
MT: I personally think that part of Lovecraftian fiction is the scariest—that people will do horrible things for the sake of what they believe or what others tell them is right or fitting.
JHJ: That's the scary part to me. The terror of religious fervor. The Cthulhulian horrors, tentacled madness—all that stuff—is just a little bit too removed from reality for me to be scary. I like the idea that some god's visage could drive all sanity from you, but that's not really scary to me. The idea that someone could steal your child or loved one and sacrifice them to said god . . . that's terrifying.
MT: I'd like to go back to what you were saying about Ramblin' John Hastur's music, that it's a force which brings out the basest human emotions. That was an actual fear surrounding the "influence" of blues music at that time, wasn't it?
JHJ: Which got transferred to rock and roll about four years after the events of this book. The "boogie-woogie" or "rock-n-roll" were both euphemisms for sex in the black communities and that terrified the sanitized white populace of the South. If they were even aware of those connotations. But all you had to do was listen to the deep rhythms of the blues and soul to feel the sexual intimations. They're pretty obvious.
MT: Is Hastur your "favorite" eldritch deity?
JHJ: No, my favorite "old god" is Mithras, a real object of worship, not a Lovecraftian creation, so maybe he's not eldritchy enough for you. There's not much known about Mithras. He was a god of the Roman legions, imported to Rome from campaigns in Persia. Much is obscure about his origins and worship. But the dearth of information regarding Mithras's aspect and worship actually worked in my favor in the writing of Southern Gods. I don't know how much I can say without spoiling the ending.
MT: Have you read Mary Stewart's Merlin series? There's some good stuff about Mithras in there.
JHJ: I read The Crystal Cave when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I think, but honestly, I don't recall the Mithras aspect of it. I became aware of Mithras while reading Colleen McCollough's Masters of Rome series, her epic story of the end of the Roman Republic. It was mentioned that Mithras was a soldier's deity and I liked that idea that certain professions had a predilection towards certain gods. I love those books. But I also love Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in Vespasian Rome, and Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder books.
MT: I admit the Classical touch towards the end of Southern Gods was unexpected, though not unwelcome. What's your relationship with the Greco-Roman literature and myth?
JHJ: I took Latin and Greek in high school, and we'd translate passages of Herodotus and Ovid. My father gave me the Masters of Rome series for Christmas. Much of my reading taste comes from my father.
MT: Mine, too. Though he and I will always argue about the readability of the Dune chronicles after the first one.
JHJ: Ha! My dad gave me Dune to read, but followed it up with, "Don't bother reading any of the crap after this one," which is pretty much the opinion he has of The Silmarillion as well. He also gave me the Harry Potter books and told me I needed to take off a couple of days from work.
MT: Just as an aside, have you seen Wizard People?
JHJ: Yes! Brad Neely is a comedic god. I love his cartoons. Little known fact: he's originally from Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Of course, he left because (almost) everyone with talent leaves Arkansas. Brain drain.
MT: Speaking of, I was struck multiple times by the beauty of your descriptions of Arkansas. What compelled you to set your novel there?
JHJ: I'm from Arkansas and I have an intense love for my state even though I have some problems with our heritage and culture. It's a lush and beautiful land, if you can get past some of its uncomfortableness. Seriously, the mosquitoes and the heat and the snakes can suck it. (The mosquitoes, quite literally.)
But seriously, in my descriptions of Arkansas, I try to convey some of the decay, the innate corruptness of the human experience in the South. Even here, in Little Rock in 2011, the social stratification that existed in the 1950s still exists. It's kinda fucked up. And I have an accretion of guilt that I grew up in a family more like Sarah Rheinhart's than . . . well . . . otherwise.
I didn't address the racial issues and tensions of the South in 1951, and in almost every scene it was the elephant in the room. If I wasn't such a coward I probably would've addressed it head-on. But then, it would've been a totally different book.
MT: Coward! That's an interesting choice of words.
JHJ: It was partly an issue of focus, partly an issue of wanting the book to be successful, so in some ways, I shied away from dealing with the reality of the situation. I wrote "modern" characters in black roles because I didn't want to seem racist—which in some ways was a cowardice. Honestly. For example, both Rabbit and Alice and even Alice's mother are far more liberated and strong characters than the oppressive 1950s South would allow them to be. Unless they became some sort of Nat Turner-like characters, vengeful, and that's a can of worms I didn't need to open. I could've really addressed that issue, and I only did it in the most glancing fashion.
MT: There's been some discussion in the community of "modern" characters in historical fiction, how to negotiate with that.
JHJ: I must've missed that discussion, because I had to wing it. I tried to write all the characters as honest, strong, believable.
MT: Those of us who grew up in the south know from weird, whether it's catching sight of something not quite right running through fields full of lightning bugs on a dark night, or weird stuff washing up on the shoreline of South Carolina or the banks of the Mississippi. What's your spookiest Arkansas story? I know you've gotta have one.
JHJ: Well, I don't have anything from waking life. But I did have a series of horrible nightmares growing up—like, nightmares so bad my folks had to take me to get an MRI because they worried I was, I don't know, tumored or crazy or demented or something.
We have this rickety old lake house called Rob-Bell and the land it is on has been in the family since the mid-1800s. The lake house itself was built in 1928, the year after the great flood. When I was a kid, my parents would always put us to bed on the "sleeping porch" —a screened in porch with single beds—which was a very common thing from the fifties to the seventies. There was no air-conditioning, but at the foot of each bed stood a box fan and that sufficed. It had to. It amazes me what kids can endure and not even bat an eye.
Anyway, one summer, I kept having this horrible recurring dream where, in the dream-reality, my parents would ask me to get something from the attic above the sleeping porch. Except, there was no attic above the sleeping porch. In the dream, I would look above my bed and there was a string that attached to an attic door. How did I miss that in all the nights I slept below it, sweating through my sheets?
So I open the attic door with a creak and unfold the stairs and look up. It's totally pitch black in the opening. I really don't want to go up there. But my dad is watching me from the doorway and he's furious that I'm balking, I can see it on his face, and for the moment I'm more scared of him than I am of the darkness waiting above. So I take each step until I'm standing in the attic that doesn't really exist and the darkness pushes in from all sides. I've got my hands above my head trying to find the string to light the single bulb—because all attics have that one bulb with a draw-string—and finally my hand finds it and pulls. The attic is illuminated.
I don't think I want to tell you the rest. What I saw. What would cause me to wake up, screaming. Either your heart will stop or you'll think me a gigantic sissy.
MT: Aw, well, to prevent heart attacks and preserve your honor, just tell us what's next for you?
JHJ: I have a post-apocalyptic zombie/nuclear war novel called This Dark Earth coming out next year from Simon & Schuster's Gallery imprint. Beyond that, I have a young adult novel called The Twelve Fingered Boy being published by Carolrhoda Labs, new YA imprint of Lerner Publishing. Carolrhoda has been publishing children's books for the last fifty years and is making its push into YA. The Twelve Fingered Boy is the first of a trilogy. I'm currently working on Incarcerado, the second novel in that series. Turns out, I'll have books coming out for the next four years, and beyond, hopefully.
I also have a manuscript about to go out called The Incorruptibles. It's an alternate Roman history/western/demonpunk fantasy. Yeah, all that. But I'm really proud of it and hope it goes to a good home.