A Lush And Seething Hell – If This Is Hell I’ll pass On Heaven

91dsajyop2lI am not a religious man. Despite my Catholic upbringing and coming of age in the American midwest, the world of the spiritual has never called out to me. I’ve never felt the rapture of religion or the whisper of the divine. As such, I find myself sorely lacking in vocabulary to describe my experience with A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Comprised of the novellas The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, this “anthology-lite” as I’ve come to think of it is beyond normal description for me. Had I truly submerged myself in the dogma of Catholicism, with its near-magic and incensed ritualism, I might be able to better put into words how these stories affected me. As it is, however, I can only imagine that this is what people who have had spiritual revelations felt like in the aftermath: my nerves are raw and frayed, and I feel as if I have been exposed to something separate from me and all the experience I’ve had up to this point.

I know that sounds rather overwrought and excessive, but so much of this book has infused me and singed the edges of all that I am that there’s no other way to describe it. The book’s cover art slowly wore away from my fingers as I read it, and over the week it took me to read and re-read and really digest the depth and weight of the stories it contained, I would find little black spots on my hands and forearms from the ink wearing away. It was almost as if I was physically consuming the book as I read it. I’ve received and reviewed a decent number of ARCs at this point, and while they’re never quite as well put together physically as a release copy of a book, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I felt personally connected to the stories of Isabel and Cromwell, and felt that I was being marked just as they were by something incomprehensible and vast and somehow more than the paltry world I had experienced to that point. Jacobs uses the phrase “collapsed-time” in both stories to describe the fluidity and lack of form of time when experienced through a period of great pain or emotion, and that is exactly what I felt during my time with the stories. Time as I had known it ceased to act for me in the way it always had, and I felt myself separate from it in a fundamental and indescribable way.

I’m normally more lighthearted in my reviews and take less care in my attempts at mellifluous descriptions and language, but I don’t know that I could review something that I felt so profoundly without all of this extra…everything. I’ve waited to start writing this review for weeks now to see whether the feeling would change or stick with me, and if anything my experience with these stories has grown more profound in retrospect. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a novel or anthology or anything else that will impact me quite the same way. I never have before.

The book begins with The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, a tale about Isabel, an exiled teacher from the made-up South American country of Magera. While the country described in the story is imaginary, the trials and tribulations it undergoes at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported from behind the scenes by the United States are all too based in history. She meets her country’s most famous (or infamous) exiled poet Avendano, who is believed by most to be dead after being captured and tortured by the government. When he tells her that he must return to the country under strange circumstances, he gives her his apartment and access to his unfinished translation of an ancient and obscene text. In the process of continuing the translation she is drawn back to her country to search for Avendano and to try to reconcile what is currently happening to her with what has happened and continues to happen to her country. The story becomes more dreamlike and terrifying as it continues and Isabel is drawn further into the horror that has subsumed her home, horror of cosmic and sadly mundane nature. While there are great and unknowable forces at work in Magera, they are contrasted against the totalitarian regime of Vidal, and I found this comparison to be remarkably profound. Cosmic horror relies heavily on the fear of the unknown, that the forces at work against the protagonist are so vast and alien that the horror happening in the story is actually impersonal, because why would an ancient being with the power of gods actually care about a single individual? In stark relief against this is the specific pettiness of the horror Vidal’s government inflicts on its own people. Teachers, students, Marxists, and regular citizens who know the wrong people are intentionally targeted and disappeared in ways horrific enough that the description of Avendano reacting to the tortures that aren’t themselves described was enough for me to be truly unsettled. It is a trip down a rabbit hole into a twisted surreal wonderland that I wanted to leave but couldn’t get enough of.

My Heart Struck Sorrow, the second story of this anthology-lite, is a more classic cosmic horror tale of a researcher discovering a work of art that tells a story humans aren’t meant to understand. I want it to be clear that my description of this as “more classic” is not meant to imply that this is in any way less scary or meaningful for that fact. With as much horror as I read, it’s rare for me to be physically affected by a story, but in three pages my scalp was tingling and the hair on the back of my neck was raised. This story masterfully mixes both supernatural horror and terror of a mundane nature and is stronger for not relying on one or the other. Following a music researcher, Cromwell, as he explores recordings left to the historical agency he works for as part of an old woman’s estate, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a mysterious and haunting story about the magic the world used to, and may still, contain and a man’s desperation to tap into that regardless of the personal cost. I will say no more about the story, but, “He’s a bad man, Stackalee.”

I need to wrap this “review that isn’t really a review so much as me pouring my heart out about something that filled it too much” up. I’m sure you can tell from everything up to this point that I absolutely loved this book. I have never been impacted by stories the way I was with this, and the very act of reading cast a sort of glamour over me and my life for both the week I was actively reading it and each day since. Maybe it was the mindset I had going into the reading of this book. It could have been a strange cosmic alignment that changed me and made me more receptive to it. I’m not sure, but I had as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever felt while reading this, and to anyone looking for another great cosmic horror writer, look no further than John Hornor Jacobs.

Rating: A Lush and Seething Hell – 10/10 (I would give it more if I could)
-Will

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Ghoster – Too Substantial to Properly Spook

ghosterI don’t have a lot of experience with dating apps, having been in a long term relationship until recently, and as such have viewed them with the same amused indifference granted to most of the technology I don’t interact with. Having spoken to friends that have used them, and through some low-level environmental exposure, I have, however, picked up on some key facets. All of this personal information none of you care about is here to explain that I have not personally experienced “ghosting,” but I do understand what it is through the cultural zeitgeist of modern dating technology, and have a general understanding that it is “bad.” Pretty great lead-in to the review of Ghoster by Jason Arnopp, eh?

Ghoster is a Schrodinger’s Book for me, a story that appears to have been written directly for me and one that is so far outside my normal sphere of enjoyment I would never pick it up on my own volition. A horror story about a relationship gone wrong written through the lens of modern technology and dating apps is very much not my normal fare and with the cover on the ARC we received displaying a text messaging screen, I began reading with no little apprehension, steeling myself for what I was fairly sure would be more toil than enjoyment. I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by Ghoster. While not without its faults, there are some very strong foundations to this story, and I came out of this reading with a fresh lesson in not judging books by their covers.

In Ghoster we follow Kate Collins as she moves across the UK to begin living with a new boyfriend, Scott. It should not be surprising based on the title, cover art, back of book blurb, and the fact that this is advertised as a horror book that the move-in does not go according to plan and Kate finds herself “ghosted” by Scott. This already fraught situation is complicated by two large problems. Firstly, Kate is a social media addict (and something of a stalker), and has gone cold turkey from digital media in general, trading her smartphone in for a simple texting device. This complicates her search for Scott’s whereabouts and forces her into more and more outlandish actions to try to find him. Secondly (and arguably the less weird problem), Scott’s apartment that Kate has recently moved into appears to be haunted.

Let’s start with the phone stuff. I’m not going to get into the believability of having such a severe addiction to social media that you revert to what is essentially an old Nokia brick, I’m sure there are people out there like that, but I did find it hard to sympathize with Kate a lot of the time due to the nature of her character flaws. I’m sure that says something about me, but while I like my protagonists to be flawed I did feel like this particular issue was pretty overblown. Additionally, and I think this is probably the biggest issue with the book, the references to specific apps and reliance on current technological jargon means this story will age poorly. Not every book needs to be a classic, and there is a time and place to pig out on popcorn, but if you’re looking for a full meal (excuse the metaphor) I would recommend another choice.

The thing that really bugs me about the issues I had with the technobabble and constant references to dating app etiquette, is that I honestly don’t think it was necessary. If the tech addictions and more romance-heavy aspects of the book were removed, I think the horror story at its foundation would be stellar. The bones of this book, the novella that lives within this full-length novel, is outstanding. I did not see the twist coming and the ending goes toe-to-toe with a number of horror shorts I place at the very top of my list. I was expertly misdirected, and the pacing of the horror elements, as well as what information is given, is fantastic. I wish I could say the same for the pacing of pretty much everything else.

The climax of the story happened so quickly that I’m fairly certain it was purposeful to instill a sense of shock in the reader, and while it did have something of a shocking effect, I felt more bemused than anything. Additionally, there’s a fairly long final chapter that seems almost like a postscript to explain all the things that got sidelined during Kate’s search for Scott. Once I finished and closed the book for the final time I was struck by how much more coherent and enjoyable the story would have been to me if it had a runtime of 100-150 pages and stripped all the fat from its bones. There is a story in here that I think would win awards if it were distilled to its core, and I think that a lot of what’s in there distracts from what could be a truly terrifying tale.

I’m conflicted about Ghoster. I went into it expecting a painful trudge through a horror-romance and ended disappointed in an entirely different way. I did truly enjoy my time reading it, which is more than I was expecting, but was left unsatisfied by the heights it failed to attain. There are aspects of this book that will remain memorable for a long time, but a large portion of the book has already slipped from my ability to recall. I sense that the parts I liked will eventually be all I remember of the book, and I wish Arnopp had written a novella or short story with just those bits, but this book probably isn’t really for me, and as such I will take the enjoyment I received and selectively remember it as shorter and scarier than it ended up.

Rating: Ghoster – 6.5/10
-Will