I 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)