What constitutes cosmic horror? The term has been in use for decades, usually to describe the work of H. P. Lovecraft and his ilk — that is, authors who explore the marrow-deep terror humanity feels in the face of the unknown. We're not talking about things that go bump in the night. We're talking about inscrutable beings with godlike proportions who straddle the universe, who wield mysterious forces that predate the Earth itself. It's not just that we're afraid of being hurt or killed, cosmic horror seems to be saying; it's that we're existentially petrified by the knowledge that human civilization is nothing but an insignificant smudge when placed against the gaping vastness of reality.
So when John Hornor Jacobs writes "We are but small vibrations on the face of the universe" in "My Heart Struck Sorrow" — the second and final novella comprising his new book, A Lush and Seething Hell — he's making it abundantly clear that cosmic horror is his literary turf.
"My Heart Struck Sorrow" sinks South in its search for the sinister. The story's main character, Cromwell, is a music archivist at the Library of Congress, and he and his assistant Harriet are tasked with gathering the field recordings of Harlan Parker, a recently deceased ethnomusicologist. For decades, Parker traveled the South collecting the songs of blues and folk singers — most notably the real-life song "Stagger Lee," which has endured via various versions and titles throughout history. Cromwell and Harriet stumble across a secret stash of recordings and writings related to the song; it leads Cromwell on an obsessive quest to fathom the supernatural underpinnings of the song, a trek that takes him to an imprisoned murderer and blues singer named Lucius "Honeyboy" Spoon.
Jacobs tackled similar subject matter in his Bram Stoker Award-nominated debut novel from 2011, Southern Gods. "With My Heart Struck Sorrow," though, he's refined and amplified his Southern gothic vibe, not to mention his knack for character development. Cromwell is a conflicted, tormented figure, and his internal strife drives him toward a desperate revelation that's also a harrowing portrait of grief and guilt. But the real star of the story is the music itself. Cosmic horror often relies on the existence of implausibly gargantuan tentacled beings; Jacobs eerily renders "Stagger Lee" as a kind of tentacled being in miniature, a legend whose roots in the collective consciousness run malevolently deep.
"The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky" is the novella that comprises the other half of A Lush and Seething Hell; it's far shorter than "My Heart Struck Sorrow," but every inch as eerie. The story revolves around the fictional, fascist-led South American country of Magera, and it involves two Mageran exiles in Spain whose lives become intertwined: a poet named Avendaño and a teacher named Isabel. When Avendaño returns to their home country under mysterious circumstances, Isabel finds a journal of his that points to Opusculus Noctis, a text that — like Lovecraft's infamous fictional book The Necronomicon — drips with horrible secrets. What follows is as disturbing as it is poetic, with Jacobs dwelling lovingly on scenes of skin-crawling anguish alongside passages of lyrical beauty.
Although shorter than "My Heart Struck Sorrow," "The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky" is the superior tale of the two. Where the former sometimes meanders, the latter is concise and visceral. Both, however, are gorgeously penned and unsettlingly conceived; combined, they form a foreboding mosaic of found objects, lost sanity, and the parallels between personal trauma and the sense of dread that comes from skirting the edge of what is real and what might lie beyond. Foreboding yet fulfilling, this duo of stories stabs at the heart of what it means to be human — and what it means to truly understand how one's humanity can crumble at a touch. "Horror makes siblings of us all," Jacobs writes in The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky. Likewise, A Lush and Seething Hell in its entirety is liable to equally and cosmically frighten all who open it.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller