Deus Not Machina: Resounding Horror in Southern Gods

One of the oldest tricks in the horror playbook is the final scene that tells us that nope, the horror isn’t over, the good guys didn’t quite win, and all this is going to play out again. John Hornor Jacobs’ Southern Gods features an ending that might be fanciful and saccharine, if not for one tiny wrinkle. Leading man Bull Ingram dies while retrieving Franny from the Hellion, a diabolical vessel captained by her grand-uncle. Franny herself is murdered in a most heinous way, but comes back to life at the end. While reading, I thought this might be evidence of Jacobs losing his nerve, giving in to some base desire (or perhaps insistent editor) and pulling back at the last minute.

But it’s not.

Read all the way to the end. Jacobs doesn’t just wave a magic wand and reset the table exactly how it was before Franny was butchered. And in a way, Jacobs does something worse than just letting her stay dead.

In most non-extreme horror circles, it’s taboo to kill a child. Jacobs breaks this taboo with panache--Bull Ingram and Sarah finally reach the top of the boat where she’s being held, but to their dismay she’s already dead, split open and used in a ritual to bring forth the Prodigium, Lovecraftian Elder Gods. Immediately this subverts reader expectation. We ask ourselves if this can possibly be true, or if it’s some kind of illusion conjured up by the godling Hastur. But it’s not an illusion. It’s real. But through sacrifice and heroics, Franny is returned to life, and with the exception of Bull’s more permanent death, all is well.

Except it’s not.

In the closing scene, Sarah watches her child swim with her friends, trying to slide back into normalcy after what she’s experienced. And we learn that she remembers all of it. Being violated and butchered, the sort of trauma that no other person could possibly have a memory of. The natural question of whether it might have been better if she’d died arises, and there’s no good answer. But I’m generally an optimist about human resilience if not human nature, so here’s hoping Franny gets through it all okay.

The fact that Jacobs has Franny remember what happened to her means he didn’t pull back after all, he went through with what he meant to do. Which gives the ending a power and a resonance it would not have otherwise, if Franny had been restored to life without any memory of what happened. That would have cheapened the events.

To use this technique, the reminder that the horror continues need not be Jason Voorhees’ hand arising from a lake, or a haunted totem being passed to a new owner, but simply an intimation that inside the minds of the characters we’ve grown to love, the horror is decidedly not over. While the events themselves might not literally recur, for the rest of their lives the events will play out over and over again in the heads of the characters. Which is where all horror stories really take place, after all.