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.

Books without Anchors

I just finished Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, after a little over a month (granted, I snuck Ray Cluely's Water for Drowning in there, in addition to many, many slush pile stories). This is unusual for me. My average pace is probably about a book every week or so, unless it's a Sanderson-size tome and then I'm looking at two-ish. The Barker book is a long one, weighing in at nearly seven hundred pages, so I could be excused for taking so long to finish it. But the fact is that until the last two hundred-odd pages, I just couldn't get into it. I'm a stubborn sumbitch, and so I pushed through. But I finished it, having mostly enjoyed the third act of the book, and asked myself why didn't this book click for me?

Two reasons, I think, one minor, and one major. The first is there are moments that are so Clive Barkery they actually read more like a parody of Clive Barker (similar to Stephen King's Lamp Monstery moments). The bit about the guy who creates snake monsters by having insects manually masturbate him until he ejaculates on his own shit was particularly ridiculous. But when you open up a book by the bondage demon guy you have to expect a bit of that. The major reason I couldn't get into the book is that as a reader, I didn't have an emotional anchor until more than halfway through the novel.

When do you usually meet a protagonist? In the case of The Hobbit, in the very first line. In the case of The Shining, in the second chapter. Even in works like A Song of Ice and Fire, with huge casts of characters and multiple points of view, we meet all three of our true protagonists (Dany, Jon, and Tyrion) within the first hundred pages of the first novel (I actually love how the first two POV characters both get their heads chopped off; nice touch, that). But in The Great and Secret Show, we don't meet anything resembling a traditional protagonist until a third of the way through the book when Tesla Bombeck is introduced, and she's a tertiary character up until the halfway point.

In fact, Barker plays kind of a shell game with the protagonists up until Fletcher's self-immolation at the Palomo Grove Mall. Part one focuses on Randolph Jaffe, who we think is going to be our protagonist, albeit a seriously flawed one, until Fletcher and Raul are introduced. Then part two shifts focus to four teenage girls (and a pre-teen peeper), whose main purpose in the novel is to give birth to children who will be the catalyst for later events. In part three we settle in with Jo-Beth and Howie, who ultimately prove kind of useless to the resolution of the plot, while simultaneously meeting Tesla, who proves to be our actual protagonist.

Tesla is the character we really care about. She's the one who undergoes the hero's journey, she's the one who rises to the occasion when called upon, and she's the one who ultimately triumphs over evil. Plus she's snarky and fun. So why the hell don't we meet her earlier?

For half its length, the book floats from character to character without ever settling on one. And this illustrates for me the stark difference between what an established author and an unestablished one can get away with. A guy like Clive Barker can structure a book like this, in what I'd argue is a borderline experimental form. For someone who hasn't had a string of NYT bestselling novels, it's a much harder sell. Both for publishers, and for readers.

Like I said, I'm stubborn, and I would have kept reading anyway.

But not everyone is. Until I've sold a few million copies and feel like I've built up sufficient trust to get weird with things, my aim is to make things as easy on my readers as possible. That's not to say I won't produce complex or challenging stories (or stories I'd like to think are complex and challenging but are in reality obvious and banal); rather, I'll try to craft stories that honor the contract between the writer and the reader. The one that promises to give them certain things when they crack a book cover.

Like an anchor. Or at least a life preserver.