By Jay Stringer
First up, a couple of important facts for you to memorise, there will be a test later;
1. JHJ and I have the same agent, which I guess is one of them "conflict of interest" type things, and which almost made me hold off from writing the review.
2. That's irrelevant, because the book is awesome.
"Awesome" is not a word I'm using lightly here. If you type definition awesome into google, then you'll probably get taken to Paul Westerberg's Wiki page. But below that will be various dictionary links that will tell you that awesome describes something that is wonderful, impressive and sometimes frightening.
Here's the bit off the back;
"A Memphis DJ hires recent World War II veteran Bull Ingram to find Ramblin' John Hastur, a mysterious bluesman whose dark, driving music - broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station- is said to make living men insane and dead men rise."
That was already enough to interest me in the story, but it doesn't cover the half of it of it. First we get a very dark and bloody detour that sets the tone for the book, strange shadowy things moving at the edge of forests, whispering dark deals to anyone who'll listen. The prologue of the book set's it's stall out strong; this is the voice of the story, and you want to read it.
When we first meet Ingram, he reminds me of a character from another time, another kind of book. He's a Dashiell Hammett character who has somehow wandered into a Lovecraft nightmare. Both brutish and boyish at the same time, he went off to the war to find a purpose but came back without one. If he provides the strength and the drive to push the story along, it's the other characters we meet along the way who really fill in the heart. There's Sarah, the young mother who is fleeing the the slow burning horror of a family-gone-wrong without realising she's running towards a much quicker way of dying.. She packs her bags and her daughter and leaves her husband behind to head home, back to the farm she grew up on and it's big old house full of secrets. Her daughter, Franny, fills the story with it's energy and light, bouncing around the farm land with her two friends, Fisk and Lenora. And then there's Alice, the woman that Sarah wishes she could be, who runs the farm and dishes out love and advice.
The story is built very effectively on mood and suspense, a creeping sense of horror that is the subtext of every chapter and keeps building. But that can only last for so long, but JHJ isn't a writer to pull punches, and when it's time for all hell to break loose, he follows through where many other authors will try to bait and switch.
There are blink-and-you-miss-it references here to some horror touchstones, from Captain Howdy's real name, to the big bad of Lovecraft, and each one is a clear signpost of the impending doom hanging over the story. JHJ is clearly a writer who understands what makes horror tick, because he scared the crap out of me and he did it without clowns, spiders or my credit card bill. There's something here for everyone, but if you're a parent, this book is really gunning for you. It knows what you're scared of.
This is the month when everyone is going to be pushing horror movies on you, when the stores are filled with plastic costumes for your kids to dress up in, and folk start either keeping chocolate by their door or pretending not to be in for the whole month.
But Southern Gods isn't any of that. It's not modern horror with it's rules and roleplaying, it's not wacky costumes, and it doesn't turn horrible beasts into things that glow in sunlight and romance teenagers. It's a book that understands that bad things need to happen to good people, and that all of us are defined by our fears in some way. You'll find yourselves stopping and scratching your heads, this can't be the work of a debut writer, surely? Not with such a firm grip on plot and character, not with such a strong voice? Not unless he's been making any deals with dark forces that step out of the woods...
I have the audio book to get through, perfect for a long train journey I'm making next week. I'll let you know how that goes, but it was important to read the book first.