Dark Pathways: Why We Want That Cursed Artifact

Dark Pathways

I just finished John Hornor Jacobs’ A Lush and Seething Hell, which is a collection of two absolutely fantastic novellas, and I need to talk about it. I think you can put either novella into any annual “best of” category and they’ll come out near the top. They’re well-written, original tales of cosmic horror that prickle the gooseflesh.

But I want to talk specifically about “My Heart Struck Sorrow,” which is the tale of a man working during the Great Depression era to record and catalog music in the Deep South. The main character of this story is Harlan Packard, who is seeking a specific song that’s popular in very remote areas and seems to have some kind of power, depending on the lyrics and how it’s played. As Harlan gets closer to the true song, the cosmic horror elements begin to emerge.

This story is dark. It’s sweaty. It’s mysterious. Harlan wants to hear the true version of this song he’s been studying and obsessively searching for, even if it means damnation. His quest takes him all over the Deep South. The song is called “Stagger Lee,” about a murderer who ended up in Hell, and it might just be about something very real. To get what he wants, Harlan will have to open up his vulnerable soul to the horrors that lurk in the music. Every time he listens to a version that’s closer to the “original,” horrific things happen.

Jacobs is so good at building mystery. He also uses an awesome trope: the cursed artifact. We’ve all read a story about someone seeking some kind of object of mystery. In this case, it’s a song, and the cool thing about Jacobs’ story is that the song changes depending on who is singing it, where it’s being sung. The song has transformed over time and space, which complicates the main character’s goal of finding the “true” version.

I love this idea. I love stories that revolve around a quest narrative, especially when it’s in the horror genre. We can play with this in so many different ways because horror writers don’t need to write a happy ending to satisfy their audience. And it doesn’t have to be an object, either! It can be an idea. It can be something unattainable. What matters is how the character changes over time. The impact of the object on those who seek it becomes the real story.

Dark Pathway: Seek an Artifact!

Here’s how you practice this. Write a short poem about a monster. Intentionally skip lines and omit words. When you’re finished, imagine this poem falling into the hands of a character.

Step one: Build a character. This person will find the incomplete version of the poem. Why do they care about the poem? It needs to have some kind of value to the character, either imagined or real.

Step two: The character will then go out and investigate the poem’s origins. Come up with at least three locations/people who can help fill in the blanks.

Step three: Every time the character gets answers, punish them. Make it clear to the reader that completing the poem promises answers, but also threatens the character’s life.

Step four: Get the character to the end. Finish the poem so your audience is satisfied. But make sure that this comes at great cost for your character.

Now get writing!

Ken Brosky is the author of The Beyond, a horror novel available through Timber Ghost Press. His work has been published in Grotesque and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He’s currently working on a screenplay and a new novel.

Leave a Reply