The cover of A Lush and Seething Hell depicts two figures standing in some brambles; a darkness looms behind them, above them, all around them. It’s a menacing tower of darkness bearing down, but also rising up. Upon closer inspection, the figures aren’t so much standing as they are cowering.
I know because I stared at the cover and the title for awhile before I ventured past it to get at the meaty insides. And it’s that posture of cowering I remembered after I finished this book.
There are two stories that make up A Lush and Seething Hell. The first is titled “The Sea Dreams it is the Sky,” and it’s about a poet named Rafael Avendano, also mysteriously known as The Eye, who strikes up a casual friendship with a woman named Isabel. They realize they have a lot in common and their relationship deepens. For the reader, Jacobs writes with so much attention to detail, it’s impossible to remember that what is unfolding are fictional events. I kept wanting to reach for my phone and Google “Rafael Avendano” so that I could read more about his life and poetry.
As a side note here, graphic scenes of torture are difficult for me and at some point in the story, Avendano finds himself in the hands of his enemies. What happens to him is so graphic and told in such an unflinching manner, I might have shied away from it, but Jacobs lured me in with describing Avendano’s mental escape into oblivion. There was this beauty to what was happening inside this poet—that even the cruelty he was experiencing physically couldn’t strip him of what was happening in his mind. I hope that makes sense. It does when I read it back to myself.
Eventually, Isabel and Rafael’s narratives experience a shocking confluence that leaves the reader suspended in mind-reeling bliss. I read one scene over and over again because it was just so powerful. It captured my imagination and lead me into a long spell of thoughtfulness. I couldn’t fully get my brain around it until I gave myself more time with it.
I came away from this story with a nasty, bookish hangover…the only cure? Jacob’s second story (and my favorite of the two) “My Heart Struck Sorrow.” This is the story of a librarian weighed down by grief and guilt. He goes on this assignment with a coworker to an estate left in their company’s possession by a philanthropist who has passed away. They find a long forgotten room filled with recordings and journals. As a lover of horror fiction, I get excited about stories with found footage/files—one of my favorite subgenres. The narrative splits into two at this point, with our present-day protagonist becoming immersed in the discovery of these forgotten memoirs and the tale that he’s reading about: Two men in the 1930s are commissioned by the Library of Congress to travel around America collecting the songs of the people for posterity. Folk songs. One song in particular catches their attention.
I’m not going to sugarcoat the facts here—this story terrified me. This song that keeps coming up and the strange events that happen after it is sung and listened to—it’s unnerving. Again, I was captivated by Jacobs’ storytelling style and his impressive use of specific details, which really must come from his extensive research. I kept experiencing this inability to remember that what I was reading was fiction. This illusion adds to the bone chilling nature of the story. I loved this novella. It’s one of my favorites now. I will be recommending this one a lot and keeping an eye on anything John Hornor Jacobs releases in the future.