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A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror
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Monthly Reads > October 2020 monthly read: John Hornor Jacobs' A Lush and Seething Hell

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Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments Please join us for the Literary Horror October 2020 monthly read: John Hornor Jacobs' A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror.

A couple reviews:

It's available in paper and as an ebook. Let's start next weekend, Oct 10ish.

Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Thanks, Bill! I have this so I will be reading it despite voting for another book. I look forward to further discussion.

message 3: by Dan (last edited Oct 06, 2020 11:15AM) (new)

Dan | 346 comments I voted for this; it's one of the rare times what I voted for won. Go figure! I decided to order a print copy rather than Kindle it. So I may be delayed a week or so before I can join in the fun.

Whenever "cosmic horror" is in a title, it suggests Weird fiction of a Lovecraftian nature. So I am really looking forward to this.

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Ronald (rpdwyer) | 557 comments This book seems interesting, 3.92 average goodreads rating, and liked by people with tastes similar to mine.

I'll try to start this weekend on the book.

Whitney | 131 comments I really liked this, but read it recently enough that I don't want to reread it yet, but long enough ago that I probably won't have much to contribute to the discussion. Looking forward to lurking, though.

message 6: by Dan (last edited Oct 08, 2020 05:59AM) (new)

Dan | 346 comments I just noticed. This was the fifth time Hornor's book appeared in our polls. I voted for it the second, third, fourth, and fifth time it was on offer. The first time it was in the polls, I voted for my nominee, The Seven Deadliest instead. Beltran and Ward's book only garnered two votes and hasn't reappeared as a poll option. If it's any consolation for those not enthusiastic about cosmic horror, Hornor's book can't appear a sixth time.

message 7: by Tim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Tim | 117 comments I've started it. Not very far so no firm opinions yet, but I loved this line: (After being asked why his eye is missing) (view spoiler)

Given the cosmic horror vibe of the story, that's the sort of lines I enjoy.

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Ronald (rpdwyer) | 557 comments I can see the comparison to Lovecraft and Bolano.

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments I'd come across this book months ago, and had avoided it because the titles seemed so... overwrought. I have to say I'm enjoying the writing so far; it's also scratching my itch for dark fiction from South America (Mariana Enriquez, Samanta Schweblin, Cristina Cubas, Cristina Rivera Garza...)

About 30 pages in, I smell a literary mystery developing, though it's still too early call. Kilgore Trout, ha! "Something something Eibon" seems a little heavy-handed, but we'll see.

message 10: by Tim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Tim | 117 comments Bill, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who got a chuckle from Kilgore Trout being in the bookshelf!

message 11: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments I'm finishing up Chapter 4. Can't say I'm a fan of the (view spoiler). I'm sure this sort of thing is common in totalitarian Latin American regimes, but surely we all know the facts enough that the extensive working out of specific details is not necessary or interesting.

message 12: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments I'm done with the first short novel, "The Sea Dreams It is the Sky". Interesting reference points in the blurbs. The few Bolano books I've read didn't leave much of an impression, but I did enjoy the quiet prose and narrator's voice. (I also appreciate that the protagonist's sexuality is just kind of slipped in there, and not made a big fuss of.) The literary mystery did give way to more conventional thriller mechanics. I'm generally not a fan of the latter, but for some reason I enjoyed it enough to keep forging ahead.

The Lovecraft-ian element also seemed incidental for most of the novel. (I'm fine with that; I have little patience for the classic stuff as I grow older, and generally avoid most of the neo-Lovecraftian fiction out there these days.) I do note the use of "rugose", haha. (No, not before "cone".)

So an enjoyable read, though I might have preferred more literary mystery, and less stabbing, shooting etc. Despite that, the ending was quite satisfying.

message 13: by Bill (last edited Oct 15, 2020 09:02PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments I'm about 60 pages into the second (not so short) novel. I'm still enjoying it, but it takes its sweet time to get anywhere. I spend as much time as most people working with audio, and can be a bit of a vintage audio equipment fetishist; but I think it's questionable to dwell as much on all the technical details of setting up a turntable etc here. We're also carefully apprised of the purchase of cigarettes, moonshine, gas etc, but I do understand that many horror fans have more patience for these nuggets than I do.

So where is everyone on this? I could slow down a bit.

message 14: by Dan (new)

Dan | 346 comments I just got my copy in the mail yesterday. I have maybe thirty pages left in a book I am reading and then plan to start this over the weekend.

I was impressed by the quality of the print of the hardback. The foreword, written by a friend of the author's I presume, was a complete turnoff--gratuitous vulgarity and crass hype--but I am nevertheless hopeful on the stories themselves.

Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments I've just finished the first novella and really enjoyed it, particularly the earlier parts in Spain. I've been reading a lot of Latin American fiction lately and this really was a pitch-perfect evocation of a certain type of punchy, shorter fiction that mixes the intensely personal with the political. Not Bolaño so much, but other, younger writers from Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, even Brazil.

While, like Bill, I found the torture scenes went on a bit longer than I would have liked and I felt this slowed down the narrative, the rest of the novella was very well-paced and I read the whole thing in one day. Both Isabel and Avendaño were well-drawn characters and I enjoyed the fact that the structure of the narrative allowed us a little time to enjoy Avendaño's distinctive voice directly. Given how this book was marketed, I'm a bit surprised by how little "weird" or cosmic Lovecraftian horror featured in this story but that was just fine with me as I tend to find more than a little often too much. What was there served the story and added some spice without overpowering the more realistic elements.

I'll be starting the next story in the volume tonight. Looking forward to it, although it seems it will quite different from the previous one.

Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Bill wrote: "it's also scratching my itch for dark fiction from South America (Mariana Enriquez, Samanta Schweblin, Cristina Cubas, Cristina Rivera Garza...)"

Bill, Cristina Rivera Garza has a new book out: Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country The blurb makes it sound very relevant to this discussion, actually: "Grieving is Cristina Rivera Garza’s hybrid collection of short crónicas, journalism, and personal essays on systemic violence in contemporary Mexico and along the US-Mexico border. Drawing together horror theory and historical analysis, she outlines how neoliberalism, corruption, and drug trafficking—culminating in the misnamed “war on drugs”—has shaped the political landscape on both sides of the border. Working from and against this context, Rivera Garza posits that collective grief is an act of resistance against state violence, and that writing is a powerful mode of seeking social justice and embodying resilience."

I have the Kindle edition and hope to read it soon.

message 17: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments Marie-Therese wrote: "Given how this book was marketed, I'm a bit surprised by how little "weird" or cosmic Lovecraftian horror featured in this story..."

Me too. And I'm fine with that as well. I think mentioning "Lovecraft" in the blurb is considered helpful for sales.

The second novel is reminding me a bit of Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country, which we read as a group earlier. Jacobs also works with race relations in the deep south, though with the framing device of the journals and acetate recordings, it feels more "literary" (while Lovecraft Country is more pulp-y).

message 18: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments Marie-Therese wrote: "Cristina Rivera Garza has a new book out..."

Wow, I didn't know this, thanks! Look forward to checking it out soon.

message 19: by S̶e̶a̶n̶ (last edited Oct 19, 2020 10:04AM) (new)

S̶e̶a̶n̶ (nothingness) | 104 comments Bill wrote: "Marie-Therese wrote: "Cristina Rivera Garza has a new book out..."

She was also just awarded a well-deserved MacArthur Genius grant.

message 20: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments S̶e̶a̶n̶ wrote: "She was also just awarded a well-deserved MacArthur Genius grant."


message 21: by Dan (last edited Oct 19, 2020 07:26PM) (new)

Dan | 346 comments I just finished the first novel. It's called a novella, but doesn't read like one to me; it's just too long. I loved it. I have lived five years of my life in Andalucia and visited Malaga to vacation there. Jacobs really nails the atmosphere and transports me back. I've never been to South America, but he also portrays that area convincingly (based on what I've seen of it in films).

Besides placing the reader in exotic locations through selective use of the right detail, I also love Horner's off-hand characterizations of people with one detail that tell you so much about them. Describing Claudia as the type of person who never expressed appreciation or even acknowledgement for the regard she was shown told me all about Claudia. We've all met and known one. That it completely turns Isabel off and yet she says nothing also tells us a lot about who Isabel is. She reacts the same way to Avendano. People are like that, aren't they? They have some features that really put us off, but we have to put up with it to get to the features we like about them. Jacobs really portrays this aspect of life well.

Jacobs has a wonderful writing style too. When I first started the book I was nervous. I saw what I thought was imprecise use of language, a feature I find myself increasingly less tolerant of. But he settled down when he got into his story and narrated it beautifully. I found myself chuckling at some of his writing affectations. He uses certain words so often it drives me to the coterminous edge. Don't try to hide in the miasma behind the skree of northern Magera. La miasma se convierte a bruma!

The story was a powerful one that will stay with me a long time. I too found the torture depictions long and troubling, but I think that's part of the effect Horner was going for. Torture itself is long and troubling for its victims. It can't be turned off or in any way controlled by them either. Horner's extended depiction makes us feel a similar, powerless discomfort we too can't turn off.

The story, wonderful as it is, was not at all what I expected. All the horror I have ever read before contains an element of the supernatural. This novel only hints at the possibility with a sentence here and there, but never descends into it. There is absolutely nothing Lovecraftian (to me) about the story (or the prose) except for those two or three hints in a couple sentences. I classify the story as a straight piece of contemporary literary fiction, nothing else.

Perhaps this really was a novella after all. Now that I am done with the story, I find myself wanting to read another one set in Malaga and Magera featuring these fascinating fully realized characters, Isabel, Avendano, and Claudia, only let's make this one even more interesting by bringing in Laura. We can cleave to Cleave too, I guess. If I want more, and I do, this means it was too short and thus maybe a novella after all.

message 22: by Tim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Tim | 117 comments Alright, I finished both stories now. I would have posted more but life has been keeping me busier recently.

First one: My reaction was honestly very close to what others have been saying. I like he setting, disliked the over long torture scene... but I think I disliked the story more than others. It didn't particularly work for me as a whole and I would have preferred more of the cosmic horror elements and felt a bit let down. Obviously this is just, and perhaps I went into it with the wrong mindset, but personally I was not a fan.

I preferred the second story overall, though again I was a bit disappointed. It was enjoyable enough for me but there were several points where I almost gave up on it just because I felt like I was just tired of where it was going (I'm pleased to say that I did finish it and again that I didn't feel the let down of the first).

Overall, I'm going with 2/5 stars for the collection. I can certainly see where others would enjoy it... it just didn't strike me the way it seems to have hit so many others and personally I'm not a fan.

message 23: by Bill (last edited Oct 26, 2020 10:22PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments Tim wrote: "Alright, I finished both stories now. I would have posted more but life has been keeping me busier recently."

Totally understand, Tim. Hope your daughter hasn't been doing more book hiding!

I think the book title and blurb are a bit misleading. Certainly the outcome of the 2nd novel doesn't seem particularly cosmically horrific to me. (I'll admit my idea of "cosmic horror" might be more restrictive than some.) I might have been nodding off from all the shopping for coffee and cigarettes and audio cables, and missed a number of obvious clues about what's really going on; it seemed to me as if Cromwell was doing some healthy jumping to conclusions about the journal. I was expecting another Music of Erich Zahn, was thankful it was not another pastiche/rehash, but ultimately was disappointed in the ending. (view spoiler)

Marie-Therese has more comments elsewhere; perhaps she'll share them here as well.

message 24: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments The poll for our November monthly read is up:

Remember, if you vote for a book, and it wins, you are committing to participate in the discussion.

Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Bill wrote: "Marie-Therese has more comments elsewhere; perhaps she'll share them here as well."

Sorry for the delay in reporting back here. I've started PT on my bum knee (I know it's necessary but...OW!) and it's making me very tired and grumpy and requires the ingestion of drugs that make me even less prone to writing trenchant and interesting commentary than usual. ;-)

Anyway, as I mentioned to Bill on his review and elsewhere, I did not enjoy the second, longer story in this collection quite as much as the first. Where I felt that Jacobs really captured the feel of contemporary Latin American literature in his opening novella, he lost me in the longer work when it became obvious that, despite commendable research into Alan Lomax and his work, he really didn't know as much about ethnomusicology or classical music as his character, Harlan Parker, claimed to.* Basic errors (oh god! those "Mahler quartets") kept throwing me out of Harlan's narrative and that was a shame as his narrative was the only one I actually cared about. I felt the framing story featuring Cromwell and his tragedy dragged the whole novel down and really added nothing to the novel-not terror, not a sympathetic character, not a perspective that gave the reader greater insight into Parker's narrative, which was clearly the heart of the story.

I also felt that Jacobs may have bit off more than he could chew when he began using Cromwell and his African-American assistant, Hattie, to reflect on the uncomfortable legacy of people like Harlan Parker and the real life John Lomax. Jacobs mentioned the exploitation of Lead Belly and Cromwell clearly knew of it but the way this knowledge plays out in the story is unsatisfactory and shallow. Hattie comes across as more of a stereotype than a real person and I cringed through almost every scene she featured in. Like virtually everything in the Cromwell narrative, this just didn't add anything essential or meaningful to the story as a whole because it felt tacked on and inauthentic/insincere somehow.

All that being said, I did mostly enjoy Harlan Parker's narrative. I found his voice compelling (although, like Bill, I could have done with less detailed shopping notes) and his personal journey interesting and very sad. I think the book would have worked better for me had it been restructured as simply his story. The damp squib that was the Cromwell ending could have been avoided that way too.

Overall, I think Jacobs is an interesting writer and I'd like to read more adult fiction by him (apparently most of his other published work falls under the young adult category and that's mostly a no-go for me). So, 3.5 stars for the book as whole.

*I'm coming at this as someone who grew up among classical musicians and also as someone who studied ethnomusicology for a couple of years at university (decided not to make it my profession as I am, alas, not gifted with perfect pitch and that's really almost a necessity in the field).

message 26: by Bill (last edited Oct 28, 2020 09:48PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments Marie-Therese wrote: "The damp squib that was the Cromwell ending could have been avoided that way too."

I was unhappy with the Cromwell ending as well. It seemed dubious to me that (view spoiler).

Sorry to hear about the PT-related discomfort, M-T! Hope you feel better soon...

message 27: by Bill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1361 comments Last call for the Nov 2020 monthly read poll:

Remember if you vote and your choice wins, you are committing to participate in the discussions.

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