John Hornor Jacobs' two novellas “The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky” and “My Heart Struck Sorrow” are published in tandem in his latest book “A Lush and Seething Hell.”
In “The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky” we meet Isabel, a young scholar living in Spain in the late 1980’s as she forms an unlikely friendship with poet Raphael Avendano. Known locally and notoriously as “The Eye” referring to the patch he wears, Avendano, like Isabel fled the brutality of dictatorship in their South American country of Magera to settle in exile, rumors and legend of his lewd and rebellious past preceding him.
Despite his reputation, Isabel grows fond of him and is surprised to be entrusted with looking after his affairs when he reveals he is returning to their country of origin. Ignoring her protests and concern for his safety, Avendano leaves Isabel, the comfort of his apartment, and a generous stipend to enjoy in his absence.
Shortly after his departure, Isabel uncovers his private journal and learns the truth of his past and the horrors he experienced, the suffering and trauma that led to the loss of his eye and the secret manuscript he was forced to translate while in captivity under fascist rule. When Avendano stops corresponding with Isabel, she becomes fearful for his life and heads to South America to help him, only to discover an evil so terrifying—the unimaginable source of her friend’s torment.
In “My Heart Struck Sorrow” librarian Rob Cromwell, grief stricken after the accidental death of his wife and child and consumed with guilt over a secret affair with his coworker, is hungry for a distraction from his despair. Upon returning to work after leave, Cromwell is informed that the family of Harlan Parker has bequeathed his estate to Cromwell’s department.
Parker, an ethnomusicologist with the Library of Congress prior to World War II, was tasked with documenting and recording folk music along the southern stretch of the United States from Appalachia to the Ozarks but his assignment was never completed.
Cromwell and his partner Hattie travel to Springfield, Missouri to visit the Parker home and there discover a hidden room containing the journal and recordings of Parker’s endeavor. Setting to work re-recording the archives of folksongs and reading Parker’s journal, Cromwell becomes fixated with his predecessor.
Though charged with collecting a broad range of folk music, Parker becomes increasingly obsessed with discovering the origins of “Stagger Lee,” a song which we learn has haunted him since childhood and is connected with the memory of his mother’s mysterious drowning. As Parker’s descent into madness is revealed through his journal, and the sinister roots of “Stagger Lee” are discovered, Cromwell’s grasp of reality is loosened, fueled by his anguish and remorse as he plummets farther into the hell of his own creation.
Jacobs’s ability to transport the reader through space and time via prose is hypnotic. As these stories rotate towards the supernatural, they become even more genuine, his characters becoming flesh that climb off the page to haunt you in your dreams.