John Hornor Jacobs Talks Murder Ballads and Other Horrific Topics

John Hornor Jacobs: Hello!

Sadie Hartmann: Hooray! Hi, how are you this day?

JHJ: I’m pretty good, all things considered. Busy with work, both day job and writing stuff.

SH: Are you working at home for the day job?

JHJ: Yes, I’ve been working from home since March 14th. I think it was the 14th.Somewhere around then.

SH: Yeah, I remember it being early March for most folks. Is it difficult to separate your day job and your writing in one location like that? Do the two get all jumbled up

JHJ: This has been said before, but when you work from home, it’s hard to compartmentalize working time and not working time since those times occupy the same environment. I’m a partner at an ad agency and one of my partners really hated the idea of telecommuting – which I wanted to move to for a couple of days a week – and he used to insist we wouldn’t be able to get our work done. This has proven him wrong. So, a very small bright side to this horrible situation.

SH: I bet a lot of businesses are re-thinking the option for employees to work from home more. Even after this pandemic

JHJ: Smarter folks than me have opined on it – it puts the burden of a lot of the employer’s costs on the worker even more. Will the employer compensate for internet? Computer usage? Facebook has said it’ll be cutting the salaries of workers that live in lower cost of living areas. No corporation has the welfare of its employees at heart.

SH: I never even thought of those issues. Wow, yeah, you’re totally right. How’s your storytelling brain during all of this? Are you finding yourself more or less inspired?

JHJ: I think it’s doing okay. I’ve been suffering from a little bit of insomnia, never really understood how that affects mental acuity until now. But I’ve written the first 30,000 words to a new novel and plotted out the rest and have created a bunch of linocuts to go with it that my agent and I are going to pack up into a pitch and send out. Maybe I’ll have a chance of illustrating it with linocuts. Maybe. We’ll see. I am very excited about this project so yes! You could say I’m inspired.

SH: I am loving your Twitter posts of the linocuts, John. They are so cool! One of your stories in Murder Ballads is begging to have a companion linocut!

JHJ: I appreciate that. As I said earlier to you, I’m always a little insecure about writing but even more so regarding art. Which story is that? “Children of Yig”? Or your personal favorite “Old Dogs, New Tricks”?

SH: Yes, “Children of Yig,” is that the Viking one??

JHJ: That is the Viking story.

SH: We can’t talk about that dog story, I’m mad at you. [laughs]

JHJ: Understood. I knew it was going to be an issue for some readers.

SH: Yeah, you can imagine me closing my eyes and shaking my head. Arms folded. But there is an audience for everything and you’re an amazing author, so I have no doubt it will stick the landing for a lot of folks

JHJ: Maybe. It’s one of my earlier stories, so maybe not the most refined. Hey, they all can’t be winners. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

SH: Well, I do want to ask you about Murder Ballads, actually… the cover so very closely resembles that of A Lush and Seething Hell, so I was wondering if you wanted to talk about connected universes.

JHJ: I’d be happy to. So, obviously, “Murder Ballads” is a sequel to Southern Gods, my first novel. I wanted to return to it because I’d had a story I’d been thinking about for a long while, and I just came off of writing ALASH which had a strong historical/musical slant and I had all my research swimming in my brain and thought “Now’s the time to write this.” Doubly so because the collection deal was a total fluke – the publisher wanted the audio rights to some of my backlist books and threw in a collection. And they wanted “something new” in the collection, a story or novelette, if I recall correctly, but I ended up giving them an unpublished rural noir piece, “Ithaca,” and the titular novella, “Murder Ballads.” So, Southern Gods relates to “Murder Ballads” and “Murder Ballads” relates to “The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky” in the person of Wilson Cleave, the emissary from the “external brigade.”

Southern Gods relates to “The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky” in that the manuscript that Rafael Avendano translates is the Opusculis Noctis – in “The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky” it’s translated as “A Little Night Work,” and in Southern Gods, it’s called “The Little Book of Night”

SH: [gif of my brain exploding] I think we’ve talked about how readers love when authors have a connected universe. I loved “Ithaca,” by the way. I could see a whole movie based on just that story alone.

JHJ: Most of my books are connected in various small ways. Some of the science fiction stories in Murder Ballads are not connected. All of my YA novels have a cosmic horror vibe and begin in Arkansas. In a lot of books I’ve written, a town called Tulaville re-occurs. And one of the things I pilfered from King or Faulkner, take your pick, is a non-existent county in southeastern Arkansas called Quapaw County where a lot of, uh, supernatural shit gets to cracking.

SH: Do these connected stories just somehow find their way to the surface?

JHJ: I like to tell new stories, but in returning to the characters of Southern Gods, for example, it was in some ways looking at myself, as a writer and a storyteller, to see how far I’d come from when I first started writing.

SH: We’ve talked a little bit about cosmic horror, so I’m wondering if we could get your thoughts on something – maybe speak to an age-old bookish debate we reviewers have from time to time.

JHJ: Okay, shoot.

SH: Do you think that anything and everything that is cosmic horror or has tentacles or ancient sea monsters/gods automatically has to be given the brand “Lovecraftian”? I mean, did he invent cosmic horror and tentacles and the like?

JHJ: I think it’s easier to just say “Lovecraftian,” but I prefer “cosmic horror” because of Lovecraft’s dubious legacy. In some ways, huge swaths of horror are “cosmic,” because of what it indicates about humanity’s place in the greater scheme of things. That we live in a harsh and unforgiving universe that is indifferent to our joys, loves, fears, suffering. We are minuscule. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is cosmic horror in that sense.

But specifically to your question, I don’t know if Lovecraft is the first to write about that – he was the first, of course, I was exposed to, though I came to him through a story in one of Stephen King’s books – Salem’s Lot, I think it was.

The more you scratch at the surface of horror, the more you get to a place of a “cosmic” horror. Take, oh, zombies. Or vampires. Or ghosts. The same kind of questions come up with these creatures the more you think about them as the questions that come up with, say, cancer: how could a benevolent universe allow something like this to exist?

It can’t. The universe is, if not malevolent, it’s definitely uncaring.

SH: That just got heavy

JHJ: Oopsies.

SH: I’m sitting here staring off into the uncaring cosmos…

JHJ: Careful it does not stare back into you.

SH: This is why you write horror. You’re scary. [laughs]

JHJ: Nah, not me.

SH: Okay before we say time’s up on our hour, I do want to ask you what you’re currently reading, or if you don’t have a book going right now, what have you read in 2020 that you’ve loved?

JHJ: I really enjoyed Daniel Polansky’s The Seventh Perfection. I just did a reread of Tad William’s Osten Ard series from the late 80s and early 90s, and that was a nostalgic trip. I’m reading a bunch of Hungarian folklore and history in non-fiction to go along with the book I’m writing.

I’ll give you a wee hint as to its subject – it’s called A Gentleman of Carpathia.

SH: Ooooh! I’m excited! So like historical fiction with horror elements?

JHJ: That’s the book that goes with the linocuts I’ve been posting. More historical horror, which is kind of my sweet spot, it seems.

SH: And Murder Ballads and Other Horrific Tales came out late June, so that’s ready to buy right now, correct?

JHJ: That’s right. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that if you buy it from the publisher, you also get an ebook of your choice.

SH: That’s a great deal!

JHJ: Yes, it is. I just made sure the cover matched my last release so they “family” together.

SH: Readers love that! I love that. I enjoy when my books look good together so thank you for that on behalf of other readers like me, and thank you for meeting with me today!

JHJ: Well, you’re welcome on both accounts! Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure as always.


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