John Hornor Jacobs on Cosmic Horror and The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky


John Hornor Jacobs is the author of The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, a novella of cosmic horror. In this short interview, we discuss the peculiar appeal of cosmic horror, and the resonance of his story, which involves a refugee, at a time when immigration is one of America’s biggest topics.

Unbound Worlds: You’re a novelist, mostly, and novellas occupy a strange spot in the fiction market at large. Why did you choose this format over a full-length novel? Are there any benefits to writing in a shorter format?

John Hornor Jacobs: Novellas are weird, it’s true. There were a few reasons I chose to write one. I had recently read a bunch of incredible novellas from — Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping The Interior, Cassandra Khaw’s A Song For Quiet, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Jeffrey Ford’s The Twilight Pariah – and I kind of fell in love with the form. It has quite a few of the strength of the short story and many of the strengths of the novel. You can read it in a single sitting, but there’s enough room there for deeper development of character, tone, setting, themes. One of its weaknesses I’ve noticed (since I’ve been reading so many novellas) is often a rush to an ending in the last half. Reading reviews of novellas I see people complain that either the story should’ve been expanded to novel length, or shortened to short story or novelette length.

The other reason I chose writing a novella was that I was hip deep in what I like to call my big, haunted historical southern gothic novel and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to complete it in 2018, and I had this churning, internal fear that if I don’t have something coming out I’ll be forgotten. Silly, I know, but I wanted to complete something. So, I wrote it in January, asked my agent if she wanted to represent it (I didn’t know if she would, because, as you said, novellas occupy a weird space — how much do you ask for one?) and she said yes and by the end of February we had a few offers. One from my dream publisher.

UW: Your protagonist is a refugee who has fled her war-torn country for the safety of Spain. Immigrants seeking refuge in America, some of whom have come from similarly dire circumstances, have been a major part of our news cycle for the last two years. Did any of this inspire you? To what degree?

JHJ: I can’t say that was in my mind when I wrote The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky. I had been reading a lot of Roberto Bolaño, and non-fiction books about Chile and the Pinochet regime, and the idea of America as a Cthulhian god popped into my head. So I pursued that idea where it led me.

I had a rule, before this novella, that I would never write about writers. There’s a meme that says something along the lines of “So, you wrote a book about a writer? Is he the one with the imagination?” But Bolaño definitely had his influence over me – for him, writing was a for of revolution, of resistance. It was central to the character of his country, and his identity and relationship to his country. And that enthralled me. I wanted to try to capture some of that. And that’s how Avendaño – The Eye – came about and I ended up writing about writers.

UW: I find that many cosmic horror stories feature characters who are compelled by irresistible forces coming from within or without to place themselves in harm’s way. Once they stumble upon the dark truth behind their mundane existence they can’t help but to pursue it, often to their own detriment. Is it just a way to keep a story moving, or are authors like yourselves trying to communicate something about the universe and free will?

JHJ: I think it can be both. Often, in crime noir, you have protagonists that are inexorable. They will not stop on their course of action even though they probably should, have every reason to stop, except something inside them balks. Pure obstinacy, maybe. I am reminded of the scene in A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More explains to the Duke of Norfolk why he will not accede to Henry VIII’s demands. He says, “ I will not give in because I oppose it — I do — not my pride, not my spleen, nor any of my appetites, but I do — I!” That play is so ridiculously good. 

Anyway, at the center of everyone is this hard little core of person that often goes against reason and is simple obstinacy. You see it in horror books and films where beleaguered characters should’ve just given up, given in, but they don’t for whatever reason. Obstinacy is just a good of a motivation as any other.

And I think that obstinacy in the face of adversity is the finest sort of testament to free will. “I will not give in because I oppose it.” By the way, that scene with More and Norfolk can be viewed here. Paul Scofield was a brilliant actor and won an Oscar for this role, by the by.

UW: This idea of being ill-fated is also present in 19th century gothic tale. Is cosmic horror really that far removed from the traditional horror story?

JHJ: That’s a tough question. I think the rise of cosmic horror is partially due to the ascent of reason. Atheism is growing. Spiritualism and mysticism schools are becoming less popular. Ghost stories, hauntings, vampires, witches — there’s often a sort of religious relationship with all of them. Or a moral offense. But with cosmic horror, the horror is usually an offense against reason. Maybe that’s why the protagonists hazard their sanity. The infinitesimal spark of man in an overwhelming dark and malevolent universe. 

Cosmic horror is horror for the modern man. Figuring out our place in the universe. I think the same thought that animates zombie apocalypse fiction, and shows like Rick and Morty, animates cosmic horror. With zombies, you have this mindless, teeming horde, ready to subsume you — massive and mindless. With Rick and Morty, with all its collapsed universes coexisting, there is no true individuality — there’s a whole planet of Rick and Mortys and our Rick and Mortys are no really different except in that they’re the ones we’ve been going on this journey with as the audience (which is the real genius of that show — the diminution of man’s individuality). Both of these tend to come into play when dealing with cosmic horror, at least I tried to tap into some of that when writing The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky.

So, you fight vampires with crosses, and you shoot werewolves with silver bullets. But vast entities that do not require your consent or belief and only wish to grind you into dust — how do you deal with those? How do you fight in the face of titanic malevolence. Anyone who’s dealt with the American government or has been to the DMV can tell you… patience, endurance, and obstinance.

UW: Isabel discovers that her fellow refugee has been hiding a number of dark secrets. Not all of us dabble in the occult, but we’ve all got our own secrets. Would you consider living in a radically honest society — one where secrecy isn’t possible? Would our lives be better or worse?

JHJ: For public figures, we do live in a world where secrecy isn’t possible. It will be a while before all of our elected officials realize this, but journalism has been democratized. Every person on earth with a smart phone is a citizen reporter — everything anyone says or does in a public space is liable to be filmed. The future will be livestreamed.

Do I think this is good for our society? It’s stressful, surely, seeing the terrible news everyday about how our country (with help) shat the bed and how we’re still rolling around in the filth of the Trump administration. But yes, I think this lack of secrecy is bringing to light a lot of the systemic flaws in our country. Racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, the gleeful greed of our ruling class — all of their vileness is now recorded and made public. It’s putting stress on the fabric of our society right now but I think eventually it will make us stronger.

UW: What are you working on now? What’s next?

JHJ: The deal I made with Harper Voyager for The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky is a weird one. The Sea Dreams comes out on the 30th of October only as an ebook, and will live for maybe a year, and then we’ll pull it down and it will come out in hardback with another short novel (not a novella) that has similar themes though totally dissimilar in story, setting, structure. That hardback containing the two short novels will be called A Lush and Seething Hell.

The second novel in that book is called My Heart Struck Sorrow, and it’s about a man from the Library of Congress in the 1930s (loosely based on Alan Lomax) who becomes morbidly fascinated with the lost “infernal” verses of the folk song “Stagger Lee.”

With both of these novels, I’m keeping in the horror genre but I am making an effort toward the “literary” end of the horror spectrum, because that suits my tastes more.

Currently I’ve returned to my big, haunted, historical southern novel. I’m also working on a screenplay (slowly) and intend to write more short fiction, just to remind myself I can. I’ve got a collaborative project that is Dracula related coming in the new year. And I am a partner at an ad agency so I’m always working on fun, creative designs and animations in my day job.