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Title: Voodoo Heart
Author: John Everson
Release Date: October 20, 2020
Genres: Supernatural horror
Pages: 256 pages
Star Rating: 4.5/5 (rounded to 5)
John Everson’s newest novel feels like a 1970’s giallo wormed its way into the grime and booze-soaked charisma of New Orleans. Its troubled protagonist, Detective Ribaud (also known as “Cork"), investigates a string of late-night disappearances in which the victims leave behind a blood-soaked bed and intact heart. Although his wife was the first to vanish, the case becomes more and more personal as he gets closer to the heart of the mystery.
I love horror and thrillers set in the South, and New Orleans is a city steeped in things that make for a great atmosphere: poverty, liquor, French romanticism, a cruel history, and of course, voodoo (alternately spelled Vodou). Vodou and a similar Southern practice, hoodoo, have always fascinated me for a reason that I rarely talk about: my family’s history and escape from an extreme Pentecostal/evangelical faith, which made the lives of my mother and her sisters a living hell. My mother and her sisters once went away to a parishioner's farm for a weekend, where a chicken was butchered and served for dinner. The chicken feet were found stashed under my aunt’s bed later, bound with string to some other items, and my mother and her sisters were gravely punished for what was judged as a grisly prank. I heard this story several times until, as an adult, I found out via research that the feet were likely to be a talisman of protection in the hoodoo faith, and that one of the workers at the farm likely knew what my grandfather was up to, and risked quite a bit to try to help my mom and aunts.
So, what does this have to do with horror? Too often, Vodou and associated practices are portrayed as devious, near-Satanic practices in film and other media. The 1987 film Angel Heart is a great example, in which the rituals are used only to harm, and to depict Lisa Bonet’s character as exotic, dangerous, and untrustworthy. Voodoo Heart handles this much more sensitively—the novel shows the light and dark side of practices found in New Orleans and distinguishes more serious practice from the shtick of tourist shops. There is also much more of the history of Vodou practice and popularity than you would find in the average novel that includes it as a plot point.
The imagery in the book is as striking as you could expect from its cover, and it’s balanced by the emotional impact of the disappearances as well. Everson’s Detective Rimbaud isn’t the stone-cold detective that you see in bestsellers; his doubts, guilt, and horror are like a fruit expertly muddled into the liquor that is the blood-soaked, swampy, disturbing images of its plot. I never really found Rimbaud likable—the one sour point in the novel, for me, was his propensity to sleep with women in precarious or abusive situations, ignoring how much danger it could bring them. Still, the book is so well-written and beautifully atmospheric enough that I solidly recommend it – especially if you enjoy media like True Detective's first season, HBO’s Sharp Objects, or Jim Thompson’s work.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran
Nightfilm, Marisha Pessl
Content warnings: mind control, gore, alcohol abuse, mentions of domestic violence and sexual assault
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.