I'm not quite sure how John Hornor Jacob's Southern Gods wound up in the raffle on my camping vacation, all I know is that I won it along with a couple other books. And since I've been waiting on stuff at the library, it provided something to read while I wait.
We open on 1951 Memphis, Tennessee, where Bull Ingram, former Marine who fought in Guadalcanal, is working as a collection agent for a loan shark. Bull, while not as shell shocked as some returnees, does seem to have a few reentry issues, and lives in a boarding house. One of the local radio station owners hires Bull to go find Early, who was last seen in Arkansas looking for Ramblin' John Hastur and a pirate radio station that plays his music. Early also was evidently passing on R&B and early rock records along with payola to get stuff played on Arkansas radio.
In the meantime, we have Sarah, who leaves Little Rock with her daughter Frannie, following her husband (also a WWII vet who's coping with return with alcohol and beating Sarah) hitting her too many times. She returns to Big House, in Gethsemane, where her mother is dying of Lupus. Sarah's father and uncle (both passed) have amassed a rather large occult book collection stored in the study. We find out much later on they were seeking their brother, who had consumption, who also evidently killed off half the family before vanishing.
The last member of this trio is Father Andrez, originally from Montenegro, now running a small parish in Arkansas. Father Andrez used to curate the Forbidden Library in the Vatican, where much of Sarah's occult library originated from.
(There's also Alice, housekeeper of Big House, caretaker of Sarah's mother, and mild hoodoo woman. Who honestly should have had a bigger part in this, since she's by far the most interesting character. On the other hand, she's the only believer at the beginning, so it's likely her horror would not have been quite as great as the gradual unflowering of the main three.)
As the book progresses, Bull finally meets Ramblin' John at a club outside Stuttgart following an incident at a small radio station where Ramblin' John's music literally wakes the dead DJ. At the club, something similar happens, except the living start killing each other and then reanimating. Bull follows the Pale Man to the Mississippi, where he collapses on a boat and winds up at Gethsemane.
By the very end, we know who made a deal with Hastur, have a very small idea of whom the Prodigium are, and have a very bleak understanding of humanity and its relations with several gods.
For those playing along at home, yes, there's a heck of a lot of Cthulhu mythos coming into play here, although there are gods not created by Lovecraft that also come out in the story.
One of the biggest problems with Lovecraft is racism. While Arkansas in 1951 (and Tennessee for that matter) wasn't exactly integrated, for lack of a better term, this only gets mentioned in passing in relation to a segregated pool. Also, given Ramblin' John is a blues man, much of his audience is African-American. (On one hand, most of the characters know John is a problem, but again...) I can't personally judge whether or not this is mildly racist, but I'm also in a place of privilege. Had Hastur been a mincing queen or any of the other bad guys been queer coded or limp wristed sissy, then I could better judge things like that. They aren't, so...
For those most part, it's a fun read. My biggest issue, besides the most interesting characters being mostly reduced to pop in and out roles, is that it feels quite a bit like much of the story got left behind in the editing room, like we're only seeing skeletons instead of a fully fleshed out monstrosity. But, it is still a fun take on Lovecraft in a more modern setting.