The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie
Following hot on the heels of my review of The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre from author Jonathan Raab comes the follow-up novella, The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie. I’ll readily admit that I had extremely high expectations coming to this novella, because of how much I’d enjoyed The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. I’d fallen in love with the cover art and blurb for the first book in the Sheriff Kotto series, in which Mr Raab had created this incredible blend of conspiracy theories, weird horror and dark sense of humour , added to some incredibly timely and incisive commentary of the fragmented, highly politicised and militarised nature of the law and order system in the United States of America. It was a fantastic piece of weird horror – perhaps one of the best I’ve ever encountered in the genre after some extensive reading. As such, I jumped straight into this novella after finishing the first book; I craved more of the atmosphere that the first title provided so well, and I especially wanted to see more from Sheriff Kotto, now one of my favourite characters to appear in a book series in any genre and a sure-fire classic of the Weird Horror genre.
After all, how could you not love a book which starts with Sheriff Kotto – local law enforcement, paranoid conspiracy theorist and, above all, a paranoid conspiracy theorist with concrete proof of those theories being true – encountering ‘cornstalk-men’ who appear to be made out of nothing but corn, animated through occult practices, and try and intimidate him from entering the realms of Little Dixie? It’s a wonderfully grim start to the novella, notably darker than the way that its predecessor started, but then that’s one of the overarching themes of The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie – after all, this is the world (shared universe now?) of author Mer Whinery, author of the brilliant slice of Weird Western/Gothic Horror that is Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun. That was a wonderful novel but extraordinarily dark in tone, with some incredibly heavy themes and imagery running through it, and I have to admit that I was curious as to the approach that Raab would take in integrating two rather different approaches to the Horror genre.
Fortunately, I discovered rather quickly that Raab is entirely up to the challenge, taking the world of Sheriff Kotto and blending it with Whinery’s Little Dixie to produce a novella that is still recognisably the world and characters from The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre, but adopts (and adapts) the much darker and challenging themes of Little Dixie. The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie begins with Sheriff Kotto on a solo journey this time, unaccompanied by his faithful deputy Abraham Richardson; travelling into the haunted, twisted and occult-rife region of south-eastern Oklahoma that is Little Dixie, he finds himself the sudden and unexpected inheritor of the estate of a recently-deceased relative, one that he had no idea existed. It’s an interesting plot device, because it allows both Kotto and the reader to be drawn into the world of Little Dixie without having any preconceptions of what’s going to happen in the story, and also because it allows Raab to differentiate the tone of this novella from the preceding novel. It slowly but surely becomes clear that the Sheriff has unwittingly become embroiled in another potentially world-ending plot, but one that has far deeper and unsettling roots than people turned into cannibals by alien-influenced moonshine.
What struck me as I progressed through the novella is Raab’s mastery of descriptive, atmosphere-laden language that allows him to effortlessly draw the reader into the murky, shadow-formed world of Little Dixie. It’s a whole different world from that of the first title in the series, and I found that Raab obviously ‘got’ just what Mer Whinery was aiming for in developing Little Dixie. Although set centuries after the events of Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun and in a different part of the region, Raab still evokes the drained, colourless and disrupted nature of Little Dixie and its inhabitants; although purported to be in the early 21st Century like the rest of the nation, everything seems to be tired, rotten and uncared for once you get past even the most superficial of glances. Ancient hatreds – human and inhuman – are still the base emotions and inherent motivations of almost everyone living in the area, and you get the sense that the whole region is somehow cloaked in something – a miasma – that drains the life and vitality from man, beast and plant. It’s an eerie, creepy and above-all unsettling atmosphere that Raab creates for the novella, and it highlights his skill as a writer that he can so easily make a tonal shift from one setting to another and still make it engaging for the reader.
It isn’t just a tonal shift that differentiates The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie from its predecessor, but also the fundamental nature of the themes being examined. The core of the narrative is still based around the idea that all conspiracy theories are actually true, and that Kotto finds himself in an unwanted role of defying them; but in many ways this is a much deeper and more personal journey for the character of Cecil Kotto, and goes a great way towards making him an iconic figure of the genre by giving him more depth as a person in the world. Because Kotto is an African-American, and the region he drives into is not only enmeshed in a terrifying, occult conspiracy theory, but also one which might conservatively described as ‘Unreconstructed’. It may be 150 years after the fall of the Confederacy, but there are still plenty of people in the region who are determined to retain the supremacy of the white race; and that racial element is openly and unflinchingly examined by Raab in what is often uncomfortably searching terms.
In the best values of the Horror genre, Raab uses the narrative to highlight uncomfortable facts; just as The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre looked at the rapid rise in the militarisation of the US police forces, The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie depicts the racism that is still allowed to exist in backwater, isolated areas like this, ingrained into the very fabric of society. There are certainly laughs to be had from the appearance of an occult branch of the KKK – and believe me, Raab’s dry and dark sense of humour comes into play here – but Raab also doesn’t shy away from making the reader question how likely it is that such organisations still exist in our reality, even without occult magic. There’s also a fascinating subtext running through the novella about how to resist such ingrained racism – while there is very much an opposition to the KKK magicians, in the form of black magic being evoked by some of the region’s African-American inhabitants, Raab highlights the cost of doing so – the social cost, as well as the cost to one’s soul. Does using black magic to fight men with black hearts actually work? Does the sacrifice of one to save many work when occultism is involved? These are inherently difficult questions with no real answers, which I liked – Raab doesn’t pretend that there are easy answers – if any – to be found.
In what is always a good sign, by the end of the novella Sheriff Kotto has evolved asa character – indeed, Raab has rather put him through the wringer, physically and emotionally, and he’s something of a different person by the final chapter. We get much more of an insight into Kotto’s character and personality, with Raab unflinchingly highlighting the manic, mentally exhausting life of a conspiracy theorist – the loneliness, the desperate desire to connect with something and belong to a group no matter how fringe, and the vices that accompany that. Above all of that, of course, is the delicious irony that the conspiracy theories are real, something that Kotto has to deal with on top of everything else. We see how being elected as Sheriff might have started out as a cruel joke on the part of the electorate, but it has actually begun to give Kotto a utility that previously he didn’t have; there might be cornstalk men, bone-and-metal UFOs and weird abduction cases, but he’s the one who has the skills and duty to oppose them, and we see him grow into the role in a rather pleasing and even oddly charming way.
With a surprisingly emotional ending, The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie is a roller-coaster adventure through the Weird South and the grim-dark region of Little Dixie, full of quiet (and loud) occult and cosmic horror, and all drenched in a deeply engaging and authentic atmosphere and an occasional sly sense of humour that peeks through, tongue in cheek. Excellent characterisation, some great action scenes, particularly towards the end of the novella, and some of the best Weird Horror writing I’ve ever encountered in the genre, The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie is an amazing achievement by Jonathan Raab, and by far the best title I’ve come across from Muzzleland Press. Plus there’s more of that incredible cover art from artist Pete Lazarski, which once again demands to be printed on high-quality paper and stuck up in studies and living rooms belonging to fans of the Horror genre. In conclusion, I’m going to be brutally direct: I demand that you read this novella, and then read everything else by Jonathan Raab, and then move onto Muzzleland Press itself. Only then will you experience the pinnacle of Weird Horror.