In Charlee Jacob’s fiction, the modern landscape of mass media and urban sprawls is never far from the barbarism of the ancient world. An earlier age of weird divinities and brutal religious rites is present just below the surface of those millennial cityscapes, ready to burst forth into the lives and minds of contemporary humanity. Dread in the Beast is her clearest expression of this theme, inventing as it does a scatological mythology that arrives in the present via a sewer explosion, but a similar tension between ancient myth and mundane modernity runs through much of her work.
With her 2007 novel Dark Moods, however, Jacob examined the theme from a different angle. Unlike any of her novels before or since, Dark Moods takes place entirely within the ancient world, depicting a time when the gods and monsters of mythology do not merely erupt into the present – because they are the present.
Dark Moods begins with the story of Emana Hathor, who belongs to a vampiric race known as the Ishantu. Such beings are an accepted part of the novel’s ancient society; indeed, Emana and her husband Rasal are valued for their public services. In addition to acting as healers they are able to perform the drinking of sin, a practice that can absolve those condemned to death before entering the afterlife. Tash Hila, a man sentenced for the murder of his fiancée, is one who arranges for Rasal to drink his sins at the time of his execution:
Rasal took the gold needle from the chain at his neck and cut an incision into the condemned man’s throat, quickly putting his mouth to the well of blood. It pumped freely from the artery, hot and foul, full of the screams from his many sins. They rang in Rasal’s ears, leapt about his skull trying to find an exit, wept down his throat.
Everyone held their breaths, waiting. But Tash Hila’s spirit wasn’t to be further tormented for his sin.
The dark was grateful.
The sin sat upon the belly of the vampire who staggered in anguish up the hundred steps, seeking only Emana’s gentle consolation.
But the relationship between humans and vampires is set to change. Lar Anut, an enemy of Tash, resents the killer’s last-minute salvation and, in a fit of rage, beheads Rasal. Emana tries to resurrect but fails – and, in the process, demonstrates that she is as flawed as any mortal. As a result, humans no longer see vampires as a superior species, and Emana is subsequently exiled from the city. She begins a journey across the land, wandering through new places and meeting new people, all the while haunted by the memory of her slain husband.
During her travels, Emana is given the opportunity to look back into history. She sees a world where the remnants of the ice age have yet to melt, a time in which two priests named Pazu and Lilit engage in scientific research. Pazu is trying to devise a means of making humans immortal; the implications of this project appal Lilith, but she is powerless to prevent it. Pazu eventually develops the immortality serum and tests it on his students Wea and Faj, while Lilit leaves the land in disgust. Before long, the past activities of Pazu and Lilit finally catch up with Emana’s present.
When summarised, this plot does not appear too far outside the norms of vampire fiction. After all, Anne Rice had already traced the history of her undead characters back into an ancient world dimly remembered through mythology. But Charlee Jacob is not simply imitating Rice’s model. Dark Moods retains Jacob’s career-long commitment to building stories out of dream-imagery, something that begins with the weird morphology of the novel’s vampires:
The tribe stared, the subtle differences of Ishantu from human illuminated by what few fires still burned around the camp. There was no pubic hair and the folds of her genitals were as bright a red as her mouth and eyes. The navel was on the back, where the umbilical linked mother and child of her race. The nipples of her breasts weren’t rounded nubs but petaled like rosebuds, also very red. These were said to open when an Ishantu nursed her infant, the blood milk rising to the surface of the blossom resembling dew.
The ancient world of Dark Moods is built upon the same mingling of the nightmarish and the erotic that permeates Jacob’s other works. A dwarf named Solon guides Emana through the city of Kur, portrayed as a place of licentiousness where sex workers openly ply their trade and glass-studded dildos are sold at marketplaces; she is startled by what she sees, despite her own culture being far from prudish. The sights of Kur soon segue from the erotic to the disturbing. In one scene Emana witnesses live children who have been stuffed into jars, twisted limbs emerging from openings like fleshy plants in vases. “Years later,” we are told, “the jars would be broken apart and the stunted, sculpted bodies would be pulled out—finished anomalies.” Shades of the bonsai women from Dread in the Beast.
The motif of alternately dreamlike and nightmarish sexuality is embodied by the Kura, a race of shapeshifters who were once the main inhabitants of Kur. One, named Alali, is seen by Emana dancing in the window of a brothel, in the process shifting from female to male and to something in-between. Elsewhere, Emana catches sight of still more intense Kura transformations:
In another courtyard after this—beyond a doorway flanked by great sandstone lions—a man kept a weird-eyed beast on a chain. Emana thought at first glance that this was a woman on all fours with a glorious mane of tangled curls. But then she spied the deep cleft that split the face vertically, two eyes shimmering in muddy topaz above the flawlessly round, smooth cheeks. There was neither nose nor mouth nor chin, only the crease within which was a blossom of tight folds of flesh. The bud moved, clenched, then squeezed out a tiny ball of dark shit, which then became a nipple as the ass was transformed in sliding degrees into a single ponderous breast. This then metamorphosed to become the full lips of a woman forming a kiss, which bent into a grimace of theatrical tragedy as the topaz eyes rolled up to the whites.
Dark Moods takes place in an ever-shifting reality – with possession becoming a major plot point towards the end, even character identities are amorphous – and consequently lacks structure. The same can be said of Charlee Jacob’s other novels, but unlike those, Dark Moods has no grounding in mundane modern existence. In Jacob’s other novels, the fantasy typically inhabits a dreamworld descended into by a contemporary character like This Symbiotic Fascination’s Tawne or Dread in the Beast’s Dorien. But in Dark Moods, the strange blend of intangible nightmare and fantasy-novel history is the only reality.
That said, the novel does make an attempt to ground itself in the familiar through the use of mythological elements. One passage has Emana contemplate the widespread mythic theme of the celestial battle – Zeus and Kronus, Osiris and Set, Tiamat and Marduk, Jehovah and the rebellious angels – and concludes that her surrounding landscape was scarred by such conflicts; and, sure enough, fragments of assorted myths turn up throughout the narrative.
The characters of Lilit and Pazu are obviously derived from the Lilith and Pazuzu of Mesopotamian lore, two figures who are not particularly esoteric as far as horror fiction is concerned: Lilith has featured in sundry vampire stories, while Pazuzu was used prominently in both the novel and film versions of The Exorcist. Other mythic allusions in Dark Moods are less obvious, and more characteristic of Jacob’s recurring themes.
The shapeshifter-haunted city of Kur takes its name from the Mesopotamian underworld. Solon, the dwarf, is compared to the Egyptian god Ptah, often depicted with a diminutive stature; another character, the werewolf-like Lyko, is described as the son of Zeus and Leto – the latter having lupine aspects in some versions of her story. The cat-worship of ancient Egypt is applied to the Selem, who believe cats to be the reincarnations of dead children (the Selem are also depicted as caravan-dwelling nomads, suggesting that Jacob has drawn upon the age-old misconception that Romani people originate in Egypt). Tash, the murderer, is said to have travelled the world and followed the paths of various gods from Kali to Mithras, patterning his crimes on their often bloody myths.
But despite all of this, the novel gives the distinct feeling that Jacob is not entirely comfortable away from her typical modern settings. This is particularly clear when the narrative voice dips into Pratchettesque comedy anachronism:
The more traditional theatricals were in the styles which had become popular in Babylon, with songs and poetry on the cycle of Inanna and Gilgamesh, and these performed in Egypt with priests and the Abydos Passion Play, concerning the death and reassembling of Osiris by Isis and Horus. Miracle stuff. Fun for the whole family.
What truly gives the novel some semblance of shape and structure is not its usage of mythology, but rather its re-usage of Charlee Jacob’s favoured character types: anybody who is familiar with her other novels will recognise familiar faces in Dark Moods. As with Jacob’s debut novel This Symbiotic Fascination, entire characters are given over to exploring the archetypes of the vampire and werewolf. Solon, the dwarf guide, is an in-between figure who is marginalised by mainstream society without being a full-fledged member of the supernatural world – rather like Sam Pressure, the dwarf detective in Vestal. Tash is a brutally transgressive superman comparable to Arcan Tyler in This Symbiotic Fascination or Jason Cave in Dread in the Beast. His misogynistic fantasies, meanwhile, are described with Jacob’s usual flair for mingling the grotesque, the surreal, and the beautiful:
In still other dreams Tash was creating a sour red sky out of a woman’s flayed body. He jerked her legs so far apart that her pelvis cracked like the juncture on a shellfish. With her raw, exposed vulva he made an outraged horizon at sundown. A tiny mutilated jewel of embryo squeezed out that was the evening star. Tash buried his face into the perverse sunset until he was smeared with bloody miscarriage. Then he stretched his jaws wide so the crimson drool glittered.
Readers unfamiliar with Jacob’s work, meanwhile, are liable to be lost. On its back cover the book is summarised simply as a “dark, brooding vampire novel” – an utterly generic description that does nothing to suggest just what a bizarre, idiosyncratic piece of work it is.
Given its demanding nature, there should be no surprise that Dark Moods struggled to find a readership. It is currently the only Charlee Jacob novel to be unavailable as an ebook, and – at the time of writing – any online coverage is negligible. But while Dark Moods may not be her most successful novel, it has value as the result of Jacob following her interest in mythological literature to the limit.