Reading through Charlee Jacob’s fiction, it is easy to identify the varieties of horror that she found most fertile. For one, she showed a particular fascination with relationships between predators and prey: strong characters, often men, brutalising women and children in a process that warps and damages both victim and perpetrator. Jacob’s stories incorporate this motif into a number of different contexts – but, again, the recurring themes are hard to miss.
Above all, Jacob’s stories associate horror with creativity – with art and artifice, performance and spectacle. Her characters enthusiastically discuss horror and exploitation films; they track down forbidden horror novels and magazines; they don outrageous punk or Goth fashions or sport elaborate tattoos of death and destruction; they attend carnivals celebrating Halloween or the Day of the Dead; they watch trashy TV documentaries that turn atrocities into entertainment; they frequent freak shows – and not as the audience.
There are other contexts in which Jacob’s stories locate horror. Warfare is one: Soma’s representation of the Vietnam conflict and Dread in the Beast’s treatment of the Gulf War are obvious examples, while a number of her other feature mentally and/or physically scarred combat veterans as side characters (Harry Tyler in This Symbiotic Fascination, Uncle Dan in Still, Frank Bunny in Season of the Witch). Religion is another of her favourite contextual frameworks – we need look no further than the meticulously-created faeces-faith of Dread in the Beast, or the fractured Christianity in her collection The Myth of Falling.
Yet through all of this it is the creative horror, the performance horror, that remains paramount in Jacob’s work, overshadowing and encroaching upon other varieties. Soma is focused primarily on war and religion, yet nonetheless ended in a climax set at a Halloween celebration; Dark Moods, set in ancient history, avoided pop culture and performance altogether but the result felt like a misjudgement rather than new territory.
And then we come to Containment: The Death of Earth. Published in 2017, this was Jacob’s final novel. Her longstanding fascination with horror films, exploitation media, funereal subcultures and the carnivalesque is for all intents absent. In its place, the horrors of warfare and – even more prominent – of religion reign. Containment is a book that invites its reader to set aside worldly Goth-garb and experience transcendence.
As per usual with Charlee Jacob’s novels, the plot of Containment is bifurcated between two protagonists. The first character we meet is a thirteen-year-old boy who lives with an individual referred to simply as the Angel. The Angel tells the boy that he is descended from the Nephilim, the giants of Old Testament and Apocrypha who arose from the forbidden union between angels and mortals: even at his young age, he is six feet tall. The Angel informs him that he was created for the purpose of bringing forth a supernatural being – and when he struggles to understand his destiny, the Angel punishes him brutally. One of the boy’s few learning materials is a book entitled the Enantiodromia, which contains the fallen angels’ perspective on their condemnation:
Rejoice in the exile for our shameless insolence.
Revel in the excommunication from Love we suffer because we recanted our loyalty to a fickle Lord.
Glut, soaked red from feet to eyebrows, within this sanctioned, this sanctimonious grume.
We were those who took free will by force. We chose to reach for more, daring to evolve, to own the gossamer soul. You can never annihilate us.
Containment’s other protagonist, Louise, enters the novel as a five-yea-old. Her mother Shimani was the sole survivor of a large Sudanese family wiped out in ethnic cleansing, raped and impregnated before fleeing the country altogether (Shimani previously had her arms cut off at the age of twelve: Jacob’s recurring motif of limb loss turns up still again). The two travel Africa together, suffering shared nightmares of strange crocodile-men. Shimani contracts HIV after being raped once again and eventually dies, after which Louise is adopted by a woman named Aziza.
Aziza, like Louise’s birth mother, has a traumatic past. During the same conflict that cost Shimani her family, Aziza’s children were killed by her former friends, who she was forced to kill in turn. Louise continues her travels with her new mother, and their conversations touch upon spiritual matters: Aziza believes that all gods are essentially the same. As it happens, their journey puts them up close to a spirit, as they encounter a figure that Louise calls Embe mwanamke – mango woman:
The woman even wept orange tears. But her apparition flickered in and out, the way that pictures in television sets in some of the hospitals Shimani used to visit would go to nothing and then return, according to their cheap cable’s whim.
The woman blocked the path.
No. Not a woman. She was kizuka.
The mango woman appears between the travellers and a village. Aziza pleads with the apparition to let them pass, to find safety in the village – only to realise that they are being blocked for their own safety, as the area has been stricken with cholera.
Meanwhile, the unnamed Nephilim-boy finally escapes his enclosure. For the first time in his life he is outside, and finds himself on a sunny American beach filled with sunbathers and surfers – contrary to the Angel’s claims that humanity has been destroyed.
Then, suddenly, an earthquake occurs, sending a fissure along the shoreline. A nearby mother inexplicably throws her baby into the crack, but before he can get a coherent explanation from the woman, the Nephilim-boy is tugged back inside by the Angel. His brutal guardian proceeds to torture him, thrusting hooks into his back and winching him upwards to make him fly like a grotesque parody of an angelic being. But it is too late, and the boy has already begun to doubt all that he has been taught.
In due course he finds that the “Angel” is actually an insane woman named Angela, his mother – even though she had led him to believe that his mother was dead. Angela had taken part in a research project attempting to summon a fallen angel and create an army of Nephilim; although the experiment caused Angela to lose her mind and kill the other members of the project, it was a partial success as the angel was summoned. The boy sees proof of this when he meets his father: the fallen angel Azzael.
The story skips forward twenty-five years. We learn that the crack that opened in the beach was just the beginning of a large-scale geological catastrophe caused by the Long Valley supervolcano, which devastated multiple American states; the event became known as “Pacifica”, as did the remaining stretch of the West Coast. This apocalyptic destruction was compounded by a global pandemic that killed millions (a theme reminiscent of Vectors: A Week in the Death of a Planet, a 2007 poetry collaboration between Charlee Jacob and Marge Simon). But the virus was halted with the aid of a vaccine developed by Dr. Adam Grigori – who, in his younger years, was the nameless Nephilim-boy. Meanwhile, Adam’s wife Laura was found as a baby in a mango tree, hinting at a connection with Louise’s vision of the mango woman at the cholera-stricken African village.
Containment’s description of post-apocalyptic Pacifica is the only section of the novel that makes substantial use of pop-culture imagery, as when Jacob introduces us to the scavengers and profiteers who stayed behind: “Many folks who’d long ago made motion pictures about chainsaws, mutants, and cannibalism, oh my! would have glowed with righteous vindication at the idea. Except that most of them had perished when La-la Land met the geological version of the Loup-garou.” By the time Adam Grigori leads a team to the area, a new generation has grown up in this scarred and twisted landscape:
The team had run across—occasionally run afoul of—cults dangerous as HELL. They dubbed them with silly names to manage their own stress: the Booberries, the Unlucky Charms, the No-Count Chokulas, the Corn Pops, in honor of the exploding brain cells one could actually hear during drugged-induced, dark, hex-git-nekkids.
And not to be laughed at: the Fruit Loops who served an unseen ‘sorcerer’ who dwelled inside a tower ripped from once-Disneyland’s castle. The structure had floated all the way from Anaheim to their island off what used to be San Francisco. Oz they called their master-sorcerer, these mostly barely-pubescent kids who likely had never even seen The Wizard of Oz.
The apocalypse, it turns out, is still ongoing. On the anniversary of the Pacifica incident Europe is hit by a string of volcanic eruptions, causing the complete destruction of Rome and widespread devastation elsewhere. Yet international news, determined to give the impression that things are carrying on as normal, censors all coverage of the calamities; this leads to the sense of dreamlike ambiguity found in many of Jacob’s stories, where characters witness horrors only to doubt whether the events ever happened at all.
Meanwhile, the novel’s co-protagonist Louise is still surrounded by bloody political turmoil. She has married an abusive husband named Sam Joto, while her son Uwezo has been forcibly recruited by insurgents. She suffers from weird visions, the reality around her blurring with folkloric images and memories from her traumatic childhood. Adam likewise has bizarre visions, encountering his father Azzael and being told about the existence of parallel universes: “Imagine a universe where Jesus lived to a ripe old age, then a parallel place where Jesus died on the cross. Schrodinger’s Christ, ha! Jesus performed miracles and exorcisms here, yet elsewhere ended up a eunuch in a Syrian brothel.” In one vision, a mysterious man subjects Adam to a series of cartoonish distortions:
Then he grasped Adam’s head with both gloved hands, working it like a sculptor fisting a fresh lump of clay, molding and straining it until it was as pliant as the liquefied earth, as vulcanite. He stretched until Adam’s head became a diaphanous plastic. Adam couldn’t scream with his jaw distended down to his belly, tongue wrapped like a rubber band around his knees. He was a fun house mirror geek.
The young man twisted his fingers in front of Adam’s face, then laughed. “Got your nose.”
He opened his leather-bound hand. There it was, crusted with a roasted cheese of mucus, resembling meringue in a burned pie.
Like recurring nightmares, scenes from before the novel’s twenty-five-year jump begin repeating. In her delirium, Louise Joto relives atrocities similar to those suffered by her late mother as hallucinatory insurgents turn into monsters and rape her.
Meanwhile, the grown-up Adam Grigori – who as a child witnessed the inexplicable sight of a woman throwing her baby into a pit – now sees a woman throwing her baby into a helicopter’s rotor blades.
Horrors from the past are encroaching upon the present – a situation that segues from the figurative to the literal when the apocalyptic Earth is visited by eons’ worth of ghosts:
The earth unzipped.
The phantoms of each man, woman, and child who ever perished from disease; every pack, herd, and pride, every school, every flock and murder, once dead, now sought to unravel from the clay; and to embrace their living kind as an accursed kiss dissolved in a pestilent wind. The oceans and seas burned with the red tides. Flora rustled and were purged to nothing by swarms of locusts, ants, weevils, beetles, worms, and moths both living and dead – finally only dead. The haunted hunted, some with revenant wolves in their stomachs, others disembodied parasites hoping to leech a portion of the sacrosanct they could not possess in life.
Some of the ghosts represent specific historical atrocities, as with two ghosts seen by Laura Grigori: “One was wrapped in a blanket, feathers in her wilted hair as blood dribbled from open sores on her sorrowful face. The other was a young African man covered in perspiration and shaking, encumbered by chains which rattled as he moaned – a sad caricature of the storybook apparition.” Others are not even human, yet still fit the apocalyptic atmosphere: we are told that the countless ghosts include the spirits of deceased bacteria and viruses. The ghosts are a global phenomenon, encountered not only by the Grigoris in America but also by Louise and her family in Africa. They, however, are protected by the mango woman, a figure avoided by the other spirits.
The enigmatic mango woman (who, incidentally, appears under a different guise in Jacob’s novel Soma) is one of the few elements that unites the narratives of Adam Grigori and Louise Joto. Louise and her family are the characters who actually see the being, yet Adam’s wife Laura is also connected to the mysterious spirit; it is not until the very end of the novel that the nature of the association is revealed, and even then, the details are thoroughly bizarre. This is appropriate, of course, for a novel that seems determined to raise more questions than it can answer.
The apocalypse of Containment takes place on multiple layers. The most literalistic is the physical death and destruction that occurs during the story. Another layer is the ongoing destruction of the story’s internal reality as it splinters into nightmares and hallucinations. Enveloping all of this is an apocalypse of form: Jacob, always rather scattershot in terms of structure, uses Containment as an opportunity to tear down formalistic conventions.
This is a process that starts slowly, seeming at first like no more than a mildly eccentric writing style. The book makes heavy use of quoted excerpts – sometimes as chapter epigraphs, sometimes in the narrative as texts read by the characters; quoted sources include the Bible, various occult writings and Jacob’s own fictitious Enantiodromia. Also scattered throughout Containment are lists: a list of epidemics, a list of geographic fault-lines, a list of islands, a list of layers that make up heaven, a list of demons, the entire periodic table, a list of diseases, a list of esoteric texts found by Laura Grigori in a library; a list of the names of God. At one point Adam, having compiled a list of mountains in his notebook, is questioned by teammate Paul:
“Have you ever considered,” Paul suggested, eyeing the block of words, “that you might be more than a trifle O.C.?”
Adam laughed. “Obsessive Compulsive? Lots of folks are into lists. Helps us think. You’ve done those crossword puzzle magazines for as long as I’ve known you. Helps you pretend to think.”
As it reaches its climax, Containment starts to look more like a scrapbook than a novel. Scenes with characters and narrative appear as fragments scattered alongside the lists, quotations, and rambling asides about mathematics, geology, epidemiology, religion and occultism. The book blows apart its setting and characters, its entire fictional universe, and even its status as novel – and then encourages the reader to piece it back together into something coherent.
At this point, it should be remembered that Containment is billed in its front matter as “a novel and grimoire”. As well as containing a story about occult rites (first to summon a supernatural entity, then to put it back again) the book is itself an occult text – one last transgression on the part of Jacob, an author who spent her career violating taste, decorum and genre, and then made a parting shot at reality itself.
In 2019, two years after Containment: Death of Earth was published, Charlee Jacob passed away. She was 67 years old.
Numerous well-regarded horror writers including Edward Lee, Brian Keene and Wrath James White have praised Jacob’s abilities as a writer. During her lifetime she received multiple prizes and nominations at juried awards, culminating in Containment’s runner-up position at the 2018 Splatterpunk Awards. This acclaim from her genre peers never amounted to popular success: Charlee Jacob was certainly not a Stephen King or Anne Rice in terms of mass-recognition. Nor, indeed, did she ever receive substantial critical attention – to date, very little has been written about her work.
It would be easy to translate this into a catchy-but-obvious slogan: that Charlee Jacob was the horror writer’s horror writer, for example, or perhaps the horror genre’s best-kept secret. These do little to sum up the value of her work, however.
An accomplished writer of both prose and poetry, she had a gift for turns of phrase that were either ornate and evocative, or drily observational – and in each case able to derive aesthetic appeal from relentlessly appalling subject matter. Sometimes she took inspiration from atrocities occurring around the world or throughout history; at other times she drew upon her own experiences: in her occasional autobiographical writing she discussed her life as a survivor of abuse and a person with multiple disabilities. Empathy, rather than exploitation, runs through her literature of transgression.
Jacob’s fiction has psychological depth, particularly in regards to sexuality. Vast stretches of her literary output is given over to understanding what drives an abuser to abuse, how a victim can become a survivor, how the mind of a fetishist grapples with forbidden desires. Many of her characters are defined by their relationship with abnormal sex, and form what may be one the most sympathetically-rendered collection of perverts ever created by a professional novelist.
She also explored the psychology of religion. In Jacob’s fiction spirituality is far more than a mere prop to ward off vampires, but it is also profoundly unorthodox: religious ecstasy is intertwined with both sexual pleasure and existential horror. Her work introduces us to a pantheon of nightmarish gods, a litany of misfit saints, and a circle of hell set aside for self-righteous sinners.
Jacob had an obvious love for the horror genre, particularly the symbolic potential of its iconography, and in her most accessible fiction she was able to translate the influence of past films, books and poems into her own deeply personal work. Yet she never allowed this to become a crutch. As Containment: The Death of Earth shows, she was quite capable of leaving genre expectations altogether and pouring her own tumultuous imagination straight onto the page.
Charlee Jacob was a unique talent. Her body of work deserves to be treasured by horror aficionados for generations to come.