The Sorrows (Fiction Without Frontiers)

Image of The Sorrows (Fiction Without Frontiers)
Release Date: 
November 30, 2018
Flame Tree Press
Reviewed by: 

“Anyone who likes a good ghost story is going to enjoy The Sorrows. Anyone who likes a ghost story where there’s no doubt the ghosts are undoubtedly real will love this novel.”

The Sorrows is an island off the coast of northern California. It is a copy of a Scottish castle visited by Joseph Blackwood on a visit to that country, and has been abandoned since a tragedy there in 1925.

"There was an intelligence in its towering pallid contours. Something corrosive and upsettingly sly. It reminded very much of a Poe story, The Fall of the House of Usher.”

A composer like his more famous father, Robert Blackwood is in dire straits; he has to finish a commissioned piece or be sued for breach of contract. A cruel man more slavemaster than employer, physically abusing both servants and family alike, he goes to Greece, seeking inspiration, and finds it in a little boy playing a flute in the forest.

“The child’s song spoke of lost years and heartbreak. I thought of The Sorrows. How perfectly attuned to the island this music, how drearily lonesome. I felt the whole of my tormented being laid bare for the world.”

Robert takes the child back to The Sorrows. He calls him Gabriel and capitalizes on his musical ability. Gabriel composes, but Robert takes the credit for the creations.

Gabriel doesn’t stay a child, however, and as an adult, refuses to let Robert steal any more of his music.

“Gabriel shook his head. “I was happy in the forest. I was happy for many years.”

A chill coursed through me.

“You were naked and alone,” Robert said, impatiently. “Only a stupid child could find happiness in such a life.”

A horrible smile darkened Gabriel’s face. “You really believe I was a child?”

After that night Gabriel is never seen again. A month later, Robert’s son and daughter and the children of his trusted manservant jump from the castle tower and die. Shortly afterward, both the servant and Robert disappear.

The island is also the site of “one of America’s strangest unsolved mysteries.” In the seventies, a group of anthropology professors went to the island. Only one returns, and soon after, commits suicide.

Now, five more people are going to The Sorrows, each with his own demons to purge.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Ben Shadeland is in a musical slump since his divorced wife gained custody of his five-year-old son. His partner, Eddie Blaze, hopes the castle’s atmosphere and its unsavory reputation will inspire Ben to write the score for the movie, House of Skin, which is long overdue. Claire Harden, an aspiring composer, and Eva Rosales, the director’s assistant, accompany them. Arriving later will be Chris Blackwood, dissolute son of the current owner of the island.

“The Sorrows was a stunning sight. There was a thin rim of trees ringing the island’s eastern edge and in the center lay a large clearing that might’ve been a graveyard. The rest appeared heavily wooded.”

At first, the castle, with its shadows and secret passages, and the odd, isolated tower welcomes them, becoming conducive to Ben’s suppressed creative spirit, but the longer they stay, the more sinister everything becomes. And then, music begins pouring from the room at the top of the tower, a room that has been bricked up for almost a century.

“It played on, an elegiac melody, lovely and haunting. The song changed keys, soared, plunged into uncertainty, then returned to the brawling main theme which charged, bludgeoned and ultimately lifted the listener to dizzying heights before abandoning him and letting him plummet to his doom.”

Gabriel has returned, and he wants his revenge.

Anyone who likes a good ghost story is going to enjoy The Sorrows. Anyone who likes a ghost story where there’s no doubt the ghosts are undoubtedly real will love this novel.

Though there are echoes of Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted house story, The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House, this novel doesn’t copy but sets out on its own supernatural path. The Sorrows should always be accompanied by the caveat, “Don’t read this book at night.” That statement has become somewhat of a cliché where “horror” novels are concerned, but in this case, it’s more than justifiable. The language and the descriptions will evoke more than one furtive gaze into any nearby shadows to make certain they aren’t creeping closer, that there isn’t a gleam of eyes in the darkness, and the creaks and cracks of beams as the house settles aren’t actually the clop of cloven hooves on a wooden floor.

A neat conceit is the working of other Janz titles into the story as the names of horror flicks. Only two questions may arise from this story:  What happened to Gabriel’s child? and Why did Gabriel want Ben’s son?

This novel will make you wonder if that perceived whispering in your ear really is tinnitus, and whether the sudden surge of goosebumps may actually be caused by an icy finger trailing up the spine. Booklist has called Jonathan Janz a “horror storyteller on the rise.” There’s a sequel to The Sorrows coming soon.