By Rebecca Stefoff
The “Sorrows” in Jonathan Janz’s novel are many. The title refers to an island off the California coast; to a castle on that island that has been largely avoided since a bloody multiple murder took place there in 1925; and to a famous symphony composed in the early 20th century by Robert Blackwood, the grandfather of the present owner of both island and castle.
“Sorrows” also describes the states of mind and the fates of Janz’s characters – although “Terrors” would be an apter description. The events of the novel are set in motion by Chris Blackwood, the son of the man who owns The Sorrows, because he desperately needs money to pay his gambling debts. Unbeknownst to his father, Chris rents the island and castle for a month to two movie-music composers, Ben Shadeland and Eddie Blaze, who are struggling to come up with the score for a horror film directed by slasher auteur Lee Stanley. Eddie, whose role is to motivate Ben to write, arranges for the two men – and, through a series of fortuitous events, two women whom they barely know – to be helicoptered to the island. There, presumably, the grandly gloomy setting and the eerie associations of the old, unsolved murders will stimulate Ben’s faltering creativity.
Even before the composers set foot on the island, the tone of the novel, and of the two men’s relationship, is set by the first chapter, in which Eddie tries to spark Ben’s creativity with an expedition into a cave once used by a notorious serial killer. The outing fails to get results, but it does reveal Eddie’s true nature and what he will do to get what he wants. The cave episode also leads to bloodshed – minor but a sign of what is to come. The epigraph, though, offers an even earlier clue about what lies ahead. It is a passage from Machen’s The Great God Pan, about the dreadful and secret mysteries concealed behind the veil of the everyday world. That veil is not just pulled aside in The Sorrows, it is ripped to shreds and stomped on.
The author of a long horror novel must find the right balance between rip-roaring action right out of the gate and a too-slow build-up of subtle tension. Janz hits it about right, for my taste, although some readers may feel that the first hints of horror – the first unsettling minor chords in the soundtrack, so to speak – come sooner than expected. Once off the mark, the story steadily raises the stakes and ups the grue.
The Sorrows employs multiple points of view, not just the four principals on the island but others, including Chris Blackwood and Lee Stanley. Vital backstory is told through extracts from the diary, nearly a century old, of a servant of Robert Blackwood, who wrote the symphony and built the castle. Frequent point-of-view switches make for a somewhat piecemeal tale, but they let the reader see the secrets that almost every character, past and present, has concealed. Some characters are not who they pretend to be; many have hidden agendas that conflict with each other. Unfortunately, it’s clear early on who the few honest, decent characters are going to be. This, in turn, makes the novel’s ultimate outcome, in terms of casualties and survivors, too-easily predictable.
Fatherhood, betrayal, and vengeance are the themes that tie various characters’ stories together. The book’s most touching relationship is that of Ben with his young son, Joshua, who lives with Ben’s ex-wife and her new fiance; the most appalling is that of the long-dead composer and Gabriel, the strange young boy he found in a Greek forest, brought home, and tormented. The fate of this boy – or was he something other than a boy? – is the dark, dormant secret of the castle. When Eddie and Ben and their companions begin their ill-considered sojourn, they awaken it. Soon, their deepest desires and weaknesses, and those of the other characters who arrive on the island as the novel approaches its climax, are turned against them.
The Sorrows is a bit overlong, with too many coincidences and improbabilities to go down altogether smoothly. But to his basic ingredients – the haunted castle and the handful of characters cut off from the outside world – Janz adds a delirious mix of sex, sadism and murder, sinking at times to Grand Guignolesque depths. If some of his human characters are two-dimensional, the thing at the heart of the castle, the thing that possesses and then destroys, is a genuinely weird and well-evoked horror.