A satyr of Greek myths and legends haunts a secluded island in the debut novel by Jonathan Janz. Setting off with a quote from The Great God Pan (1890) by Arthur Machen, the Sorrows (2011, Samhain) proceeds to drag Pan’s horns and hooves into the 21st century with laymonian gusto. Interspersed with backstory from the 1920s, the novel follows a pair of present-day composers and their associates as they seek the solitude of the island to compose a film soundtrack for an upcoming horror movie.
The composers are horror hounds, looking for macabre places that set their creative juices flowing. The Sorrows, an island with an imposing mansion and shady history is the perfect site for such a venture. Ben is the more artistic of the two, while Eddie takes care of business. The two are accompanied by female consorts, Claire, a demure young woman, and Eva, a not-so-demure young woman. All have their own sorrows, some heavier than others.
Added to the mix is a multitude of secondary characters, who all eventually end up at the island for the sake of the plot. Before that, however, the composers and their ladyfriends go through the traditional motions of discovering that the haunted house is actually haunted. Not by ghosts, but by something worse. The journal entries from the 1920s tell the story of a previous owner who, for personal benefit, brought back to the island something he found in a Greek forest. That something grew up and was eventually locked up, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
The characters are affected by their stay in the house, they have vivid dreams or see ghosts from their own past. Some characters who are slightly unhinged to begin with become murderous, a scenario that has happened to various people in the past as well. It’s all apparently caused by the closeness of the Greek import, a lascivious, hooved creature that eventually turns up in the bowels of the house. Fighting, infighting, rape and destruction ensue, at a progressively harder tempo.
There is a lot of plot in the Sorrows. There is a lot of backstory as well, with each character bringing some trauma or other to the novel. There is a point where it all feels a little too much. A lot of the murderous impulses can be blamed on the creature’s effect, but still it seems slightly implausible that a such a great number of budding psychopaths would end up on the island simultaneously. The suspension of disbelief creaks in its joints especially towards the end, where threats come from left to right and characters that disappeared from the novel early on drop by to have a chat and a kill.
All the mayhem would be unbearable if it weren’t for the fluency with which Janz pulls it off. The chapters come in increasingly short, rapid fire bursts as the action increases. The different story strands themselves are mostly well constructed and realistic; my complaint is simply that there may be too many of them. Descriptions of sounds are used to great effect, whether the sounds are screams from behind a closed basement door or music from a bricked-up tower long after the person inside should have died.
The Sorrows feels like a love child of Arthur Machen and Richard Laymon; at its’ core it’s an almost poetic story of a being torn from time immemorial and placed in modern society. On the surface, however, it’s a sleazy action-fest with lurid sexual overtones. The imbalance may reflect the passing of time between the eras of Machen and Laymon, an effect accentuated by the past being seen only through elegantly written journal entries. Just saying, in reality it might’ve been as hot and heavy in the twenties, if not for the prudish journalkeeper. The Greek satyr itself is a black behemoth oozing lust and violence, an uncontainable force of nature, both a snarling beast and a victim of common human cruelty. Compared to the lot that visits the island, he doesn’t even seem all that bad.