Jonathan Janz makes an impressive debut with The Sorrows, a gruesome confection that blends beloved elements of B-movies and pulp novels in a wickedly fun read. Reviews of the book, which came out in December of 2011 from Samhain Publishing, have drawn comparisons to Richard Laymon, comparisons which proved to be dead-on.
With an eye for balance that belies his rookie status, Janz brings a number of familiar ingredients to the table. You've got a small group of people drawn to an isolated setting, each person bringing their fair share of inner demons to a place that's already haunted by misdeeds of the past. You've got hidden agendas by the armload, mysterious noises in old, abandoned parts of a spooky castle, and even a journal that recounts previous tragedies. There are double-crossings motivated by human desires, and devious actions brought about by supernatural influences. There's also gunplay, peril, and a mythological creature with a tortured past that you might find yourself cheering for just the slightest bit before all is said and done.
To give away the book's many twists and turns would be an injustice to future readers, so we'll stick with the basic setup: Ben Shadeland and his partner, Eddie Blaze, compose music for movies. One of their best customers, Lee Stanley, is waiting impatiently for the score to his latest horror masterpiece. With an unbreakable deadline looming, the pair arrange to visit a remote island off the coast of California. Named "The Sorrows," the island has a blood-drenched history that the pair feel will provide the perfect inspiration to jump-start their work and save their careers. Joining Shadeland and Blaze are Eva Rosales, Stanley's personal assistant, and Claire Harden, an aspiring composer who comes along to assist Shadeland and Blaze in their work.
Janz sketches these characters, as well as a few others that become major players later in the story, primarily through their actions, past and present. Each has their own inner turmoil to deal with, but Janz does not invest a lot of time in naval-gazing, choosing instead to let their individual problems go on display as things ramp up on The Sorrows. For some, their problems are seized by the spirits that haunt the little island and used for torment; for others, their problems become fuel to drive them toward redemption. The result is a book that moves at a breakneck pace, filled with characters that eventually become more than standard cookie-cutter monster fodder. The ones you like, you'll really like, and the ones you hate – well, you'll root for their downfall with a passion.
Janz is smart in the way he ratchets up the tension, hitting readers with a jolt as soon as the helicopter touches down on the island, and layering it on with increasing speed as the chapters fly by. By the end the island is in complete turmoil, with characters scrambling through deserted towers and dark forests, hiding from human monsters and inhuman creatures. Deaths pile up, but every death counts, and that's an important thing that helps separate The Sorrows from so many other books with HORROR stamped on the spine.
The Sorrows is what paperback (or, these days, eBook) horror novels are all about – an engaging premise, a spooky location, lots of blood, a terrifying creature, and, ultimately, a satisfying read. Janz has set the bar high with his debut, but I have a feeling he's got a lot more tricks up his sleeve.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.