When Samhain Publishing shut down in 2016, readers lost a wealth of great horror novels and up-and-coming authors. Granted, many of those books have found their way back to market in some form or another and those authors have been able to pursue new opportunities in indie publishing, either self-publishing or signing on with small presses. One of the hardest losses for me was the wealth of material from Jonathan Janz that up and vanished. Luckily, new publisher Flame Tree Press snatched him up and will be publishing his new titles along with his entire back-list.
Originally published in 2011, The Sorrows is the first to get a reissue. Fittingly enough, this was also Janz's debut novel, although it sure as hell doesn't feel like it. Coming into The Sorrows for the very first time seven years after its first publication date, I'm a bit surprised at just how much it doesn't feel like a first novel.
Usually when you've been reading an author's later works, you can tell you're taking a few steps back with their earlier stuff. Typically, those books just don't feel as polished or maybe the author hasn't quite found his voice yet, or possibly some plot points are a little sticky, if not downright sloppy, regardless of whatever promise they show. They're young pups learning their craft, a rising star whose hasn't quite found his groove yet. You've know they've got that special something, but they just haven't hit their fullest potential yet.
Well, The Sorrows doesn't suffer from any of that first-novel syndrome, and, man, Jonathan Janz hit the fucking ground running with this one. It makes me wonder how many shoddy trunk novels this dude squirreled away before he felt sure enough of his own talents that he finally pursued publication. Seems to me, Janz emerged fully-formed, his authorial voice strong, and his talents firmly on display and ready to rock. Maybe it seemed this way to Janz, too - The Sorrows is peppered with references of things to come. Take, for instance, the name of the film many of this book's characters operate on the periphery of, House of Skin, a film that shares the title and plot elements of Janz's second (and, at the time of this book's original publication date, then unpublished) novel. Even our lead male protag's name will sound awfully familiar to those familiar with the setting of Savage Species and Children of the Dark.
Ben Shadeland is a film composer with writer's block. Not a good thing to have when the film he's supposed to be scoring is ready to get locked-in and its release date is coming up fast. Hoping to avoid a breach of contract lawsuit, Ben's partner Eddie has them and their assistants, Eva and Claire, flown out to an abandoned castle situated upon an isolated island sure to get the creative juices flowing. Since this is a horror novel, there's plenty of other bodily fluids flowing and spilling all over the place, too.
What's most interesting about The Sorrows is the plot itself, particularly in the clever ways Janz develops and subverts the haunted house genre. While it shares plenty of aspects and more than a few devices with your typical ghost story, Janz takes it up a few notches, giving readers not only a haunted castle, but haunted people as well, along with a really interesting development that I didn't see coming.
This is a dazzling story, and the horror tropes at the core of it are well explored, particularly the history of Castle Blackwood and the ignominious murders that have since left it deserted. Janz's talents in delivering a fully and deeply layered horror story are solidly evident here, as is his incredible knack for characterization. Early in the book's opening, we get a look at Ben's marital troubles and the anguish his separation from his son is causing. We don't spend a lot of time with his ex-wife, but based on the state three-year-old Joshua is in, this probably isn't a bad thing at all. Through only a few sentences, Janz is able to tell us a lot about the kind of mother Jenny is, and we can infer pretty easily the type of spouse she was for Ben. I've always been impressed with how Janz can communicate so much about his characters in so little words, in such small spaces, and immediately get us to ally ourselves with his protagonist and hate his repulsive human antagonists. It's a talent he's only gotten better at since this debut, but even here it's still pretty damn sharp.
Pretty damn sharp, too, was Flame Tree Press for locking down the rights to Janz's work. That's some smart business sense right there, and I'm looking forward seeing the rest of this author's catalog getting a rapid release over the course of next year. There's a lot of Janz's books I haven't read yet, and I'm excited to dive into them as they relaunch. With a brand-new release dropping in the middle of all this, it's safe to say 2019 will be the Year of Janz and I, for one, will be celebrating all year long.
[Note: I received an advanced reading copy of this title from the publisher, Flame Tree Press, via NetGalley.]
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