Samhain Publishing (2011)
What's better than a spooky old house? How about a spooky old castle? Yeah, that's a good start, but what if the castle is on a remote island? Even better. With Jonathan Janz's debut novel, he presents a horror novel that offers a blend of old gothic chills and modern gruesomeness. But, does the combination work?
The Sorrows is a great evocative name, and just so happens to be the name of the castle in which this story is set, named after a symphony created by a composer named Blackwood whose family owns the estate off the southern California coast. Now, the castle will be the muse for an aging musician under deadline to compose the score for a much-hyped horror film. Ben Shadeland is divorced, and his ex-wife is turning their son, Joshua, against him as she moves in with a new lover named Ryan. So when Ben's friend and collaborator, Eddie, tries to convince him that the Sorrows is the perfect place to get the creative juices flowing, Ben reluctantly agrees if only in part to take his mind off the torment his ex is putting him through. Along for the ride are Claire, an aspiring musician in her own right who idolizes Ben and desperately wants to work with him, and Eva, a seductive assistant to their employer who is tagging along to keep tabs on their progress since Ben has a habit of pushing his deadlines. The four are flown via helicopter to Castle Blackwood where they will reside on their own until the movie score is finished.
At the same time, a young heir and all-round degenerate, Chris Blackwood, has descended into another tight squeeze, in debt with some unsavory characters, and his arrogant tycoon of a father has no sympathy for him whatsoever. As their story progresses intermittently through the novel, it becomes clear that Chris has some traumatic memories stemming from his childhood at Castle Blackwood, and his discovery of a long-lost journal belonging to his great-grandfather's servant--chapters of which also appear intermittently through the book--offer glimpses into the estate's sinister history. At first, the chapters involving Chris Blackwood seem tangential and used as filler, but it becomes evident before long that his path is bound to converge with the Sorrows once more.
Janz crafts a story that initially feels like a familiar one, but by the end of the first act a first swerve occurs and the predictable course of action disappears entirely. And by the end of the novel you realize, the story has gone in a direction you would never have anticipated. Despite some character motivations and behavior that feel suspect at times, his writing kept me off balance, as just when I thought I had the book figured out it would slightly askew and the terror would come from an entirely new direction. I'd go into greater detail on that, but I think readers ought to discover all of that for themselves.
Ben is a great protagonist and easily likable despite his shortcomings. His point of view is only one of a half-dozen or so, however, and the others (especially the journal entries of the Blackwood's servant, which harken to the Lovecraft and M.R. James style) offer a very good rounding of the dominant storyline. As for the chills and thrills, they vary from the classic gothic tension that comes from roaming halls and catacombs of an old castle, to some titillating and/or terrifying scenes that gives glimpses into the dreadful history of the castle and its former residents.
Some of the occurrences towards the end of the book, leading into the climax, strained my suspension of disbelief, but overall I thought this was a strong debut and I'm definitely looking forward to Janz's second outing through Samhain later this year, titled House of Skin--a title that gets its own cameo within this novel.