Gothic Horror and Human Experimentation // Sorrowland

Sorrowland. Gothic Horror and Human Experimentation.

Sorrowland is as brilliant as it is dark and traumatic. That’s to say, I loved this book, but it’s not the easiest one to read. Filled with racism, misogyny, homophobia, human experimentation, incredible violence, and a deeply traumatised main character Sorrowland delivers a powerful narrative you can’t look away from. The way it combined gothic horror with fantasy, sci-fi and literary elements was superb. Sorrowland is a must-read for those who love dark fiction filled with commentary on poignant real-world issues.

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A triumphant, genre-bending novel, following a young Black woman through a nightmarish yet recognisable landscape as she attempts to create a new life for herself and her children.

Vern, a hunted woman alone in the woods, gives birth to twins and raises them away from the influence of the outside world. But something is wrong – not with them, but with her own body. It’s changing, it’s stronger, it’s not normal.

To understand her body’s metamorphosis, Vern must investigate the secluded religious compound from which she fled and the violent history of dehumanisation, medical experimentation and genocide that produced it. In the course of reclaiming her own darkness, Vern learns that monsters aren’t just individuals, but entire histories, systems and nations.

Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland is a memorable work of Gothic fiction that wrestles with the tangled history of racism in America and the marginalisation of society’s undesirables. It is a searing, seminal book that marks the arrival of a bold, unignorable voice in American fiction.


Review

Sorrowland feels like a journey on a twisting forest path; you’re never sure where you’re going, but turning back isn’t an option. Throughout all of it, you travel with Vern, the main character. She was a brilliantly complex person, driving the story forward with only her indomitable presence. She was both incredibly vulnerable and a powerful force of nature. What I loved most about her was her unapologetic difference. She doesn’t care for the constraints that humans have placed upon people. She’s partially sighted, intersex, sapphic, and a black albino that has faced so much trauma due to those identities. I loved that she raised her children as children, rather than any specific gender. Vern is a main character that could only belong in a Rivers Solomon novel, she’s compelling, wild, and you can’t help but root for her.

My favourite aspect of the novel is how it takes traditions associated with gothic horror and uses them in a fresh, new way. Gothic horror, as a form of western literature, has been predominantly white for much of its history. I’m incredibly excited by the increase in black authors who are using these tropes to tell their own stories. Including hallucinations, monsters, sexual taboos, the power of nature, the feel of being hunted, the dark atmosphere – this novel is gothic horror at it’s best. Even the names of Vern’s children: Howling and Feral encapsulate the gothic atmosphere perfectly. Some tropes are subverted, some are intensified; Sorrowland keeps you on edge in a slow, mysterious way that strengthens how brilliant the book is.

On that note, I loved how nature was depicted in this novel. The dichotomy of civilisation vs nature has been analysed in many narratives. Rivers Solomon describes nature as something that can be both wild and dangerous, but also freeing. Removed from the constraints of society the forest is a place where Vern feels most at home. Vern isn’t a master of nature; she’s a part of it. I love books that remind us that humans are nature, that our societal expectations are constructs that don’t exist in the deepest forests, that survival in nature can be difficult but so-called ‘civilisation’ isn’t any easier to traverse.

Sorrowland focuses heavily on human experimentation. Vern is from a cult that began as a black nationalist group, the Cainites, that wanted people to renounce white civilisation. Vern has escaped after facing intense violence and abuse at the hands of the Cainites. When her body begins to change in ways she doesn’t understand, she realises the Cainites might have a more sinister purpose. These themes link heavily to the history of human experimentation on black people. One of the more well-known examples of this was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which black people with syphilis were promised free medical care. They weren’t informed of their diagnosis, and instead of treating them the United States Public Health Service used them to observe what untreated syphilis will do to a body. There are many more examples of such monstrosities spread over history. I don’t want to say more about Sorrowland’s specific example, as it’s a major plot point, but the history it pulls off of is brutal.

Sorrowland is a gruelling, traumatic read that hides tiny fragments of hope within its narrative. You hold onto those fragments, hoping that despite everything, there might be some semblance of freedom from the suffering in its pages. Using gothic horror to build up a terrifying atmosphere, Rivers Solomon has created a book that’s difficult to put down and difficult to forget.

CW: religious trauma, suicide, self harm, childbirth, graphic violence, death, abuse (both physical and mental), rape, teen pregnancy, pedophilia, animal abuse, animal death, human experimentation, extreme racism, medical trauma, injury, graphic sexual content, transphobia, anti-intersex violence, misogyny, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, torture, body horror… honestly this book is a lot, stay safe.

(Thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK for providing an advance readers copy in exchange for an honest review)


About The Author

author picture.

Rivers Solomon is a dyke, an anarchist, a she-beast, an exile, a shiv, a wreck, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Fae writes about life in the margins, where fae’s much at home.

In addition to appearing on the Stonewall Honor List and winning a Firecracker Award, Solomon’s debut novel AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS (Akashic Books) was a finalist for a Lambda, a Hurston/Wright, a Tiptree, and a Locus Award, among others. Solomon’s second book, THE DEEP (Saga Press), based on the Hugo-nominated song of the same name by experimental hip-hop group clipping,  was the winner of the 2020 Lambda Award and is on the shortlist for a Nebula, Locus, and Hugo award.  Faer third book, SORROWLAND (MCD/FSG) is forthcoming May 4, 2021.

Solomon’s short work appears in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Guernica, Best American Short Stories, Tor.com, Best American Horror and Dark Fantasy, and elsewhere.​

Rivers Solomon uses “fae/faer/faer/faers/faerself” and “they, them, their, theirs, themeslf” pronouns.


Get this book

Sorrowland is being released on the 6th of May! There’s never been a better time to pre-order a copy!

If you want to remember to check out this book you should add to Add to Goodreads!

You can order the book from major retail sites including Blackwell’s and Waterstones.

I’d recommend checking out your local indie bookshop! Depending on your location you can also use Hive.co.uk or Bookshop.org to support them!

6 thoughts on “Gothic Horror and Human Experimentation // Sorrowland

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