JULY 24, 2021
I’LL ADMIT THAT I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland. I anticipated a certain amount of, well, sorrow, alongside speculative elements. But familiarity with Solomon (fae/faer/faers)’s previous work led me to believe this would not be simply (for lack of a better phrase) torture porn. In literary circles, we often talk about the historical prevalence of stories that center Black pain for a white gaze, suffering for the sake of allowing an audience to say, “Well, at least I’m not that racist.” Sorrowland is not one of those stories. Where there is violence, there is also resilience. And, though I am a non-Black reader, I see no experiences translated for the sake of a white audience.
The main character in Sorrowland, Vern, is 15 and pregnant when she escapes from the Blessed Acres of Cain, a refuge-cum-cult of Black Americans designed toward Black independence from white society. The Blessed Acres of Cain, or Cainland, was born from Black liberation movements like the Black Panthers and the fictional CLAWS group for the purpose of creating a Black society divested from white capitalism and influence, for the protection of Black people and culture. Members of Cainland live off the land and rely on their own to create what they need.
It is easy to understand why Cainland would seem like a dream for some. There is no forced participation in racist systems or institutions. They honor their ancestors, teach their history alongside important survival skills. The children born in Cainland are named after famous Black figures, or “descendants of Cain,” like Malcolm or Martin or Harriet. There are no cops, because “[w]hat goodness could there be in a place who’d made men like that their kings?”
However, the strict Christian-based ideology has a chokehold on gender roles and sexuality. Boys are educated to an extent girls are not. Queerness is a “white man’s disease,” heterosexuality is the only acceptable way, and submission to one’s husband mandatory. You’ll remember Vern is pregnant at 15, having been married to cult leader Reverend Sherman at his not-really-a-request, some years before. In the woods, she gives birth to two children whom she names, appropriately, Howling and Feral.
And then, there are the hauntings. And then, there is the fiend. Because nothing can be simple in the woods.
Pursuit by the fiend, a hunter Vern believes was sent by Cainland to bring her back, begins immediately after her departure. The hauntings began much earlier — hallucinations brought on by routine micro-dosing and a cleansing ritual Cainland calls “Ascensions.” As Vern goes on, her children grow, the fiend gets closer. The hauntings get stronger; Vern also gets stronger.
It is clear from the outset that something awful happened on that compound and, as a result, she is Becoming Something — she becomes stronger, her skin tougher to the point of rapid healing. Even after Vern and her children leave the woods and set off in search of Lucy, Vern’s childhood friend and first love who was able to escape some time before her, it is clear that Vern’s body is revolting and changing with increasing intensity. As Vern continues through life, fleeing Cainland and the fiend, seeking home and safety, her physical form shifts into something most would consider monstrous.
There is a history of queer and trans monstrosity in speculative fiction — understandable, considering all the ways society tells us we’re not normal — that ranges from Dracula to contemporary fiction like Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Tessa Gratton’s Night Shine, and A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name. It is present in readings of The Wizard of Oz, Interview with the Vampire, and Venom. The monstrosity of queer bodies began as a narrative put upon us by cisheterosexual society to elicit disgust and distrust; queer bodies are transformed to something grotesque, queer desire is twisted into bloodlust, dark magic. But this concept has since been reclaimed by the queer and trans community as a means to discuss the way otherness can become power, the way bodies and desire can transcend the bounds society attempts to put on us. Solomon’s work exists within a growing canon celebrating queer and trans monstrousness, and the surrealism of life in the margins.
With Vern’s physical transformation comes a rush of sexuality of a kind that was previously denied to her. There are frequent references to Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, a formative text for many queer people, which is read first to Vern by Lucy at Cainland, then later by Vern’s medic-turned-lover. It serves as a powerful counter to Sherman’s declaration that queerness is a white man’s disease. Baldwin is a beacon, proof of Black queer existence. Baldwin is an ancestor. As Vern’s body grows, so does her lust and shameless joy for lesbian sex and companionship. She refuses to deny herself pleasure.
Solomon is fearless in faer depiction of queer sexuality and unafraid to let it be selfish, feral. There is no trace of pretty, delicate lesbianism here. Again, Solomon is refusing to cater to an audience that has been so catered to in the past (in this case, cis men who assume women, even queer women, exist for their viewing pleasure). It can feel off-putting at first, but this is again because we as an audience are so used to seeing polished sensuality or “acceptable” queerness on the page. We must inquire into why we might shy away from that. Nothing about Solomon’s work attempts to be “acceptable,” or, rather, it explicitly questions what acceptability means, rejects it, and rejects whomever is creating those rules of presentation. “Vern wished to make every moment of her life a rebellion, not just against the Blessed Acres of Cain but the world in all its entirety. Nothing would be spared her resistance.” And indeed, every page of Sorrowland seems to say, This work isn’t for you, it has not been written with you in mind. We’re not playing that game anymore.
And in the same way we talked about what it felt like to see an indestructible Black man in a hoodie on screen in Luke Cage, here too, it is satisfying to see a Black woman stronger, faster, and smarter than her foes. Where Vern’s transformation is first seen as horrific, she actually never tries to stop it from happening and learns to embrace her power. She only seeks to understand what’s happening to her. It is the answer that is the real horror.
Solomon’s authorial oeuvre demonstrates faer’s deft ability to discuss the legacy of Black pain and inherited trauma. Faer debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts, is a science fiction about a generation ship with a racially segregated society, the oppression of dark-skinned people maintained for the benefit of white comfort. The Deep, a novella written in partnership with the band clipping., imagines the children of pregnant women thrown overboard slave ships as mermaid-like sea creatures, their history a burden to be born. Sorrowland feels more contemporary, with Cainland’s ethics stemming from Black revolutionaries from the ’60s. As we are aware of the history of medical “testing” on Black people, especially on Black women, it’s awful to think that a place designed for the well-being of Black people would actively seek to harm them, undermining the very ideals with which it was established. References are made to Tuskegee, James Marion Sims, Night Doctors. Vern is taught to distrust police, is educated about COINTELPRO, but is betrayed, ultimately, by those who claimed to protect her from those institutions.
But it is duality that Solomon’s novel rests on. The violence that white America has done to Black people exists alongside greed, anger, and groupthink from within this fictional Black community. The growth on and inside Vern’s body is a result of that trauma, but so are Howling and Feral, her children, who are delightful and clever and kind. There is sadness about leaving things behind but also a determination to move forward without remorse. Monstrousness blossoms beside beauty, love, tenderness, and self-discovery. Abuse is paired with confidence and a determination to best the ghosts that haunt the narrative. Where there is death, there is also joy, sex, and connection. Wildness is both feared and celebrated.
Sorrowland both is and is not a horror story, both is and is not Gothic. There is never a moment of violence or pain that is not psychologically worked-over, never senseless hurt, never without remorse or consideration. It is never simply grotesque, but instead the acts of violence or monstrousness in this novel feel deliberate and revealing. However, I’m not sure I ever felt a sense of dread or hopelessness that typically characterizes Gothic horror fiction. I believed in Vern’s strength and rooted for her. Vern makes choices to protect herself, her children, her found family, and she deals with the consequences on the page, rather than leaving the audience to wish she’d just see a therapist already.
Sorrowland becomes a coming-of-age story about a woman getting to know herself, getting to explore the world while she reckons with the trauma that has affected her. Vern’s transformation would, under other circumstances, be monstrous. Here, it becomes a superpower, but because she decides to make it so. It is her rebellious spirit and strength of will that claims that power. Over and over again, expectations are rejected.
And through it all, Solomon’s lyric writing cannot be denied. Sorrowland is filled with sentences so exquisite, so crushing that I found myself rereading them over and over again. From the opening lines — “The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt. Slight, he was, and feeble as a promise. He felt in her palms a great wilderness — such a tender thing as he could never be parsed fully by the likes of her” — the prose is beautiful to the point of near disbelief. How can such a thing be done? How do I feel such warmth and horror all at once? Solomon’s mastery of faer craft inspires awe and never lets the narrative be just one easily digestible thing. We, as readers, must rise up to meet Sorrowland; we must become bigger and stronger for it. We must reject what we know and embrace radical wilderness.