We’re excited to share an excerpt from Sorrowland, a genre-bending work of Gothic fiction from author Rivers Solomon—available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Vern—seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised—flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.
But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.
To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future—outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.
Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland is a genre-bending work of Gothic fiction. Here, monsters aren’t just individuals, but entire nations. It is a searing, seminal book that marks the arrival of a bold, unignorable voice in American fiction.
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.
Had she more strength, she’d have limped to the river and drownt him. It’d be a gentler end than the one the fiend had in mind.
Vern leant against the trunk of a loblolly and pressed the child naked and limp to her chest. His trembling lips lay right where the heart-shaped charm of a locket would be if she’d ever had a locket. “So that’s how it’s gonna be, hm? Win me over with lip wibbles?” she asked, and though she was not one to capitulate to bids for love, this baby had a way about him that most did not. There was courage in his relentless neediness. He would not be reasoned out of his demands.
Vern reached for the towel next to her. With what gentleness she could muster, and it wasn’t enough to fill a thimble, she dragged rough terry over the baby’s mucky skin. “Well, well,” she said, cautiously impressed, “look at you.” Vern’s nystagmus and resultant low vision were especially troublesome in the waning light, but pulling her baby close lessened the impact of her partial blindness. She could see him full-on.
He was smaller than most newborns she’d had the occasion to handle and had inherited neither her albinism nor her husband Sherman’s yellow-bonedness. His skin was dark, dark-dark, and Vern found it hard to believe that the African ancestry that begat such a hue had ever once been disrupted by whiteness. The only person Vern knew that dark was Lucy.
Viscous cries gurgled up from the child’s throat but died quickly on the bed of Vern’s skin. Her flesh was his hovel, and he was coming to a quick peace with it. His bones were annals of lifetimes of knowledge. He understood that heat and the smell of milk were to be clung to or else.
It was a shame such instincts would not be enough to save him. As much as Vern had made a haven here these last few months, the woods were not safe. A stranger had declared war against her and hers, his threats increasingly pointed of late: a gutted deer with its dead fawn fetus curled beside; a skinned raccoon staked to a trunk, body clothed in an infant’s sleepsuit; and everywhere, everywhere, cottontails hung from trees, necks in nooses and feet clad in baby bootees. The fiend’s kills, always maternal in message, revealed a commitment to theme rarely seen outside a five-year-old’s birthday party.
Another girl might’ve heeded the warnings to leave the woods, but Vern preferred this obvious malevolence to the covert violence of life beyond the trees. To be warned of bad happenings afoot was a welcome luxury. People might’ve followed Vern off the compound when she’d fled if there’d been a fiend there discarding dead animals as auguries.
“Hush, now,” Vern said, then, thinking it was what a good mam would do, sang her babe a song her mam used to sing to her. “Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded! Oh, Mary, don’t weep.”
Even though it was a spiritual, it wasn’t a song about Jesus direct, which suited Vern because she hated music about the Christ. It was one of the few items on which she and her husband, Sherman, agreed. She nodded along to every sermon he gave about the ways the white man plundered the world under the direction of this so-called savior.
Whole continents reek of the suffering that man has caused. Can you smell it? he would ask. The congregation would shout, Amen, Reverend Sherman, we smell it! And then he’d ask, Don’t it stink? And they’d say, Yes, Reverend! It sure does. And he’d ask, But does it stink here, on the Blessed Acres of Cain, where we live lives removed from that white devil god of Abel and his followers? The people would cry out, No!
According to Mam, there was a time when Cainites were less ardent about Reverend Sherman’s teachings. His predecessor and father, Eamon Fields, was the congregation’s true beacon. An early settler of the compound, arriving in the first wave, Eamon rose quickly from secretary to accountant to deacon to reverend. He was a stern man, violent, but for Cainites who’d been traumatized by the disorder inherent to Black American life, puritanical strictness held a dazzling, charismatic appeal. Sherman was not so hard as his father before him, which disoriented the brothers and sisters of the compound. In the end, he won them over on the pulpit, entrancing all with his passionate sermons.
And do we dare abandon the compound and mingle our fate with those devilish outsiders? Sherman asked.
That’s right, my beautiful brothers and sisters, kings and queens, sons and daughters of Cain. We stay here, where there is bounty. Free from the white devil dogs who would tear us limb from limb. Their world is one of filth and contradiction, poison and lies! Rich folks in homes that could house fifty, one hundred, two hundred, while the poorest and sickest among them rot on the street! Would we allow that here?
Sherman could make lies out of the truth—Vern had learned that much as his wife—but she full-believed her husband’s fiery sermons about the Nazarene. She’d witnessed the curious hold Jesus had on people from her trips off the compound. Every other billboard and bumper sticker preached his gospel. Christ-talk made up the few words Vern could read by sight because they were everywhere in large print.
He was on T-shirts, bracelets, anklets, mugs. And that damn cross everywhere. The whole world outside the Blessed Acres of Cain seemed an endless elegy to Christ and his dying, his bleeding, his suffering. How come white folks were always telling Black people to get over slavery because it was 150 or so years ago but they couldn’t get over their Christ who died 1,830 years before that?
Who cared if he rose up from the dead? Weeds did that, too. It wasn’t in Vern’s nature to trust a man with that much power. For how did he come to have it?
Her new babe would never have to hear a thing about him. Vern would sing only the God-spirituals. She didn’t believe in him, either, but at least there was an ineffability to him, a silence that could be filled with a person’s own projection of the divine. Not so with Christ, who was a person, a particular person.
“God made man and he made him out of clay. Put him on earth, but not to stay. Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded. Oh, Mary, don’t weep!” sang Vern.
Sherman didn’t abide music about Jesus at the Blessed Acres of Cain, but he let Vern’s mother listen to it in the wee hours when no one else on the compound could hear.
“One of these days bout twelve o’clock, this old world gonna reel and rock. Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded! Oh, Mary, don’t weep.”
Vern’s words slurred as she succumbed to fatigue, though she was not so tired as she might have been. The last stages of labor had come on with the quickness of a man in want of a fuck, and with the same order of operations, too. A sudden demand, a vague series of movements, a driving push toward the finish, followed by Vern’s immense relief when it was all over. Birthing had been no more trying than anything else in her life, and this time, at least, she had a baby boy to show for her trouble.
Or baby girl. Vern’s mam had predicted a son based on the way Vern carried her belly, but now that the child was here, Vern didn’t bother checking what was between its legs. The faintest impression of what could’ve been a penis pushed against her belly, but then it could’ve been a twisted piece of umbilical cord, too, or a clitoris, enlarged from birth much as Vern’s own had been. Perhaps this child, like her, transgressed bodily notions of male and female.
Vern liked not knowing, liked the possibility of it. Let him unfold as he would. In the woods, where animals ruled with teeth and claws, such things mattered not a lick. There were no laws here in this wild land, and wasn’t it better that way? At the compound, Vern saw how girlfolk and boyfolk were, what patterns they lived out as if notes on a record, their tune set in vinyl, rarely with variation. Even Vern’s best friend, Lucy, recalcitrant to the marrow, would call her a man when Vern, against compound edict, wore pants to muck out the animal pens or took a straight razor to her thick, coarse sideburns, longer than many men’s.
Did it have to be such? Was it always so? Or was it much like everything back at the Blessed Acres of Cain? A lie.
Vern’s babe was just a babe. Guided by scent, he found his way to her breast the way many a child would, his head bobbing as he squirmed toward her nipple. “You’d think I hadn’t been feeding you from my very own insides these last eight and a half months,” said Vern, teasing, but she didn’t resent him his hunger. No child of hers could ever be a sated thing.
It was evening, but only just. Mam said that children born of the gloaming were destined to wander; that was why Vern’s mind had always been so unquiet. You got more opinions than sense, Mam had said.
Vern had doomed her newborn to the same fate, but she would not apologize for it. Better not to belong at all than belong in a cage. She thought to name the child Hunter for all the searching in his squeezing fingers and hunger in his heart, but then what if her mam really was wrong and he was a girl in the end? A girl named Hunter. It gave her a pleasant zing to think of the impropriety of it.
Back at the compound, she’d be made to name him after a famous descendant of Cain. Malcolm or Martin or Frederick, perhaps Douglass or Eldridge. Vern’s little brother was Carmichael for Stokely, and among her peers, there was Turner for Nat, Rosa for Parks, Harriet for Tubman.
Vern herself was named for Vernon Johns, the scholar and minister who’d preceded Martin Luther King, Jr., at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Lucy had complimented Vern on the name when she’d first come to the compound with her parents. It’s unique. No one’s heard of that Vernon man. I’m getting tired of hearing all these African American Greatest Hits names. This way you can be your own person.
If Sherman had his way, he’d name the child Thurgood, but Vern could not do that to her kin.
“Abolition?” she said, testing how it felt on her tongue. “Lucy?” she whispered, surprised by how much it hurt to speak that name aloud. “Lucy.” It’d anger Sherman to no end if she named his sole heir after the girl who never yielded to him once, and Vern lived to anger Sherman.
Vern licked her lips hungrily, overcome with a wave of inspiration. When the child was old enough to ask after a father, Vern would say it was Lucy. Raised in the woods, her little one wouldn’t know all the ways that wasn’t true. It was something she’d never hear the end of if Sherman were here, but then he wasn’t, was he? “Lucy,” she said one more time, then, “Lu. Luce. Louie?” searching out a variation that suited the fussy babe sprawled against her. “Lucius?”
None of the options felt suitable, and she frowned. Wild things didn’t bother naming their offspring, and Vern was wild through and through. Her mam had always said so. A child in the woods didn’t need a name, did it?
“I’ll just call you my little babe,” Vern said, planning to leave it at that, until she heard wolves in the distance making their wild noises to the night. There it was, a sensation of rightness. She didn’t have many of those, so when they came, they were easy to recognize. “Howling,” she said. “Howling. That’s your name.” He was her hungry, keening creature.
Just like her. Ravenous. For what? For goddamn what? There was nothing in these woods but darkness and a fiend who killed not for food or hide but for the pleasure it arose in him to end the life of something small. She’d fled the compound in want of something, and though she’d been gone for only a short while, she already knew she’d never find it.
Excerpted from SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 4th, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Rivers Solomon. All rights reserved.