Sea of Sorrows follows the crew of the appropriately named SS Vagabond, which is set on plundering a sunken U-boat and a profiting from fortune in gold in the years after World War I. Writer Rich Douek discusses the story’s timing, the tale’s dark visuals and why he’s obsessed with writing about the water.
Tom Smithyman: Why did you feel so strongly about telling this particular story?
Rich Douek: When Alex and I finished Road of Bones, we really wanted to tell more stories in that vein – stories that take place at the intersection of psychological, supernatural, and historical horror – but we felt like doing a direct sequel to Road of Bones would be a disservice to the original story, whose ending we really loved. So we decided to tell a new story, in a new setting, that played in the same areas, and shared everything we loved about Road.
Tom: What made you set the story in 1926? Was there something about that era that furthered the tale you wanted to tell?
Rich: There’s no question that World War I was a horrific event – it was the first war to incorporate things like poison gas, dropping bombs, and trench warfare on an unprecedented scale – but rather than set this piece during the war itself, we wanted to explore the trauma that it inflicted on the human psyche – again, going back to the idea of psychological horror intersecting with history. This was a time when PTSD was poorly understood, and no matter what horrors the war had visited upon you, there was an expectation that when it was over, you’d just get back to normal life. And though our characters deal with it in different ways, the one thing they all have in common is being irrevocably scarred by the experience.
Tom: Alex Cormack’s artwork is striking. What was your initial reaction after seeing his illustration of the monster?
Rich: My jaw dropped! Alex and I had talked a lot about the nature of the monster, and how we would reveal it in various stages, but his initial sketches just blew me away with how terrifying the designs were. And as he incorporated them into the actual book, they just kept getting more and more refined, and more and more horrific.
Tom: With the exception of prodigious amounts of blood, Sea of Sorrows is almost a black a white story. Was how you envisioned the story when you first wrote it, or was it something Alex come up with on his own?
Rich: One thing I know Alex wanted to do was portray the underwater world as an almost alien place – something about those old time diving suits are reminiscent of an astronaut’s space-suit, and in real life, once you get to a certain depth, no sunlight is going to reach you. We wanted to create that feeling of the thin beam from your flashlight being the only way to see anything around you – you could be standing next to nothing for miles, or there could be a huge shark less than a foot away. I think the blackness was integral to creating the mood we wanted, and was also a great contrast to Road of Bones, which was primarily white.
Tom: With your most recent series called “The Ocean Will Take Us,” is there something about water that draws you to write about it?
Rich: The ocean is a primordial force – it’s impossible to fight it, and win. We like to tell ourselves, sometimes, that we’ve mastered our environment, and are in control of it for better or worse – but when you really think about it, the ocean is this primal thing that shows us how small and insignificant we really are. You can’t beat up a wave, or go to war with a storm. The ocean is unconquerable, and to a certain extent unknowable – we discover new things about it all the time – so I think it’s a ripe setting for mystery and horror stories.
Rich: There are really only two women in a story largely about sailing men. But each female character seems to play outsized roles in the narrative. Was that intentional?
Rich: Yes, absolutely. Road of Bones was about three escaped prisoners alone on the tundra, and we didn’t feel like a female character would have fit well for that particular story – but with Sea of Sorrows, we had an opportunity to expand our scope, and our cast, and we were keen to include a more diverse set of characters. Sonia is one of my favorite characters in the book, and she was an absolute joy to write…once I found her voice, she kind of naturally took over most of the scenes she was in, and I was very happy with how she came across. The other female character, well, she didn’t have many lines, but I think we showed that she was much more than she appeared at first glance, too!
The trade paperback edition of Sea of Sorrows will be available for purchase on February 1, 2022.