The William Blake Blog

Simon Avery’s Sorrowmouth
A thoughtful and melancholy reflection on the struggles that no one save for loved ones see.

Published by Black Shuck Books in 2022, Simon Avery's novella, Sorrowmouth, is a slight but thoughtful piece of prose dealing with how the melancholy of everyday life can be perceived through visionary means - and also, perhaps, healed by similar visions. The book was written during lockdown and brought together a number of ideas that Avery described as follows:

I recognised the common ground they shared with each other. A man trekking from one roadside memorial to another, in pursuit of grief; Beachy Head and its long dark history of suicide; William Blake and his angelic visions on Peckham Rye; Blake again with The Ghost of a Flea; a monstrous companion, bound by life’s cruelty…

Sorrowmouth begins with William Underhill, the protagonist and narrator of the story, visiting a roadside memorial to a young boy, killed in a motoring accident, as a council worker is clearing away the visible signs of mourning and respect. This, we quickly learn, is a frequent event in Underhill's life, a means for him to meet grieving relatives whose sorrow can be fed upon by the novella's eponymous grotesque:

Underhill saw Sorrowmouth stooped in the doorway with his bowl and thorn, mottled skin burnished gold in the lamp glow, beady eyes beseeching him. Underhill nodded and he dipped his head under the doorframe and into the room, towering over both Underhill and Mary.
-Sorrowmouth, p.13

This silent giant, invisible to everyone but Underhill, is of course based on William Blake's "The Ghost of a Flea", the tempera and gold painting on mahogany that was fleshed out from the sketch of a visionary head for John Farley, the painter and occult nut who Blake occasionally teased after they struck up a friendship in 1818. According to Varley (who was so enamoured of the sketch that he used it in his book, Zodiacal Physiognomy), the spirit told Blake that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were "by nature bloodthirsty to excess", and that if it were to assume something the size of its original form it would wreak even more murder. By contrast, Sorrowmouth is a much more ambivalent creation, feeding off the misery and depression of others, taking its fill and, wonderfully strange, leaving them with a sort of peace. Such peace does not come to Underhill, however, who passes through the novella as a sort of sin eater, looking on the melancholy of others but never seeing the angels that were his everyday visions when young.

The origins of Sorrowmouth as Blake's Flea are made clear towards the middle of the book, where we have a flashback to where Underhill discovers the painting in a book owned by his father - a violent man whose various abuses lead to his son's constant vision of the sorrow-drinking ghost:

Another painting caught Underhll's sight that morning. It was a curious, seductive illumination. 'The Ghost of a Flea'. A grotesque naked colossus, at odds with the suggestion of its tiny incarnation as insect, stalking through a starry realm between stage curtains, almost as if treading the boards of a theatre stage. The ghost didn't seem to suggest a flea of any kind to Underhill; it was mad0yed and bestial, its tongue pointed and voracious, the hard long curve of the spine like a throbbing column of glistening bone. In one hand the creature had a peculiar curved knife that looked like a thorn to Underhill, and in the other a stone bowl. All Underhill knew of fleas were that they feasted on blood; it struck him momentarily that this peculiar giant would in similar manner use the thorn to prick at its victims and collect the blood in his bowl. He had no concept that Blake might have considered this ghost of a flea as if through a magnifying glass and not the giant he first appeared to be.
-Sorrowmouth, p.46

Sorrowmouth is the inheritance of Underhill's father, bestowed on him through direct, vicious malevolence, but also through his rather grim legacy (as well as owning a bookshop, Underhill senior is a failed writer). No one else can see Sorrowmouth, of course - not Mary, the lonely woman encountered at the beginning of the story, nor Varley, the well-named lover with whom the narrator has sort of lived for several years. The first person who can is a failed suicide - Kate - and we learn that the reason for this is that she also has her own visionary ghost, Prurience, a distorted, dysmorphic projection of her own trauma:

Prurience is... well, she's me, but distorted out of shape, huge and fat and spindly at the same time. Body dysmorphia, writ really fucking large. And she's aways naked, so you feel like you're forever having that dream about going to work and forgetting to wear your clothes... She looks like one of those Picasso paintings, the Cubist ones where every side of the face is two dimensional.
-Sorrowmouth, p.64

As they begin to spend more time with each other, so Kate and William understand not exactly how they can heal each other, but how more simply they can heal themselves. Prurience is in many respects a simpler projection of Kate's mental illness, in particular as it is figured as a conduit for sex rather than grief; as it is less ambiguous, it is somehow less satisfying than Sorrowmouth, although how Kate finally deals with this apparition is no less of a shock or surprise. 

Regarding Sorrowmouth itself, there is something remarkably intimate about the relations between it and Underhill. Clearly a manifestation of his depression, the sadness about it is much more touching than the aggressive manipulations of Prurience and indeed there is a kind of beauty in the scenes where we are shown it consuming the grief of others. Throughout the novella, I had a kind of dissonance when reading those scenes - due entirely to the fact that I have both known and formed very strong opinions regarding Blake's painting over a number of years. In Avery's thoughtful, often profoundly moving novel, however, I learned to see Blake's flea in new, visionary ways.

Simon Avery, Sorrowmouth, Black Shuck Books, 2022. 91pp. RRP: £7.99.