Book Review: The Shadows by Alex North
Paul Adams was once your average fifteen-year-old boy, not particularly outstanding at anything, with a stern father and a loving mom and a timid best friend named James. When he and James enrolled together in a new school, he vowed to take care of his best friend, but soon found his resolve tested in a wholly unexpected way.
Poor James was the kind of kid who attracted bullies. When Paul stood up for him at school one day, they were both surprised to find two other boys closing ranks to support them. Paul would have been more thrilled if the two boys were anyone besides Charlie Crabtree and Billy Roberts. Charlie was the kind of sly, skulking kid easily labeled as creepy by his peers, and Billy was his sullen, weapons-obsessed sidekick. They had a penchant for dark tales and soon captivated James with their game of lucid dreaming as an escape from their hopeless-seeming small town. Paul tried to go along for James’ sake, but one scary experience too many proved too much for even his noble intentions, leading to their ultimate estrangement.
On weekends I kept well away from the Shadows. I had no desire to encounter the three of them out there in the wilds, making their stupid plans, buying into each other’s fantasies, and communing with the monster from their dreams.
I couldn’t get away from them entirely, of course. I saw them in classes, and occasionally in the playground. While I did my best to ignore them, it was always uncomfortable, because I had the impression they weren’t ignoring me–or at least that Charlie wasn’t. Every now and then my skin would crawl and I’d look up to see the three of them nearby, Charlie with a smirk on his face, a sly and victorious expression.
You might have removed yourself from the game, he seemed to be saying. But the game isn’t finished with you yet.
Twenty-five years later, Paul can’t look back at that time with anything but grief. Charlie and Billy took their game from spooky to murderous, and Paul is still reeling from the consequences and from his own sense of guilt. While Billy was quickly caught, tried, and sent to prison, Charlie disappeared into the mass of forest known locally as the Shadows. Legend has it that the ritual murder he and Billy concocted allowed him to escape his body into his dreams. Paul himself escaped to college and planned on never returning until a phone call from a social worker informs him that his mother, who never moved away from their hometown, is on her deathbed.
Miles away in the town of Featherbank, Police Detective Amanda Beck has just uncovered the grisly scene of another ritual murder. The two killers, both teenage boys, readily confess, but Amanda wants to know what could possibly have possessed them to do something so evil. Diving into their Internet history turns up their fascination with the macabre, including their interest in re-enacting the same murder scene Charlie Crabtree had disappeared from over two decades prior. But they weren’t Charlie’s only copycat killers, and as more bodies begin to pile up and Paul and Amanda’s paths intersect, the question of what really happened to Charlie that summer day long ago takes on a pressing and ominous importance.
I do not recommend reading this book at night, especially in the first two hundred or so pages, because it is frightfully atmospheric! I was genuinely afraid I would have nightmares after reading this impressively creepy novel of suspense. I was most struck, however, with how this twisty tale of ghostly terror incorporates both a tragic coming-of-age with a meditation on the parent-child relationship. From Paul’s realization of his mother’s vibrant past to the grief of parents over a lost child to Amanda’s own reconciliation of her career with her deceased policeman dad’s, The Shadows examines all the ways we cope with the loss of a loved family member. Amanda’s reflections on her own graveside visit are just one example:
In the past, she had thought of coming here as visiting her father, but she realized now that had never been the case. Her father was gone. Graveyards might have housed the dead below the ground, but what lay above was always for the living; they were the places where people came to deal with the break between what their lives had once been and what they now were. All the times she had come here, she had only really been visiting herself, and her relationship with the past.
And how she did that was up to her to decide.
I truly enjoyed reading this novel and am definitely putting Alex North’s previous work, The Whisper Man, on my ever-expanding To Be Read pile. It’s not often that you find a solid murder mystery cleverly melded with supernatural horror. It’s rarer still to find those written with as much finesse and true emotional insight as in The Shadows.