One of my most anticipated books this year was Alex North’s second novel, The Shadows. I loved his first book, The Whisper Man – which I just read in May – and had high hopes for the followup. I’m happy to report that he did not disappoint!
The Shadows follows two closely connected timelines. In the mid-1990s, Paul and James were best friends starting at a new high school. After a shocking incident, they befriended two strange boys, Charlie and Billy. Charlie is a sort of ringleader, pulling the others into an obsession centered on dreams. (Incidentally, not unlike the book I just read, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.) But as things get weirder, Paul starts to pull away, spending more time with a girl named Jenny who shares his love of writing. Even so, nothing could have prepared Paul for the horrible murder – and subsequent disappearance – that shattered his world.
Fast forward 25 years, and Paul is returning to his hometown for the first time since he left for college. His mother is dying, but that’s not the only thing starting to weigh on him: Threatening pranks are leaving him feeling unsafe in this town of horrors. Is Charlie still out there, ready to make Paul his overdue victim? Or is someone else – or something else – haunting him?
Meanwhile, Detective Amanda Beck – a character we first met in The Whisper Man – is investigating a recent murder involving two teen boys and their friend-turned-victim. It’s eerily similar to what happened with Paul’s friends all those years ago. Who or what is causing these sacrificial killings to continue after all these years?
The Shadows has a lot in common with Alex North’s previous book, starting with the return of Detective Amanda Beck (whose name nearly the same as mine; just saying). We also get the paralleled crimes from the 1990s to today – either copycat killers or the same supernatural perpetrator that was rumored all along. However, even beyond these similarities, The Shadows also fully stands in its own right.
It builds up more slowly here, but like the sneaky vines lurking in the titular forest, it ensnares you soon enough. It pulls you into a nightmarish downward spiral, making you feel like Paul as he recognizes something bad is coming yet is powerless to stop it. Once you’ve gotten a good look, it’s impossible to look away until the thrilling end.
The author does an excellent job of creating vivid characters, and Paul in particular is relatable. As you read, you can feel your own teen years rushing back: all the awkwardness, angst, low confidence, and uncertainty in how to protect friends from bullies… or worse.
Even though Paul is 40 in the present story, he often still feels like that teen boy he was. His trauma is palpable, but he wasn’t the only one affected by that terrible day. Other survivors – including his own mother – have never fully recovered, leading to some of what continues to occur decades later.
And no thriller is complete with a jaunt through its most foreboding location – in this case, the forest known as the Shadows. Its ominous presence is something I related to myself. Growing up, behind my house and yard was a mini forest. But it wasn’t nearly so dense and spooky, and it quickly ended at a shallow swamp. In any case, this novel brought it all back, and you can feel the nighttime terror as Paul works his way through the woods, trying to escape certain death.
Whereas The Whisper Man was twisty and quick, The Shadows is more gradual and suspenseful. It has a few shocking scenes showing the aftermath of gory, cult-like killings. It also offers up some unexpected twists – including one that was so mind-blowing that I had to set the book down and absorb the new information. If you read my review of The Whisper Man, you’ll know I had a similar reaction to a particular event there, too. Only Alex North has ever inspired such a dramatic reaction in me – and now it’s been twice! That is some powerful writing.
The Shadows plays like a classic horror/thriller film, complete with passed-down stories and monsters that live in our dreams, haunting us even as the years pass. It’s a captivating novel, and it confirms Alex North as a superb author. He’s two-for-two now, and I can’t wait to read what he writes next.