Wow! I’ve just finished this novel and what an ending. I feel slightly shell-shocked and a bit disturbed by this incredible horror novel that’s very hard to describe, and difficult to tell you about without spoilers. I’m going to try, so bear with me. I’ve been a fan of classic ghost stories for most of my reading life. I blame the more Gothic aspects of the Brontë’s for this obsession; the tall, ghoul who rends Jane Eyre’s bridal veil in two and the pale, ghostly, child’s hand that reaches though the glass and grabs Lockwood’s shaking hand in Wuthering Heights. From that grew a love of the gothic and monstrous, honed at university and now stated by wonderful ghost stories like these. I don’t call it horror, though I suppose it is, because I don’t like blood and gore. I love the creeping sense of dread, the strange apparition that appears behind you in the mirror, the fleeting glimpse of something not human or the sound of a child laughing or singing in a house where there are none. It even extends to my own writing, because when I wrote a story about hag stones for my uni writing workshop, my tutor messaged me to say she’d found it deeply unsettling.
We see most of the events in this novel through Mina, a young woman living in urban Ireland, who lives alone and has lost her mother. Now without family – except one sister who appears to phone once a month or so, just to feel disappointed – she is largely a loner. Her loves are sketching, red wines and her friend Peter who is a buyer and seller of various things and often pays Mina cash to travel and deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasions she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway, but the day trip becomes something she lives to regret. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises that the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse with a phone that works. Her phone has died in the same second she pulled up in the car. Once in the forest Mina realises her mistake, it seems bigger than from outside and she’s concerned that the light might start to fade before she can get to the other side. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. She’s standing by a concrete bunker and although that seems odd, Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As they hurry inside and the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching?
I was absolutely entranced by this incredibly disturbing tale and loved the way the author created this unbelievable world inside the everyday. In the opening section Mina’s world is relatively normal, she goes about her day like any one of us. She has an irritatingly perfect sister, she gets lonely, she sometimes drinks too much wine. We can identify with these imperfections and relate to her. So when this ordinary woman, finds herself caught up in the extraordinary, we believe it because we already believe in her. These woods are like countless others, we’ve probably walked into similar situations ourselves and got lost. Yet, the author carefully leave tiny details, that are probably pricking up our ears and instinctively alerting us that something is wrong. The remoteness of the place, the way her phone suddenly stops working, the single strange cry she hears as if something is on lookout, alerting others to her presence. All of these are universal literary signifiers for ‘something’s not right here’. The author never describes the Watchers visually, again there are signs they leave behind and other sensory clues: the burrows in the ground, claw marks around the window, the revolting smell, their cries. Just as Mina is standing in the light, unable to see them lurking in the dark, so are we. Even when you think we’re going to ‘see’ them, we never fully do. The clues set our imagination on overdrive, we build the monsters in our heads which makes them so much scarier as they feed into our personal fears and phobias.
The characters and their dynamics are fascinating too. With the younger man and woman quite subservient to their ‘leader’ Madeleine, the lady who beckons Mina in out of the dark, there’s an almost parent and child dynamic already established. The room, entitled the ‘coop’, gives us the impression of hens let out to feed and water, but locked in at night for fear of predators. However, with that image of protection comes a question; hens are kept safe by farmers or owners who want them to produce eggs, so what are our four inhabitants meant to produce and who owns the coop? In helping Mina though, Madeleine hasn’t found another subservient child to lead. Mina is more independent and intelligent than that. She’s also a watcher herself, used to being alone and observing others, she sketches people secretly when in public places. The coop is no exception, she gets the urge to capture different expressions and moods in her fellow prisoners, particularly drawn to the planes and contours of Madeleine’s face. Mina doesn’t want to contest Madeleine’s authority, but she will contribute ideas and challenge those she thinks are wrong. I wondered if this would upset the existing dynamic, start a power struggle inside, and raise the tension even further. I was fascinated by how these others had ended up here and what would happen when they start to run out of food or something else that pushes them outdoors. Is there any way of escaping? This author has created a brilliantly layered horror, with an ending that was truly unexpected and even more terrifying. I have just explained the story to my next door neighbour and she’s already closed the curtains tonight! This was incredible and even better is the fact that it’s my first A.M. Shine novel so I have others to enjoy in the Christmas break. This novel is claustrophobic, unnerving and truly hard to put down.
Published by Head of Zeus – Aries. 14th October 2021
Meet The Author
A.M. Shine is an author of literary horror from the west of Ireland. He completed an MA in history before turning to writing, influenced by Gothic tales such as those by Edgar Allen Poe. His novels are grounded in their landscape, steeped in Irish folklore and language, and always influenced by history, horror and superstition.