This review contains some mild spoilers.
Sarah’s father just committed suicide, and she’s having a hard time dealing with it, particularly because a demonic, yellow-eyed man keeps appearing out of nowhere and scaring the hell out of her. No one else can see the man (who she later names Jack), and he plagues Sarah with gory hallucinations in which her loved ones are dead and mutilated. The hallucinations seem far too real to Sarah, but to everyone else it seems like she’s going insane. To make things worse, she gets no sympathy from her selfish boyfriend Kevin who reacts to Sarah’s need for him with anger and disgust. He thinks nothing of cheating on her with the sexy, aloof Denise, who also happens to be his sister Carol’s girlfriend. Kevin, Denise and Carol form a twisted, incestuous threesome with a parallel plot involving some sick plans for taking revenge on the people who have hurt them.
I was in the mood for horror when I picked Shadows up, and I was pretty excited about it because I love the darkly fascinating worlds that you can find in novels about insanity. Unfortunately, I found neither the horror I was hoping for nor the dark world I wanted to explore. In fact I did not like Shadows at all, for several different reasons. Firstly, the writing – it’s not that bad but it’s pedestrian and adds nothing to the story. It’s also riddled with continuity errors, especially when it comes to characters – often characters do or say things that don’t fit their personalities.
Which brings me to my second problem: characterisation. On the whole, Shadows doesn’t have any likeable characters. Sarah initially had my sympathy, but she’s so weak and pathetic I quickly grew tired of her. Kevin is an appalling boyfriend, not only because he cheats on Sarah but because he doesn’t show her one iota of affection during the novel. Denise is an oversexed sociopath. Carol was molested as a child, and the trauma has turned her into a vengeful psychopath.
Unlikeable characters however, are not a flaw in themselves. My problem here is that these characters feel forced. Sarah is too much of a victim, while Kevin, Denise and Carol are too crazy and cruel. Yes, people like Kevin and Denise do exist in the world. And yes, you can look at the evidence and decide that it makes sense for Sarah and Carol to be the way they are. My problem is that you have to take that step back from the novel before you can really accept these characters. While reading, they seem unnatural, overdone.
But my biggest problem with Shadows was the grotesque sexual violence and depravity. Please note that I’m not referring to its sexual content in general: yes, there is a lot of it and while some would complain that it’s gratuitous, I’d argue that there other unnecessary details in the novel, and the sex doesn’t deserve to be singled out. In fact, some of it provides the most exciting content Shadows has to offer. I would also argue that some of the sexual depravity – incest in particular – is part of the characterisation, a means of showing just how messed up Carol has become, and how much of a sex addict Kevin is.
But Shadows goes too far. The following scene in particular was so bad, I almost abandoned the book. The context: Jack the demon tricked Sarah into stabbing Kevin, and he’s now in hospital, venting his anger with Denise and Carol. They’re worried that Sarah won’t get the punishment they think she deserves, in which case Carol suggests they make their own plans for revenge:
“I know a couple of guys who, for a couple of grand, can organise a girl to be gang-raped. They’ll dump her somewhere in Soweto. It’s worse than dying.”
“I don’t know what’s scarier, the fact that you know people like that, or that you even think like that,” Kevin said, looking at his sister with new-found respect.
“I think it’s sexy when you think like that,” Denise said and planted a hot kiss on Carol’s lips.
“Hey, ladies,” Kevin said, trying to get their attention. “I’m the one who was stabbed. I’m the one who should be getting some loving.”
“Sorry baby,” they cooed, cuddled onto the narrow bed and smothered him with kisses.
As they hugged and kissed him, visions of Sarah being raped and left for dead, in some ditch, made him smile. He made a silent promise to himself, she would pay and the girls would help him take his revenge.
I couldn’t believe how many disgusting things made its way into so few lines – a woman suggests using gang-rape as a means of taking revenge; the suggestion causes her brother to respect her more than he did before; another woman is turned on by the thought of her girlfriend arranging to have someone gang-raped; and then all three start kissing and cuddling each other. What. The. Fuck.
After my knee-jerk revulsion however, I tried to think calmly about it and even asked other horror fans for their opinion as I struggled to decide if this could be considered part of the horror or if it’s just in bad taste. Obviously, the whole thing is supposed to be appalling, and it makes the three villains more despicable. This is also a horror novel and there’s no denying the fact that I was quite horrified when I read this. The thing is, I’ve read novels that have scarier, darker villains than these three but didn’t resort to using gang rape as a shock tactic.
And being shocked just wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be scared, unnerved and my final problem with Shadows is that it just couldn’t do that to me with either its sexual perversions, Sarah’s personal demon Jack and the hallucinations he makes her suffer, or even its promising aspect – the curse of being considered insane.
The gory visions Jack conjures up are standard blockbuster slasher-movie fare, and they get repetitive without moving the plot along. For first half of the novel, Sarah’s part of the story is largely about hallucinating (at home, at work, at the movies). Later, Sarah has to accept Jack’s presence in her life, and he becomes an almost comical figure. It’s his job as a demon to make her kill herself but she keeps resisting and soon Jack has all the menace of a frustrated cubicle drone.
There is a greater sense of menace towards the end as the novel picks up its pace and the various strands of the plot are drawn together, but by then nothing could have saved it for me. I can at least add a disclaimer by saying that I also disliked The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker for similar reasons. The Hellbound Heart was the basis for the movie Hellraiser (1987) and is considered something of a horror classic, but I just thought it was gross. If being shocked and disgusted is what you want from the horror genre, then you may find Shadows satisfying, but unfortunately for me I was hoping for a lot more.
Buy a copy of Shadows