By Alex North
For a group of boys in a bleak, unloved town in England, lucid dreaming has an obvious appeal. At 15, they have noticed that none of the adults around them seem particularly happy, and that their own lives are unlikely to be much different. Once they learn to become aware during a dream, the boys can then decide its course: “You can do anything you want, live any experience you want, make your dream world exactly how you want it to be. Anything you can think of can be real.”
In “The Shadows,” lucid dreaming acts as a sort of fire accelerant on adolescence. The boys seize on it in a bid to avoid the compromised world of adults, and their own constricted circumstances. You can’t really blame them. As our protagonist, Paul, explains: “Teenagers were not rational, was the point, and the world was not always kind to them.”
Their ringleader, Charlie, is a mannered, articulate outsider, with the confidence to stop a school bully by saying, coolly, “I dreamed about you last night,” which, as it turns out, is a fairly alarming thing to hear during a fight. His intensity is magnetic, but becomes ever more worrying.
Charlie has a plan to escape into a lucid dream forever — though that will require a sacrifice, a murder. Afterward, Charlie and his accomplice, Billy, lie down in the woods and take sleeping pills, convinced they will wake in “the land of dreams.” Billy is found hours later, covered in blood, clutching his dream diary and a knife, but Charlie has vanished. Is he still alive? Or did the plan somehow work?
It is to Alex North’s credit, in this assured thriller, that both options seem plausible. Now in his 40s, Paul returns home after a copycat murder in another town. As the narrative shifts between past and present, the boys’ motives for wanting to escape, and their connections to one another, become deeper and more complicated.
North has an eye for moments of skewed dailiness, describing a man in “a battered old fatigue coat, the shoulders worn away like feathers,” and a forest where mines have collapsed, “leaving the trees leaning at angles, forming shattered crosses above crumbling pits.” These visual details are so effective that the more explicit beats of foreboding feel extraneous. The set-piece scenes — that school fight, a visit to a suspect’s house — are beautifully paced and surprising. As in his debut, “The Whisper Man,” North is aware of how a good horror novel can subtly rearrange a reader’s surroundings, charging them with menace, and he nods to the tradition with references to “The Monkey’s Paw” and “The Shining.”
Another schoolmate, Jenny, mentions having read every book by Stephen King, “most of them two or three times,” and cheerfully submits a story to her creative writing club about a man eaten by his dog. Jenny is self-sufficient, capable and wry, and enormously winning. When she reappears as an adult, sipping white wine in a leather jacket and expensive boots, we are delighted to learn that she has become a writer, but uneasy about why, exactly, she has published her books under a pseudonym.
This is absorbing, headlong reading, a play on classic horror with an inventiveness of its own. In the third act, a revelation upends both the entire narrative and its emotional valence. Such a major double-cross is risky. Somehow, though, the twist comes across not as a metafictional, authorial intervention, but as the work of a character struggling to survive a grinding loss. As with all the best illusions, you are left feeling not tricked, but full of wonder.