Books: The Shuddering by Ania Ahlborn

I had read a couple of novels by Ania Ahlborn before—those being 2017’s The Devil Crept In and 2019’s If You See Her—and I enjoyed them both enough to want to read another one of hers when it popped up in my Kindle Unlimited recommendations. If you’re unfamiliar, Ania Ahlborn is quite a popular and award-nominated horror writer who was born in Poland, but now lives in New Mexico, and came to the attention of horror readers when her self-published debut novel Seed became the number one best-selling horror novel on Amazon and was subsequently optioned for film by Amazon Studios back in 2012.

The Shuddering, published in 2013, is just as well-written, fast-paced, and entertaining as the other two books of hers that I’ve read, being essentially a simple “people trapped in isolated cabin getting terrorized by creatures from the woods” story. If you’re looking for a straightforward, gruesome monster tale that also features a great deal of character drama that makes the deaths that do occur much more impactful, then this will do quite nicely, I think.

At the beginning of the story, there’s something of a prologue in which an older guy who lives in a remote mountain cabin with his beloved wife is out gathering wood when he falls victim to a pack of horrifying-looking monsters that basically tear him limb from limb and eat him. So right from the jump, we know there’s something out there, and periodically throughout the main plot of the book, there are interspersed scenes of other characters we don’t really know getting attacked and devoured by the creatures. In that way, the novel is structured much like a movie, where we occasionally cut away from the main action to remind the reader that the threat is growing closer without the core characters being any the wiser.

Then we’re introduced to most of our protagonists. These are a set of close-knit twins, Jane and Ryan, Jane’s best friend Lauren, and Ryan’s very good girl, a heroic husky named Oona (spoiler alert: yes, the dog dies, but it’s only implied rather than explicitly described, thank goodness).

The gang is driving up to Jane and Ryan’s parents’ lavish “cabin” (which is more like a mansion) in the mountains of Colorado for one last get-together before some big changes occur in their lives. Jane, a second grade teacher who is a bit embarrassed about coming from a wealthy family and refuses to take money from them, has just divorced her husband Alex after he cheated on her, and is trying to put her life back together. Ryan, a charming and confident winter sports celebrity who made a fortune writing and reviewing ski slopes around the world for his popular website and getting lots of corporate sponsorships, is going to be moving to Zurich shortly and wants to reconnect with all his friends and family before jetting off.

Also, unbeknownst to Jane, Ryan has sold the family cabin where he and Jane spent so much time as children. We never meet Jane and Ryan’s parents, but neither twin has much good to say about them; apparently their dad cheated on their mom extensively, and has lately been gallivanting around the globe with his much younger model girlfriend and hasn’t made contact with either of them for quite a while.

Also invited up for this last hurrah of a four-day weekend is Sawyer, Ryan’s best friend since they were all teenagers, and Jane’s first love, who she’s never really gotten over. She hasn’t seen him in a few years, and is apprehensive about spending time around him again, though she’s pretty sure she can keep it together. She knows it’s going to be difficult, however, especially since Sawyer is going to be bringing his girlfriend April, who none of the others have ever met before. One of the reasons Jane brought Lauren, in fact, was to serve as something of a security blanket in case she couldn’t handle seeing Sawyer with another woman. Oh, and she also brought Lauren (I mean, she brought her because she’s her best friend, but she also had some ulterior motives) because she thought her commitment-phobic brother Ryan would be really into her, and she thinks it’s about time Ryan found a stable relationship. Ryan, it should be noted, also had some sneaky purpose of his own, inviting Sawyer in the hopes that Jane and Sawyer would get back together, but then having those hopes dashed when Sawyer told Ryan he was bringing April.

I realize that when I write it out like that, it does sound like a reality show, but as I mentioned, there is a lot of drama going on with the characters, which I thought lent some depth to the story and raised the stakes substantially, because the people going through the horror seem like actual people and not cardboard cutouts, but I did read a handful of reviews that lamented that they couldn’t connect with the characters or didn’t like them all that much, so your mileage may vary. Some of the characters are more likable than others, but they did all seem like regular, flawed, mostly relatable people, albeit largely people with way more money than I’ll ever see in my entire lifetime.

When Sawyer and April arrive (a bit late, because they got lost), it’s even more awkward than anyone anticipated, though everyone tries to make the best of it. April, a sour goth chick who isn’t really into snowboarding and doesn’t like the “yuppies” that her boyfriend used to hang with (I can kinda sympathize, not gonna lie) pretty much immediately twigs onto the fact that Jane is still into Sawyer, and that Sawyer might return those feelings. As a result, she doesn’t make much effort to try to ingratiate herself with the others, and comes off pretty surly and passive-aggressive.

While all of this is going on, little things are happening out in the woods. Some of them hear strange noises out there in the middle of the night, and see the trees shuddering (hence the title). At first they attribute this to elk or wolves; it is the remote woods, after all, and the forest is full of animals. Oona the dog, though, also seems uneasy, scared to go outside and snapping at Jane, which she’s never done before. Every now and then, furthermore, one of the group will see a shadow moving behind the trees or just outside the windows.

Then, the gang find a big smear of what looks like blood in the snow not far from the cabin, though they don’t see a body, so they assume it was just roadkill, or a predator dragging off a deer. Even more ominously, April, who opted to stay in the lodge while the rest of the group went snowboarding, overhears a couple of guys talking about search and rescue finding a dead guy up there last season.

So all of these little things are happening, and meanwhile we as the reader know that monsters are out there because every now and then we witness some hapless skiers or tow truck drivers get eviscerated by same. The origins of the monsters themselves are never explained, but they don’t appear to be supernatural in any way; they’re very tall and thin, with long, spindly limbs, enormous teeth, black eyes, and prodigious strength, as well as a cunning intelligence and something of a social structure within their pack. It’s implied that they have always lived in these woods, but have only recently started attacking humans because other food sources have become scarce.

The main characters at the fancy cabin don’t actually even see the monsters full on until about two-thirds of the way into the story. There’s been a horrible blizzard which snows the gang in, and at the same time, Sawyer and April have a terrible argument after April confronts Sawyer about the obvious torch he’s still carrying for Jane. Emotional and furious, April insists that she and Sawyer leave, but their Jeep gets stuck in a snowbank, at which point April, who is altogether through with this shit, stomps off into the storm, obligating Ryan and Lauren to go off looking for her, at which point the monster attack begins in earnest.

The final third of the book is a tense, nail-biting survival epic; characters get killed and dreadfully wounded, the power goes out, the food stores run low, and the remaining holdouts have to figure out a way to get off the snow-choked mountain and back to civilization before they all become monster chow.

If you’re a fan of grisly, fairly uncomplicated monster stories set in the dead of winter at a remote cabin in the woods, then this should be right up your alley, though keep in mind that there is a great deal of character building and interpersonal drama, so how you feel about that will likely impact your overall enjoyment. I actually found all the character interactions and turmoil quite compelling, and it did make the story more poignant for me, as I was genuinely upset when some of the characters died, just because I had spent so much time inside their heads and knew what their future hopes and dreams and anxieties were that would now never come to fruition. Again, though, your mileage may vary, but other than that caveat, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys gory creature features, survival horror, and cabin-in-the-woods type stories.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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