Books: The Watchers by A.M. Shine

Irish author A.M. Shine has published several short stories in various anthologies, but The Watchers, which came out in October of 2021, is his debut novel, and it’s a creepy, atmospheric, monster-in-the-woods tale based around a variation on Irish folklore. Though the prose tends toward the more florid end (which I actually don’t have a problem with), and I would have liked the mythology of the Watchers expounded on just a tad more, this was an excellent, claustrophobic read that really immersed me in its world.

At the beginning, there’s a brief prologue in which we’re introduced to a married couple, John and Ciara, who one Sunday decide, just for shits and giggles, to go out for a drive, destination unknown. They seem to be having a good time, cruising through a remote part of Galway and joking about being lost, but then they realize they actually are lost. They find themselves at the edge of a forest, in a sort of dead zone area where their cell phones and car engine inexplicably die. They go into the woods looking for help, and something bad seems to happen, though this is left to the reader’s imagination (for now).

After that, we begin to follow a young woman named Mina, who will be the main protagonist for the remainder of the story. Mina is a happily single artist who likes to drink and smoke and hang out at the pub. Though she lives a simple life and makes fairly adequate money from commissions, she still likes to take on short gigs every now and then to supplement her small income.

To that end, she’s approached by a friend of hers, Peter, another pub regular who sometimes hooks her up with little jobs. The old man, a perpetual drunk, tells Mina that he has a friend out in Connemara who collects exotic birds, and it so happens that Peter has a bird to sell him: a beautiful and rare golden parrot. The old man asks Mina if she’ll drive the bird out to the friend, collect the money from him, then give Peter a small cut.

Mina, thinking this is oddly random but looking to get a few hundred pounds out of the deal, agrees. Peter draws her a map to the friend’s place, which is in the butthole of nowhere, and of course Mina has her GPS, so she thinks everything will be fine.

Of course, since this is a horror novel, everything is absolutely not fine, and it will surprise no one to learn that Mina ends up at the edge of the same remote forest as the couple from the beginning. Her car conks out, her cell phone is dead, and since she didn’t pass anything on the road coming out here, she figures she’ll press on through the woods and see if there’s a house or another road where she can get help. She takes a bottle of water and the parrot in his cage and sets out.

Not too long into her trek, though, she begins to hear a very alarming inhuman screaming, and subsequently starts hauling ass, as one would. Then, oddly, this older woman seems to kinda pop out of the trees and tell Mina that she’d better get to the structure up ahead before she gets killed. Mina, who sees few options at this point, follows the old woman.

This structure isn’t exactly a house; from the outside, it looks sort of like a concrete bunker. Once inside, the woman—who says her name is Madeline­—explains that this building is the only protection from the monsters out in the forest. The front room of the bunker, which she calls the living room, isn’t secure, but there is another room in the back with a reinforced door and multiple, heavy duty locks.

When Mina and the bird—who doesn’t really have a name, though Mina calls him The Yellow One­—get inside this other room, they not only notice that one entire wall of the room is made of glass and the place is lit up like the Vegas strip, but also that there are two other people there: a nineteen-year-old man named Daniel, and Ciara, the woman from the beginning of the story who went into the woods with her husband John after they got lost. We find out that John had been in the bunker too, but had gone out three or four days prior to try to find help, and has yet to return.

Madeline, who seems to be the one in charge of this mysterious situation, tells Mina that they are all trapped here by the Watchers, which are these sort of horrifying monsters that have lived in these woods since way before humans existed. They enjoy watching and mimicking humans—hence the glass wall­—but will absolutely tear you to pieces and devour you if you set foot outside of the bunker once night falls. When the light in the glass-walled room comes on, Madeline says, you had better be locked in this room for the night; if you’re not, no one is going to go out to save you.

It turns out that the humans can move around in the woods during the day, and they obviously have been doing so, in order to forage for food and water. But the woods surrounding the bunker are so large that even if you started out at the crack of dawn, you wouldn’t be out of the Watchers’ territory by the time it got dark, so you are essentially stuck here forever.

For the first two-thirds or so of the book, you’re trapped in this bunker with these four characters, trying to figure out the dynamic of the relationships between the people and brainstorming ideas for escape. Madeline, however—who says she’s been in the bunker for more than two years—is mostly concerned with just keeping everyone alive day to day. She confides in Mina that Daniel and Ciara are useless idiots who would never survive without her enforcing the rules on them, but Mina begins to suspect that Madeline might know more about the Watchers than she’s letting on.

At about the end of the second act, the four of them make a discovery that changes their situation, and gives them hope that they might be able to get away. All of this leads to a pretty cool third act that features a twist that I absolutely should have seen coming, but totally did not.

This was a solid horror novel that really delivered on the eerie atmosphere and the claustrophobic terror. Though I saw some readers complain that they thought the prose was too flowery and purple, I didn’t generally find that to be the case, although there are some very long descriptive passages painting a picture of what the woods looked like and so forth. This didn’t bother me, as I thought the language went a long way toward vividly establishing the setting, but I can see how some people might find it too cloying. I also would have liked a slight bit more description of the folklore behind the Watchers, as you don’t even get a good look at one until more than halfway through the story; but then again, maybe the monsters were better largely left to the imagination, as it did make them much scarier, not knowing much of anything about what they were or where they came from.

I’ve seen this novel compared to Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, which I can understand; to me, it had a similar vibe to the 2015 Irish horror film The Hallow, which was likewise about a remote forest full of folkloric beings that had a sort of changeling-type aspect to them. So if that sounds like something you’d be into, then by all means check it out.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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