In the Shadows of ChildrenIn the Shadows of Children by Alan Ryker
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

let’s get a couple of things out of the way.

i freaking love alan ryker. love him. this is the sixth book of his i have read, and i always get so excited when i see new stuff by him on the netgalley for me to read. he is one of the best contemporary horror writers out there, and his particular blend of creepy and thinky has always made me cheer. but, sadly, this one just wowed me less than his others. my three-starcat rating here is only in relation to other books of his i have read, so it’s a specific-to-me three stars cats—most of the other reviewers on here LOVED it. which is great, because i want more people to discover him.

for me, three stars cats covers a lot of ground. it can simply mean “it was good,” or, which happens a lot when authors ask me to read their stuff and it’s out of my typical reading patterns, “good, but maybe not for me.” or, when it’s on the lower side of my three-starcat determinations, the small-praise “well, i didn’t hate it.” it’s a broad spectrum of threes in my hands. this time it simply means “i didn’t like it as much as i have liked his other stuff.”

here’s the thing—stephen king’s short story The Boogeyman scared the crap out of me when i was 9, and was the last time i was scared by a book. ever. i have been trying to recapture that fear-feeling ever since then, and it just never happens, even though i enjoy horror novels enough to keep trying. so it’s going to take a very special boogeyman story to impress me—to live up to that memory of blissful terror. and this one was good, but not particularly striking.

it’s about a man named aaron who returns to his family home for the first time in seven years to sort things out after the sudden and suspicious death of his mother. seven years earlier, he had visited briefly to comfort his mother after the death of his father. seven years before that, his younger brother bobby mysteriously vanished from the bedroom they shared before aaron left for college. the bedroom that spooks him when he thinks about it, and spooks him even more when he ventures inside on this visit.

aaron doesn’t remember much of his childhood, he just experiences a heavy, ominous feeling when he thinks about it, or thinks about his brother; some vague threat that had blacked out most of his childhood. he feels a tremendous amount of guilt for bobby’s disappearance, but he’s not exactly sure why. he remembers phone conversations they had when aaron first went to college, but not their specifics, just a vaguely disquieting feeling—part guilt, part fear.

…the guilt when Bobby called, ranting about things Aaron couldn’t remember, couldn’t understand even then, though he knew he should have been able to; that guilt turning to anger; those two emotions mixing up in his gut and rising bitter in his throat as he told his brother not to call him anymore; the cold feeling of utter loneliness in his chest, of total abandonment, a hollowness that made him scared to breathe too deeply for fear of popping, and knowing it wasn’t his despair he was feeling there surrounded by friends, but his brother’s, which he could feel across the thousand miles between them.

He didn’t want to feel it, so he told Bobby to stop calling him if he insisted in talking such nonsense.

but with this visit, the memories are starting to resurface, and in the bedroom; in the closet, aaron is confronted by something inexplicable and horrifying, which makes him fear for his sanity and his safety, and the safety of his wife and son back home.

a lot of the story is about aaron’s mental block—the frustration of almost remembering and then pulling back in self-protection. which is great for building tension in books, but works less-well when you pretty much know what is going on. i don’t always mind knowing more than a character in a book—it can be entertaining to witness their process of discovery, but in this case, it didn’t work for me—i was just like “catch up, aaron!!”

however, i really did like the explanation at the end, the nice spin on the boogeyman legend, and the culpability it lays at aaron’s feet. i enjoyed seeing a little twist on a familiar theme.

it’s a very good horror story in its own right, but for me, one of the most appealing things about ryker has always been his shining originality—his situations have always felt very fresh and unique. and while he did give this a nice BOOM at the end, there was too much that felt familiar, and it didn’t have that transcendent spark of his other books. if this is your first ryker, you will probably love it, but please don’t let it be your last, because he can be even better than this.

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