Before I discovered romance novels, I cut my teeth on Gothics. My mother had a shelf of books by Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney in our basement, and one summer I devoured them all. Beneath the Shadows by Sara Foster is a modern Gothic with romantic elements, and it reminded me why I enjoyed the genre so much.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Gothic storyline, it features a young and often virginal heroine who finds herself in an unfamiliar and desolate setting (usually the North York moors or a crumbling Cornwall estate). She is often in jeopardy, beset by seemingly unseen forces, and surrounded by people she may not be able to trust.
There’s also the classic Gothic hero—dark, brooding and handsome; he is mysterious, and the heroine is simultaneously attracted to him and afraid of him. There is a strong element of the paranormal here, with a dash of romantic suspense.
There’s also a lot of running around on the moors in diaphanous nightgowns, which I never totally understood. As a kid I didn’t know what a moor was (Google wasn’t available yet and I was too lazy to do research), but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a great place to be in your nightie.
Beneath the Shadows opens with a chilling mystery. Grace and her husband, Adam, have moved to North Yorkshire after inheriting Hawthorn Cottage from his grandparents. They previously lived in London with their newborn baby, Millie, and are giving a quieter country life a try. Adam takes Millie for a walk, but when they haven’t returned by dusk, Grace gets worried. She opens the front door to go looking for them and finds Millie asleep in her pram on the front step. Adam is nowhere to be found.
A year later Grace is back at the cottage with Millie, packing things up so she can rent the place. Adam is still missing. The police, and Grace’s family, think he’s run off. They can’t find his passport or the £1000 he withdrew before his disappearance. Even Grace is beginning to question whether or not her husband is sitting on a beach somewhere living a new life.
Hawthorn Cottage is a seriously creepy place. Grace and Millie are alone on the moors in the dead of winter, with only a few close neighbors for company. The decrepit, shadowy cottage is a fitting metaphor for Grace’s own life, deteriorating after Adam’s disappearance. Foster sets the tone of the Gothic with ease:
“…Grace was already finding the unbroken silence unnerving, the way nothing moved except at the will of the wind—but she kept telling herself she would get used to it” (Foster 44).
If the landscape is bleak, so is the company. The neighbors at Roseby house are eccentric and unnerving, a family led by Meredith, their severe matriarch. There’s also Feathery Jack, the creepy old guy who rescues owls, and Ben, the handsome, mysterious stranger who Grace hires to renovate the cottage.
As she packs up the cottage, Grace begins to finds details about her husband’s life that were previously unknown to her. Adam had been largely raised by his grandparents, and she finds a secret cellar filled with mementos from his childhood, a childhood he never spoke of. She realizes that Hawthorn Cottage and the nearby village are filled with secrets about her husband’s life. The man she loved is now a stranger to her.
Hawthorn Cottage itself becomes a character, a villain in its own right:
“She looked up at the cottage. It stared back at her obliquely, its windows blank eyes. She steeled herself….
She was here for one fundamental reason—Adam. She wouldn’t lose sight of that. Once the cottage was empty, she would reassess. If her efforts revealed nothing, then she would accept the inevitable hollow goodbye. In fact, nowadays she often found herself hoping for its benign release, rather than anything else. For it was the gathering phantoms of other possibilities that kept on waking her to an icy darkness, sweating and shaking, repeatedly grasping for the light.” (Foster 180).
It’s during her search of the cottage that Grace finds evidence that Adam might not have vanished willingly. To add to the absolute creep factor, someone or something clearly wants Grace gone. There seems to be a ghostly presence around her, one that has her jolting awake from nightmares of demonic black hounds. Threatening messages are left scrawled on her car window, objects move around the house mysteriously, and the old grandfather clock, the heartbeat of the cottage, stops and starts of its own volition.
There is some seriously creepy shit going down in this book, and it’s wonderful. Even though it was balmy and sunny as I was reading this book, I felt the chill of a Yorkshire winter, and I smelled the musty coolness of the basement where I used to go for those Victoria Holt books.
Grace is a fine protagonist, and other villagers are suitably odd and eerie enough to give the story legs. My big complaint was the sudden appearance of Grace’s sister, Annabel, and her friend, James. Both show up ostensibly to help Grace pack up the cottage, but mostly they just tell her she’s wasting her life out there wondering about her husband.
Who is missing. For, like, a year.
I don’t think it’s in any way unreasonable for Grace to wonder if Adam was the victim of foul play. I think it’s actually pretty hard to believe that her family, the cops, and every other person on earth thinks he just walked off. Without a car. In the middle of fucking nowhere.
The constant harping on Grace to move on with her life was irritating and fairly constant. I could have subtitled the book Beneath the Shadows: Grace’s Husband Disappears and Everyone Else is a Dick About It. At the very least the whole episode earns Grace a special on Investigation Discovery. Probably one narrated by Lester Holt.
I didn’t see much point in having James and Annabel prancing around the moors being a pain in the ass, other than it made Grace more sympathetic. You could have cut them entirely from the book and nothing much would have changed. The characters who aren’t Grace’s family, the villagers, are much more sympathetic to her plight. Meredith offers to buy the cottage from her outright, and Meredith’s daughters seem to adopt Grace and Millie. Ben, the handsome, mysterious stranger, offers to renovate her cottage at bargain prices. All of this seems very sweet, until you start to wonder if they just want access to Hawthorn Cottage and all its secrets.
Beneath the Shadows is moody and atmospheric, with a tantalizing mystery at its core. It could easily be an A book except for some of the clunky chapters in the middle and unnecessary supporting characters. Grace doesn’t go running across the moors in her nightgown (bummer), but if you need a palate cleanser or a need for a good, quick read it’s worth the buy.