Book Review

Beneath the Shadows by Sara Foster

B

Title: Beneath the Shadows
Author: Sara Foster
Publication Info: St. Martin's Press June 2012
ISBN: 9780312643362
Genre: Contemporary/Other

Book Beneath the Shadows 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.

Duh-Duh-Dunnnn… Right?

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.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Miranda says:

    I may have to pick this up. I was a big Gothic fan too back in the day…Jill Tattersall, Barbara Michaels, Virginia Coffman…

  2. 2
    Lil says:

    I must read this one. I love gothics, and they are few and far between these days.

  3. 3
    Christine says:

    I will definitely check this book out. As Miranda mentioned above as well, I am a huge Barbara Michaels fan. I also used to read Phyllis A. Whitney and others.  I love an atmospherically creepy book that doesn’t descend into gore type horror. I think it’s interesting in “the old days” it was always a single girl/woman as the heroine then sometime after Mary Higgins Clark and “Where Are The Children” there was a new genre of married woman suspense- often involving children.

  4. 4
    Ann says:

    I actually LOL’d “Lester Holt”…  Still giggling. And of course, as I too loved those books as a kid—am adding it to my TBR.

  5. 5
    Sanbai says:

    Ya know, I kind of remembered what a moor was, but I decided to look it up anyway. This part of the entry I found in the official Merriam Webster Online Dictionary!

    Examples of MOOR

  6. 6
    Melissa says:

    I never saw a moor,
    I never saw the sea,
    But I know how the heather looks
    And what a billow be

    Sorry Emily D. just seemed so appropiate to the dialog.  As for this book, love love love gothics. I wish more would get published with a more modern sensiblity. The old standbys can seem kind of dated sometimes.

  7. 7
    PamG says:

    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….  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.

    I too was a long ago lover of gothics, and I have to say that the above phenomenon was one of the things I really hated about certain authors.  Phyllis Whitney, in particular, used to totally get up my nose with her characters constantly undermining the heroine, telling her that she was wrong, she didn’t understand, and her feelings weren’t valid.  Needless to say, this cadre of naysayers was always led by the hero, who, of course, always understood the heroine better than she understood herself.  Ick.

    While Beneath the Shadows, sounds intriguing and the negative vibes aren’t coming from the presumptive hero, I think I may order it from the library to be on the safe side.

  8. 8

    Wow, I must give this one a try! I actually live on the North York Moors (kudos to Elyse for giving them their correct name – so many people call them the North Yorkshire Moors, or the Yorkshire Moors, anything but the right thing), and I know how fantastically creepy and eerie they can be, when the light hangs just so, and there are always more shadows than there should be…

  9. 9
    Vasha says:

    I was intrigued by people’s comments about gothics falling out of fashion, and Christine’s mention of Mary Higgins Clark, who was the queen of the genre I call “domestic suspense” (heroine thinks her husband may be poisoning her, etc.) I decided to check out what subgenres are selling lately, so I stopped by a grocery store and two drugstores to flip through the paperback racks, counting up suspense stories with female protagonists.

    Leaving aside some borderline cases I wasn’t sure qualified as suspense (3 “mystery” and 3 “romance”), here’s what I found. There were no gothics; the closest thing might be one of Kay Hooper’s paranormal thrillers which was set in an isolated Appalachian town. There were two “domestic suspense” involving missing children, both by Lisa Jackson; one by Joanne Fluke where the husband may be a serial killer. The majority of the rest had the heroine working for or with the police, FBI, or an organization: 9 including the above-mentioned Kay Hooper. 4 with her involved in violence as a non-professional.

    Serial killers don’t feature as heavily as I expected, only in 4 cases. Less than half of these 17 books had the blurb mentioning the possibility of romance.

    So… What sweeping conclusions are to be drawn from all this? I dunno. It may be some sort of sign of the times, or just a passing trend, that people seem to like to read about women who face danger as part of their job nowadays.

  10. 10

    Ooh, a Gothic. Cut my reading teeth on Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt, absolutely. I’ll have to check this out. :D

  11. 11
    roserita says:

    I remember the days when any book that could even remotely be called a gothic had the requisite heroine-in-white-nightie-fleeing-from-sinister-building-with-one-light-burning-upstairs cover.  (And it was always just one window.)  Even perfectly respectable mysteries (like Margaret Erskine’s) got the gothic treatment.  I stopped reading Victoria Holt/Phyllis Whitney/Dorothy Eden when I realized that I couldn’t tell them apart.  Plus, so many of their heroines were such damned wimps.  It’s interesting that so many of us went from Nancy Drew to gothics, and liked it, at least for a while.  I’m not sure that it’s possible to successfully revive the old-style gothics to the heights they used to enjoy (although you could read Twilight as a modern gothic); in fact, the modern versions all have much more proactive heroines.  Now that I think about it, maybe the old gothics were only possible in the sixties, as a last gasp of the helpless heroine, before women reclaimed their competence and demanded their heroines do the same.  Even in the sixties, some authors were perverting the conventions of the genre: Elsie Lee wrote “gothics” in which the heroines were often so competent, they didn’t really need the hero.

  12. 12
    Christine says:

    That’s one reason I always loved Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters- no wimpy heroines for her. There are very few Gothic novels to be found nowadays. There are heroines who are police or FBI agents and lots of books that deal with hunting serial killers but truly Gothic novels are a dead or dying genre. Paranormals and procedurals seem to have replaced them in the market. I miss the steady buildup of dread and tension mixed with the hint of paranormal. I keep looking for modern equivalents in books like “The Restorer” or “The Haunting Of Maddy Clare” but I can’t seem to find that magic formula that Barbara Michaels could create so well.

  13. 13
    Vasha says:

    Christine, maybe what you’re looking for is filed in the horror section? I’m thinking of Caitlín R. Kiernan, for example.

  14. 14
    PamG says:

    I used to read Mary Stewart, Jill Tattersall, Madeline Brent, and, later on, Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters.  All of them wrote romances that could be considered gothic, though perhaps not all of their work was.  These were my favorites and none of them had wimpy heroines.  Well, I don’t remember Tattersall in detail, but since I’ve never liked wimpiness, I doubt that was a problem. 

    The most recent book I read that reminded me of these authors was something called Coronets and Steel by Sherwood Smith.  The heroine is thoroughly modern and there is a paranormal element, but the atmosphere, setting, and standard plot devices are all there.  Though not technically a gothic, there were many elements that reminded me of both Stewart and Michaels.  The book is not flawless, but it is great fun and I highly recommend it and its sequel, Blood Spirits.  Actually, I think I liked the latter better, as the romance arc extends over both books and pushes the HEA to the end of the second.

    exspaminator word: high69 It was high school in 69—a very good year in so many ways….

  15. 15
    Kelly S says:

    You’ve nailed the description of a gothic.  Like the rest I too read Barbara Michaels (although I preferred her work as Elizabeth Peters – funnier) and Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. Loved Mary Stewart’s books!

  16. 16
    hapax says:

    Chiming in late, but anyone looking for a old-timey-nightgown-on-the-moor Gothic (with as side of Spunky Girl Reporter) should check out Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy trilogy.  (The first title, UNSPOKEN, came out last year; the second, UNTOLD, is due this Fall.)

    It’s got the sleepy English village and the creepy old manor down pat, plus bloody sacrifices in the woods, veiled threats and warnings, telepathic soul mates, gorgeous identical cousins, a prophecy concealed in a nursery rhyme, people falling down wells and disappearing from pubs, and everyone has a Dark Secret. 

    Not perfect, but great fun.

    Verification word:  “thats19”.  That’s at least nineteen books I’ve recommended on this site!

  17. 17
    laj says:

    @Elyse: Thanks for recommending the Foster book.  I just finished it and I really enjoyed it despite Grace’s annoying family.  I liked the parallels between Meredith and Mrs Danvers.
    A good modern Gothic, thanks again.

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