BOOK REVIEW: We Are Always Watching
– By M Jones
Having just got over the worst flu I’ve had in over five years, Hunter Shea’s ‘We Are Always Watching’ became a feverish treat in my grip for the past week. Tense and atmospheric, this is a gripping horror story which, while on the surface seems to delve in haunted house territory, never descends into it, instead building on reader expectation and then taking a sharp left when you thought the story was going to go right. The twists and turns are so subtle you don’t immediately notice them ratcheting up until the final third of the novel and then…Wow. Don’t expect to sleep until you are finished!
The story starts with West Ridley, a fourteen year old boy forced to live with his miserable Grandpa Abraham’s at his farmhouse shack with his mother Debi and his father, Matt. Matt is recovering from a terrible car accident that has left him with debilitating vertigo, destroying his career in construction and leaving his family at the financial mercy of his old homestead. His father is a relic, an old farmer with ancient ideals about family and loyalty that have little place within the modern world. While he clearly cares about his son and his family, it’s obvious he has trouble placing them within the context of a life outside of the boundaries of the farm, and the fact they have returned has renewed his need to pass on his knowledge and family legacy to his grandson, West, a gift that West most certainly did not expect nor want.
West is immediately likeable. He’s a smart kid, an avid horror fan and while his youth is apparent in the first third of the book, he has considerable growth throughout the novel. This is no spoiled kid, he has a lot to deal with in managing his father’s disability and contending with the lack of understanding in his grizzled grandfather. Debi is a strong character in her own right, holding her family together by a thread as she makes hours long commutes in and out of New York every day to work in an effort to support them all. Her job is a stressful one, made all the worse thanks to a handsy boss who clearly needs some sexual harassment prevention in the workplace training. The farmhouse quickly turns from being a refuge for their troubles into a dank and oppressive prison, one made all the more unlivable due to the mysterious ‘Guardians’ who leave vague, but somewhat threatening notes throughout the house every day, reminding them ‘WE ARE ALWAYS WATCHING’. West isn’t sure if the messages are from flesh and blood people or if they are, as he suspects, notes from the afterlife. What started as a fun idea, staying in a haunted house as his Grandpa Abraham called it, soon turns into a sinister game of stalking and murder.
I don’t want to get too much into the plot of the novel, because so much depends on the gradual buildup throughout, and giving it away will destroy all sense of suspense. Suffice to say, this novel really surprised me, and that’s not a small feat. Just when you think you have the monsters figured out, it takes an abrupt turn, and what you thought was the answer quickly morphs into some highly original territory. The characters are brilliantly fleshed out, with Matt’s illness taking a monstrous shape of its own as his efforts to help and protect his family constantly fall flat. Shea captures the sense of what happens with a family member suffering from chronic illness quite well, including Matt’s own frustration with his condition and Debi’s war torn nerves on the other end of it. The ricochet of that stress permeating everyone’s lives is an ongoing hum within the novel, adding to the suspense and humanizing everyone under the farmhouse’s roof.
Matt’s life growing up in Buttermilk Creek, Pennsylvania was far from ideal, from his sister’s drowning at a young age to being pursued at an uncomfortable ten years old by the town’s lustful babysitter. His father was always distant and harsh, and this adds to the tension within the home, especially as Matt’s condition has left him physically and mentally weak. West is forced early on to take his experience at Buttermilk Creek into his own hands, reaching out and seeking companionship with neighbours, namely the comely girl next door, Faith. But nothing can be taken for granted in a town that has, at every turn, a sinister ugly side to even its most innocent interactions. After reading the novel I have to wonder how deep the horrors go in Buttermilk Creek, and if there is anyone who isn’t tainted by the latent, hateful curse that seems embedded within its very soil. I doubt the Ripleys are alone in their torment, a fact that West wonders himself.
As a result of his illness, Shea’s monsters take on far more significance due to the vulnerability of Matt and his family at the isolated homestead. Who our heroes are is a constant question throughout the book, as we wonder where the fault lies and how far will this game go? What starts as a simple ghost story turns on its head into an American Gothic for the paranoid age, with hatred diving so deep it takes on a supernatural scope well beyond what even the monsters themselves believe. There is no true sense of trust anymore, for it’s hard to determine who the true guilty parties are, the layers of hate easily flipped. The answers we do get are unreliable, given to us by someone mired in its muck.
Is there anything more horrifying than never being sure who your true enemies are? The monster you have given a name to, or the actions throughout history that created it in the first place?
The pacing of the story is expertly crafted, with not a moment jarring or out of place within the novel. The slow build up does not mean a slow story and in Shea’s masterly crafted tale the characters become more and more human, with ample faults and hyper realistic problems that increase with such careful precision until you are smack in the thick of the horror, as trapped within it as West and his family are. The action comes at you with cinematic clarity, and if you hold onto your book or ereader a little too tightly during those last few pages, I won’t judge you. In fact, after finishing this book, think about what it means to be a good neighbour, and send a recommendation of this book along to a fellow horror fan.
Maybe send them a friendly note. One that says, in bold, black ink: ‘I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE READING’.