Sunday 19 May 2013

Review: Soul Shadows, and Interview with the Author, Alex Woolf

Estelle’s therapist has prescribed her a dose of solitude. So she’s staying in a cottage in the middle of nowhere, trying to come to terms with her traumatic past. But there’s more going on in the quiet nearby woods than she knows.

An army of unnatural shadows lurks among the trees. Unlike those that harmlessly follow our footsteps, these shadows can rise up, they can touch … and they can kill.

Estelle and her old friend Sandor must battle this shape-shifting army and the sinister forces that have called them into being. But how can you defeat your enemies when you’re afraid of your own shadow?

Soul Shadows by Alex Woolf is one of those book that sort of took me by surprise, in that I thought it was going to be one thing, and it turned out to be something rather different. Based on the press release I received from the lovely people at Curious Fox, I thought this was going to be a fairly traditional ghost/supernatural story, and I was expecting a steady build-up to the horror, over a period of several chapters, as we meet the main character, he/she finds themselves in a potential spooky situation (haunted house, sinister village, deserted woodland), something's lurking in the dark, etc. What I got was a fast-paced horror story where the action kicks in before the end of the first chapter and doesn't relent until the final page.

18-year-old Estelle has a history of mental health problems, stemming from an incident of severe psychological abuse carried out by her mother when she was much younger. Since then she has tried to kill herself several times, and it is only though the help of her therapist, Dr Kirby, that she has finally turned a corner. As the next step in her therapy, Kirby has recommended that she spends a week on her own in his remote country cottage. However, as Estelle quickly discovers, she is most definitely not alone and the sinister shadows she can't be sure are real are only the beginning of a nightmare battle for survival.

I don't want to give too much away about the plot, but I will say that it covers themes of mental illness, identity and what makes someone human, and also the ethics of science. It is guaranteed to have the reader questioning their own opinions on these topics, as the actions of some of the characters will have you wondering who the greatest monsters are: the soul shadows of the story's title or the scientists who created them.

Soul Shadows differs in writing style from a large number of the YA horror books I have read. It took me a while to get used to it, as I felt that it lacked a natural flow at times, and the immediate jump into the action was also something that jarred a little with me. However, after I had read a couple of chapters I did a little research and discovered that this book was not written in the traditional manner. It first saw the light of day on Fiction Express, a website that gives young people the chance to influence a story as it is being written by a professional author. In simple terms, the author writes a chapter a week, and at the end of each chapter the Fiction Express readers are offered a series of options as to how they would like the story to continue. This innovative method of writing a book not only explained the occasional lack of flow in the plot, but also the non-stop, breath-taking pace of the story.

Soul Shadows has many genuinely scary moments, but at times it is the moral issues that are more terrifying. If you prefer your horror to be more action and less slow-burning suspense then this is the book for you.


Having enjoyed the book I am now really pleased to welcome it's author to The Book Zone to answer some questions for us:

How did you get the idea for Soul Shadows?

The starting point was a piece of dialogue I wrote between two people, each of them crouched on either side of a door. One of them was very scared, telling the other one not to open the door, whatever happens. I then had to decide what was out there that was making this character so scared. I realised that the scariest thing that I could possibly imagine was my own shadow coming alive. I’ve no idea where this idea came from – but I’ve always been fairly spooked by shadows. It may have something to do with the fact that I have unreliable peripheral vision. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see a dark thing suddenly move. I turn and all I can see there is my shadow behaving as a shadow should. But one day it may happen that I’ll turn more quickly than usual, and I’ll see something…

Where is the story set?

It’s set in the fictional English county of Wintershire, which is a deliberately bland, undramatic, fairly flat sort of everyplace – possibly based on Bedfordshire. I wanted to give it an ordinary setting to make the events, when they start happening, seem more startling. The story begins in an isolated cottage near a spooky wood. The wood becomes a major setting for the story, as does the nearby village of Delhaven, which turns out to be under the control of a sinister scientific establishment called the Facility.

Who are the main characters? Are they based on anyone you know?

The main characters are Estelle and Sandor. Estelle is an 18-year-old girl who suffered a psychological trauma when she was 14 (her mother locked her in an attic for 12 weeks), and has been in and out of institutions ever since. She’s been sent to the isolated cottage as a form of exposure therapy to get over her fear of being alone. Sandor is a 21-year-old soldier and childhood friend of Estelle’s. At the start of the novel he’s wrestling with his own demons following a tough tour of duty in Afghanistan in which he saw a close friend die. In the course of the novel, both Estelle and Sandor are forced to confront their deepest fears of loneliness and loss. They have to learn to relate to each other in a different way, now they’re no longer children, and a mutual attraction starts to form. Neither character is based on anyone I know. However, I once had to care for a close friend suffering from mental illness, and I’m sure that some of that experience played into my creation of Estelle.

Did any books or films inspire you when writing the story?

A major theme of the book is the dangers of irresponsible, uncontrolled science, and as such my book takes its place in a venerable tradition within horror and science fiction, from Frankenstein to Doctor Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In creating a scientific basis for the shadows, I was influenced by the inventive pseudoscience of TV shows such as Doctor Who and Primeval, and the scary, claustrophobic scene in the Facility (a high-tech research establishment in the woods) was partly inspired by the film Alien

What writing techniques did you use in the scary scenes?

First of all, I tried to imagine myself in the scene, and attempted to express, moment by moment, even second by second, how I would feel if it was happening to me. I used short sentences, and slowed the action right down, drawing out the tension. I was careful not to over-describe the monsters – just giving hints of their horribleness and leaving readers to imagine the detail for themselves. After writing my initial draft I went over it several times, ruthlessly hacking away anything extraneous, so I was left with something as lean and mean and hopefully scary as possible.

Do you have a favourite line or scene from the book?

There are a few, most of which I can’t mention here as they’re plot spoilers. I quite like this description of Estelle’s first meeting with her shadow:
Estelle opened her mouth to scream, and the girl-thing seemed to copy her, except that its mouth went on growing and growing, like a distortion in a nauseating hall of mirrors. Its shiny beetle-black eyes gazed hungrily back at her. Saliva dripped from needle-like teeth, as fresh soil from the forest floor began to show between the cracks in its cheeks.

Was it always called Soul Shadows or how did you think of the title?

It began life as a short story called Shadow of Death. Not long after I’d written this, I was approached by a publisher of interactive novels, Fiction Express, to write a novel for teenagers. I immediately suggested an expanded version of ‘Shadow of Death’. I explained the concept to Paul Humphreys, MD of Fiction Express, and he loved it. He particularly liked the name I’d given my monsters – soul shadows – and he said that might make a good title for the story.

Describe Soul Shadows in three words.

Shadows come alive.

What is the most scary thing that’s happened to you?

It was either the time I found myself alone about fifteen feet from a barracuda while snorkelling off the Florida Keys, or else the time I was scaling a rock face in a gorge in the South of France and suddenly realised I couldn’t find a way up or down, or the time I saw a greenish glow in the darkness of a room I’d wandered into by accident while staying in a country house in Surrey.

What is your favourite scary book and movie?

Great question! Let me think! Sorry, I simply can’t limit this to one of each. Favourite scary books are Stephen King’s It, The Shining, Night Shift and Carrie; Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Weaveworld; Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror; Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes; Peter Benchley’s Jaws; and the short stories of M R James. Favourite scary movies are Psycho; Night of the Living Dead; Halloween; Friday the 13th; Nightmare on Elm Street; The Exorcist; The Omen; Alien; The Ring; The Vanishing.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis

If you could have dinner with any authors, past or present, who would you choose?

I’d probably choose Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, Kazuo Ishiguro and J D Salinger.

If you weren’t an author what would you be?

Something creative, like a sculptor or choreographer or a designer of avant-garde iced buns. However, I’d probably avoid a career in shadow puppetry, for obvious reasons.

How do you write? (morning/evening, how many hours, in what room/location, on computer or wth pen etc?

I love writing in the early mornings, fuelled by plenty of tea. I always write on computer these days, and I work from a room in my house. I generally take quite a long lunch break, then work until around six or my kids demand my attention – whichever comes sooner.

If people like the book and want to get in touch or find out more about you, how do they do that?

They can contact me through my publishers, Curious Fox, or via my website:


  1. Very nice! I remember I hosted a Guest Post for this author.
    Its very interesting that the novel would take an unexpected turn.

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