Scary books fall into three categories. Ones that actually aren’t scary at all, and get left on buses and trains and in airport lounges.
Others are sort of scary, in that you can see what the writer is trying to do and you appreciate it, you really do, but somehow the hairs on the back of your arms resolutely refuse to rise. The writing’s good, the plot’s okay, but… well, it’s just not a bone-chiller.
The third category is the smallest of all. Alex North’s The Whisper Man belongs to it. Because he has written one of the creepiest, most unsettling, keep-the-light-on novel either of us have read for years. It’s right up there with Daphne du Maurier’s deliciously atmospheric Don’t Look Now and Michelle Paver’s authentically terrifying Dark Matter. What makes its spine-tingling properties all the more impressive is its setting: Du Maurier had Venice; Paver took us into the Arctic Circle. North chooses Featherbank, a rather dull, even boring, modern English village, as his backdrop. Actually, it’s perfect for purpose. Nothing bad could happen in a sleepy backwater like Featherbank, could it? So when the horror begins, the shock is palpable.
Featherbank is meant to represent a fresh start for Tom Kennedy and his young son, Jake. Shattered by the loss of his wife and Jake’s mother, Tom moves to the village to begin a new life. He’s not to know the place is haunted. Not by a ghost. By The Whisper Man
Actually, there is a ghost in this chilling tale; that of a little girl. Only Jake can see her, so when Tom overhears his son talking to an invisible person he assumes it’s an imaginary friend. But the ghost is no playmate: she comes to Jake to deliver a warning, buried in a strange nursery rhyme.
‘If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken.’
What does it mean? What door? What whispers? Poor Jake is about to find out.
Alex North has managed to write a novel (he writes beautifully, by the way) about dark places that, even though they are fantastical, we can all recognise. We’ve been there in nightmares. He taps into a universal, nameless fear and gives it a name: The Whisper Man.
The Whisper Man is a child killer. Fifteen years before our story begins, this monster abducted and murdered five little boys from Featherstone. It is believed he whispered to his victims from outside their homes as they slept, enticing them to join him. He was eventually caught and jailed, but as Tom and Jake arrive in the village, another boy goes missing. The disappearance carries the hallmarks of The Whisper Man’s modus operandi, but how can it be him? He’s miles away, held securely in a maximum security wing.
Part murder-mystery, part horror story, The Whisper Man will have you gripped from the first page to the last. No surprise to learn it’s being made into a film.