It’s been eight years since artist and single mom, Rebecca Underhill, was abducted and left to die in an old broken down house located in the middle of the dark woods. Her abductor, Joseph William Whalen, is dead. Now Rebecca has put her life back together and is focused on raising her eight-year-old son, Michael Hoffman, Jr.
Rebecca is not safe, however. Mr. Skinner, aka The Skinner, plans on finishing what Whalan started. The son of an abusive butcher, Mr. Skinner has revealed himself to Michael, Jr. and Molly, the daughter of Rebecca’s best friend, Robyn. He has lured the children into the cornfield behind the old farmhouse in which they all reside to an area the children been instructed never to enter. The Skinner is watching every move that Rebecca, her family, and friends make.
When Rebecca learns that not only did Skinner share a prison cell with Whalen, but is an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane, she realizes that the nightmare she survived years ago is not over yet. It falls to her to rescue the children not from a dark, dank house in the woods, but from a maze of abandoned tunnels that run underneath the vast property.
Will Rebecca survive long enough this time to save the children?
“There’s no place like home.” So Rebecca has returned to the home in which she was raised by Super Duper Trooper Dan, despite its proximity to the remains of the house in the dark woods. But she is not alone. With Robyn, Molly, and Michael, Jr., Rebecca has created a loving family that helps fill the voids created by the deaths of her twin sister, Molly, and Michael, Jr.’s father. Rebecca and Robyn run an art school in the repurposed barn on the property, and co-parent their son and daughter. Still, Rebecca feels the spirits of Molly and Michael near her, and regularly converses with them, seeking their advice, counsel, and protection.
All is not well with the little family. Molly insists she has seen a Boogeyman who lives in the basement and is going to abduct all of them. And Michael, Jr. claims he hears voices coming from the cornfield and observes his dead father near it. Robyn has sought the assistance of a child psychologist for Molly and Rebecca wonders if the power of suggestion is inspiring Michael, Jr.’s. So Rebecca consults the same child psychologist and in short order realizes that the children do not have overactive imaginations.
Author Vincent Zandri follows up The Remains, his massively successful and thoroughly disconcerting first installment in the Rebecca Underhill trilogy, with The Ashes. While The Remains was frightening, Zandri raises the bar. The Ashes should only be read with one’s home security system armed.
As with any good thriller, there are some foundational premises that must be accepted by the reader. As to Rebecca, it must be accepted that she loved and was so connected to her family home that she was able to return to it, despite all that she endured in the woods behind it. Zandri sells the concept since Rebecca is a single mother who must provide for herself and her young son. That she returned to the home from which, along with Robyn, she established The School of Art, is plausible.
In typical Zandri fashion, the action is nonstop, making The Ashes a story to be devoured quickly, rather than savored. The woods behind the family home and the house situated therein served as central characters in The Remains. In The Ashes, it is initially the cornfield and, later, the network of abandoned pipes and tunnels, originally intended to provide the infrastructure for a housing development that was never completed, that are essential components of the story. And while Whalan was the evil predator who stalked Rebecca in The Remains, Zandri takes creepy to a whole new level with The Skinner. He is not merely a sociopath or psychopath. He is cunning, calculating, and menacing; more animal or monster than human.
Ancillary characters and even a few who are prominent figures in Rebecca’s life fall victim to The Skinner, adding to her consternation and the reader’s emotional response. Never missing a chance to throw in a thrill, Zandri keeps the pressure mounting, the pace accelerating at expertly timed moments. Also featured is the character of widower Detective Nick Miller, who knows he should retire, but still mourns his wife so profoundly that he just can’t bring himself to do so. Through his involvement in the desperate search to apprehend The Skinner in time, Zandri injects some wry, but astute commentary about bureaucratic politics that serves nicely to propel the story and place seasoned Detective Miller at the forefront.
Zandri says his hope for The Ashes is that it provides readers with “thrills, spills, and a night without sleep.” He achieves his goal. The Ashes is simply impossible to put down. And The Skinner is so thoroughly, sickly creepy that The Ashes is definitely not for squeamish readers. The character invites obvious comparison to Hannibal Lector. In fact, Zandri acknowledges The Skinner is just as “brutal and frightening” — if not even more so.
Most importantly, The Ashes reunites fans of The Remains with Rebecca, who again demonstrates her resilience, bravery, and stubborn determination. This time she risks her life in order to save the children. She must locate and outwit a villain who is diabolically committed to his own twisted agenda. And the inclusion of Detective Miller’s investigative experience and instincts in the adventure make The Ashes a worthy sequel.
Zandri is deservedly proud of The Remains, but notes that “he’s not entirely sure how [he] wrote it.” Frankly, it really doesn’t matter. In The Ashes, Zandri demonstrates once again that he is a master at crafting a breathtakingly scary, but thoroughly original thriller featuring a sympathetic protagonist, crisp dialogue, and even, for good measure, a bit of romance. Will Rebecca find her happily ever after this time? You’ll have to read The Ashes to find out.
Keep the lights on.