Will Burgess is used to hard knocks. Abandoned by his father, son of a drug-addicted mother, and charged with raising his six-year-old sister, Will has far more to worry about than most high school freshmen. To make matters worse, Mia Samuels, the girl of Will’s dreams, is dating his worst enemy, the most sadistic upperclassman at Shadeland High. Will’s troubles, however, are just beginning.
Because one of the nation’s most notorious criminals—the Moonlight Killer—has escaped from prison and is headed straight toward Will’s hometown. And something else is lurking in Savage Hollow, the forest surrounding Will’s rundown house. Something ancient and infinitely evil. When the worst storm of the decade descends on Shadeland, Will and his friends must confront unfathomable horrors. Everyone Will loves—his mother, his little sister, Mia, and his friends—will be threatened.
And very few of them will escape with their lives.
Kicking off 2024 with quite a bang, Jonathan Janz’s Children of the Dark is the kind of novel that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Its ferocity of action is matched with coming-of-age undertones, similar to books such as Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman and Josh Malerman’s Daphne. Part creature feature, part serial killer novel, Children of the Dark was a very difficult story to put down. The main character, Will Burgess, has been dealt a bit of a tough hand, and I very much wish I could say that his circumstances improve throughout the novel. However, this is a horror story after all. With a pill-popping mom and a father who was never in the picture, he and his sister Peach tend to fend for themselves. At fifteen years old, Will spends lots of time with his friends and is in the middle of discovering his crush may just like him back when things take a turn. There’s something in the woods, something other than the recently escaped notorious serial killer, the Moonlight Killer.
In a book with an otherwise busy plot, the grounding force proves to be the character of Will. Janz writes from his perspective with a strong sense of voice and the notably genuine tone of a fifteen-year-old. Reading Children of the Dark felt very much like being in high school again, especially at the beginning of the novel. Janz does not try to mature Will past his age for the sake of the story, even in the face of danger which provides a very nuanced perspective. Does he read as a bit immature and emotional at times? Yes, but what true-to-life fifteen-year-old wouldn’t? Will’s terrors, frustrations, and struggles are all elevated through this true form of characterization.
Another feature that sets this novel apart from others is the sheer amount of action. Other than the first few chapters, there is no shortage of violence, gore, and death. Events escalate rather quickly with a few twists catching me off guard. In fact, I don’t know that a novel has ever lulled me into such a false sense of security before taking me completely off-guard. Janz manages to combine both realistic threats of crime with supernatural entities seamlessly. The synopsis alone depicts a plot with numerous conflicts, yet by the novel’s end, things are connected rather neatly. That’s not to say that any sense of threat or danger is diminished with this consolidation. If anything, things only become more terrifying by the conclusion with an air of uncertainty surrounding Will’s future.
On the whole, this book is just so loveable for these reasons and the sheer essence of youth at its core. Will’s bond with his friends, the time they spend in the woods, and the looming danger of an unknown murderous threat are all tropes that manage to grab not only my attention but my heart. It’s that famous “kids on bikes” phenomenon that’s been discussed by so many, some famous magic that stories such as these manage to bottle up and spread amongst its pages. In turn, this makes every death, injury, and assault all the more painful to endure. This level of investment only heightens an insane sense of horror and suspense.
Children of the Dark by Jonathan Janz is a mash-up of a serial killer novel, a coming-of-age story, and a creature feature. While this sounds overwhelming, under Janz’s careful hand, the events that transpire and the characters that we meet are genuine and captivating. More importantly, nothing is given in the world of Shadeland. The novel’s conclusion leaves lots of room for opportunity in the sequel which we can expect sometime in the coming year. Oozing with an overwhelming sense of dread, suspense, and gory violence, Children of the Dark has proven to be a killer first read of 2024.