When we think of aliens or UFOs, we often find ourselves thinking about those strange and unusual space explorers we hear about in science fiction. Little green men from mars and creatures from beyond our understanding are a popular trope in fiction to explain the vastness of the universe and humanity’s small place in it.
In many of these stories, the mysterious aliens are in fact visitors, curious about us and wanting to understand. In others, though, instead of being benign entities, these creatures have a darker intent and look down on mankind not with curiosity but with malevolence.
This is this unsettling premise of The Watchers, which succeeds in chilling the spine and inflaming the imagination, as Neil Spring takes us on a journey to our darkest and deepest fear of the unknown.
The story Spring constructed is set in 1970s England, when the nations of the world were in the grip of The Cold War and nuclear war was a fear still burning in the minds of the globe. The action follows protagonist Robert Wilding, a young man beset by nerves and anxiety, whose work with the government finds him embroiled in a mystery that forces him back to his former home in West Wales.
While the setting may seem in itself innocuous, it is in fact a prime area for mysterious lights in the sky, strange incursions and sightings of mysterious creatures with ‘faces made of shadows’.
A natural sceptic raised by a quasi-abusive religious grandfather, Wilding must now get to the bottom of the mystery of The Broad Haven Triangle – a mystery which goes into his own past and will shake his very understanding of the universe, and the truly harrowing nature of evil.
On paper, the story itself at first seems like a tough sell. In an age of spectacle where science fiction has shown us giant space ships hovering sinisterly above sprawling cityscapes, an alien incursion in West Wales in fact seems rather small and localised. However, upon reading The Watchers, it’s clear that while this book contains many of the classic science fiction tropes about alien visitors, it does in fact take more cues from traditional horror.
This blend of ideas is not necessarily new, but in this instance creates a more personal and human story, showing the frailty of the human condition in the face of something that is truly unexplained and cruel. This combination of elements works together perfectly, thanks in no small part to Spring’s command of prose, to create an engrossing story that keeps the reader guessing all the way up to the grand revelations near the story’s conclusion.
As a character piece, Wilding is an impressive protagonist. He isn’t cut from the traditional hero cloth, and as such is open to many failings which simultaneously make him more human and relatable.
From the second we first see him in the story, the reader’s natural impulse is one of protectiveness, and to understand what can make a man become so fearful and beset by personal demons. The character’s anxiety is a master stroke and comes across as natural, allowing us entry into the character’s psyche in a way you don’t often see with modern fiction. The result is that we want to know his story and want to follow him as he falls deeper and deeper into the mystery at hand.
This commitment to character is not unique to the protagonist either as the wider dramatis personae of The Watchers shows the same level of detail and motivation, making each diverging story a joy to read and experience through Wilding’s eyes. In short, these are perfect examples of how to create a believable cast of characters while still keeping their motivations mysterious and unusual enough that we want to know more about them.
Looking at the central issue of the eponymous Watchers, I found myself racing through the book, itching to know more about them. As we read, though, we find our natural ideas about visitors from another world called into question, as they are presented in a way which makes them more synonymous with ghosts and monsters.
As the story continues to unfold the questions continue to build, rewriting our own preconceptions and showing us an alternative take on alien incursion that is both awe-inspiring and horrific to contemplate. Indeed, this sense of being wrong-footed feels deliberate and worked in the story’s favour , especially as the cruel truth of The Watchers’ nature comes to be realised, metaphorically pulling the rug out from under the readers feet.
The Watchers is a wonderful piece of fiction, and indeed had this all been a construction of Spring’s undoubtedly keen imagination, we would still have lauded it as a triumph of creativity. Imagine out surprise and awe, then, to discover that a lot of the sightings and mysteries presented in the book are actually based on real life events. That there was in fact a sighting of a UFO by children in Broad Haven Primary School around which much of the drama is based, and that the so called Broad Haven Triangle in West Wales was the site of many sightings throughout the 1970s.
These nods to history make a book like this a pleasure for readers who are interested in the subject and opens the door for them to research the events on their own. While Spring himself has taken some artistic license with the facts, it is the commitment to his research and his ability to create a drama based on real life events which really makes this author someone to watch out for in the future.
The Watchers is a terrific and very human horror story that explores and obliterates our ideas about UFOs and aliens. It’s highly recommended for readers seeking a horror fix in the run up to Halloween and perfect for anyone who loves a good mystery. Pick it up as soon as you can and see if you can unravel the mystery of the Broad Haven Triangle – the conclusion will shock and amaze you.