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The Darkest Part of the Woods
Ramsey Campbell
PS Publishing, 350 pages

Edward Miller
The Darkest Part of the Woods
Ramsey Campbell
Ramsey Campbell was born in 1946 in Liverpool, UK. His first exposure to horror fiction came at the age of five when he saw a copy of Weird Tales and began collecting them at ten. When Campbell was just 16, August Derleth published one of his stories in an anthology along with Robert Bloch, William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft. Ramsey Campbell's first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake, was published in 1965, followed by another, Demons by Daylight, in 1973. His first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother appeared in 1976. He has also edited several collections including (along with Stephen Jones) the annual Best New Horror anthology.

Ramsey Campbell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nazareth Hill
Ramsey Campbell Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

"The book contained stories she liked, but she seemed to have forgotten where they were. The preface pointed out that woods had been regarded as secret places ever since stories were recorded."
Ramsey Campbell, The Darkest Part of the Woods

"In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. In order to understand it aright we must try to form in our minds an accurate picture of the place where it happened; for, as we shall see later on, a subtle link subsisted between the natural beauty of the spot and the dark crimes which... were often perpetrated there, crimes which after the lapse of so many ages still lend a touch of melancholy to these quiet woods and waters, like a chill breath of autumn on one of those bright September days 'while not a leaf seems faded.'"
James Frazer, The Golden Bough

"Almost every hamlet in the focal area has its own sacred groves and sacred trees... The deities are abstracted from nature and believed to permeate entire groves... The deities need to be propitiated periodically to earn their blessings and escape their wrath."
M.D. Subash Chandran Madhav Gadgil, Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada

"The custom of physically marrying men and women to trees is still practiced in India and other parts of the East."
James Frazer, The Golden Bough

"Sacred woods are not woods in the usual sense of the word. In Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Togo, Mali, Nigeria... sacred woods are often used for initiation ceremonies and rituals. According to Loucou (1984), sacred woods created by people are usually found in the immediate vicinity of a village. These woods are circular, small, stretching over 2 to 4 hectares... They are sacred places where gods and dead ancestors are thought to continuously visit... According to Coulibaly (1978), sacred woods contain the ancient flora of the region before humans settled. They are places which must not be touched or violated in any way."
The International Workshop on the Local Management of Agricultural Biodiversity, Summary of West Africa

"The most sacred example of the primal faith is that of the tree. According to Tacitus, the druids of Anglesey worshipped in sacred groves. Lucan also mentions druidical groves and Strabo refers to a Celtic assembly place called 'Drunemeton' -- a sacred grove of oaks in Galatia... Some sacred trees were believed to have counterparts in the Otherworld... Like the sidhe mounds they were seen also as gateways and glimpses into the Otherworld."
Michael Cunningham, Saints and Shamans

"If you call someone in a wood they'll come to you... that's a really old belief. Maybe we should try."
Ramsey Campbell, The Darkest Part of the Woods

First, forgive me for prefacing this review with so many quotations, but if you read and associate them closely, you'll quickly catch a glimpse -- an encapsulation if you will -- of what Ramsey Campbell's The Darkest Place in the Woods is about.

A rather old-fashioned horror tale, in the way that James' The Turn of the Screw might be compared to more contemporary authors of the genre, such as Mark Danielewski, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons, or even Stephen King, The Darkest Part of the Woods is as much about atmosphere and psychological insights into the author's characters as it is about the buildup of tension or horrific drama, which in the final analysis remains rather understated. The author is in no hurry to reveal what is lurking within his woods, nor is he unwilling to digress a bit from his central plotline to explore the human environs of the British village of Goodmanswood and the neighboring town of Brichester. Between seemingly strange and haunting events, everyday life continues: people go to work, attend art exhibits, send their children to ballet classes at the local community centre, and worry about the future of sons who seem unable to decide upon a vocation. Meanwhile, across the Commons and a recently added Bypass, the nearby wood, less than a square mile in acreage, seemingly broods and extends an influence well in excess of its actual limits.

Focused upon one family, the Price's are no more dysfunctional than usual. Heather is a librarian at the local university, a vocation that appears as much serendipitous as arrived at for any other reason. Divorced, she lives with her son, Sam, a young man recently graduated from college who works part-time at a failing bookstore, and who, until that moment, has shown no concerted interest in anything beyond a spell of tree-sitting to protest the cutting down of a portion of the wood to make way for a new freeway bypass. Both have grown up in Goodmanswood; still live in the house where they spent their respective childhoods. Heather's mother, a successful artist soon to undergo a creative crisis, has moved nearby into an apartment in order to make room for her daughter and grandson. While she has experienced some success in her career, it is nothing compared to the notoriety of her husband, Heather's father, whose antics have landed him in The Arbour, a local, private hospital for the insane, where he can often be seen night or day staring from his window into the woods across the motorway. The family is also soon to be rejoined by Heather's younger sister, Sylvia, a published academic who has wandered the world in study of folklore associated with woodlands and sylvan fauna, and who has unexpectedly returned to bear a child amidst family support. But this dysfunctional if ordinary bliss is about to be disturbed by events stemming from their father's illness.

Before his "breakdown," Lennox Price was a respected academic, an authority on mass hallucination and the psychology of popular delusion. Brought to Brichester years ago to investigate an outbreak of dementia associated with Goodmanswood, he comes to believe it is caused by a lichen with hallucinatory properties that grows on the trees in the middle of the wood, around the old ruins of a 16th century tower. Upon this discovery, the trees are cut down, and the incidence of communal madness ceases. However, Lennox Price himself falls prey to the strange mental malady, apparently from his investigation and contact with the area. Along with its other victims, he has been an inmate of The Arbour ever since. Of late, with some of his fellow patients, he has taken to slipping the hospital grounds in order to revisit the woods.

It is a forest with a long history, stemming back before the Roman invasion. Once harboring a Neolithic stone circle, similar to others of the region such as Stonehenge, when razed by the Romans it was discovered to have been the site of even earlier rituals. By the seventh century, a nearby settlement became established, named after its neighboring wood, and associated with the various legends surrounding the Godmund, or Good Man, by some accounts a mythical guide for anyone lost in the forest, by others a devil's ground. Rumors of its being haunted date back to the thirteenth century, when travelers were commonly referred to avoid its precincts. Afterward, during the late 16th century, the site was appropriated by one of the early advocates of the occult, Nathaniel Selcouth, who built a tower upon the ruins of the old stone circle, ringed by a wall of brick. Rumors of his strange activities eventually led to his arrest and execution for witchcraft, with his tower being burned to the ground and buried beneath a mound of earth. Over time, all the stories associated with Goodmanswood became part of the area's folklore, a bit of local color to tell the tourists -- that is until just recently. Now strange sightings are once again being reported abroad at night, local residents are imagining that the forest stirs, and the Price family appears to be at the center of every odd occurrence.

Drawing from various traditions and tropes, the basic premise and setting of this novel should be familiar to any long-time reader of the genre, ranging from the earliest associations of woodlands with the folklore of witchcraft and faerie, to more recent conjurings of fiction and film, from H.P. Lovecraft and RObert Holdstock's Mythago sans mythology, to Disney's The Watcher in the Woods or the over-hyped Blair Witch Project, touching upon primordial fears that in certain respects today seem ironic. In its animism (or animus) most closely resembling the tone and unease of Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell is nonetheless able to reinvest his source material with enough fresh perspective and eclectic borrowing to avoid becoming entirely derivative, and he wisely skirts his horror's full identity, instead leaving it more as a suggestion, a glimpse of something lurking behind the leaves and serried trees, its presence perceived, yet remaining just out of view.

If there is a complaint that can be leveled at The Darkest Part of the Woods, it would be at its repeated use of description to convey the wood's anima, a return to details of the wood's appearance that are quite visual, yet, at least early on in the book, subtle in their alteration, nuances that perhaps would work better in their brief lens-like shiftings of perspective for film than their broad similarity as text. Also, as intimated earlier, this is a work which develops its evolving mysteries and apprehension slowly: fear is often apperceived and horror more sensed than actually experienced. This is not a novel that startles or is essentially dramatically driven, though suspense builds, particularly during the second half of the novel. It is more a story typified by dread than fright, and an accumulating disquiet. As the wood watches, so do you, and in this respect -- a mirroring of dark observance -- the book is entirely successful. But expect its rewards to be spectral rather than creating any tangible terror.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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