What would cause an entire family to descend into madness? And is it madness, or really just another perspective on reality, perhaps a more genuine one? I’m not referring to insanity passed along in a family’s DNA, but rather insanity brought on from shared experiences with things—supernatural things—that go beyond their ability to cope with what they encounter. Very old, arcane, woodsy sorts of beings live in the ancient bit of forest still surviving in areas of England. Around the environs of the British village of Goodmanswood and the neighboring town of Brichester, creatures like the “Sticky Man” dwell. Face them yourselves, if you dare, by reading Ramsey Campbell’s The Darkest Part of the Woods.
By the standards of most modern horror novels, The Darkest Part of the Woods’s plot is fairly slow-moving—more like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw than, say, Stephen King’s The Shining. Campbell takes his time creating an atmosphere and delving into the psychology of his characters and their eventual decline into madness, so don’t expect there to be lots of action, blood, and gore—at least not right off the bat. The overuse of the same or very similar descriptive terms describe his characters (like “insectoidal” or “stick figured)” doesn’t help. It can be argued that Campbell is using such repetition and forest-related comparisons to build suspense and a feeling of unease.
What is it that lurks in the woods? We get mere hints and clues at first. The author is in no hurry to reveal what the woods are hiding. He first tells of the now-institutionalized Doctor Lennox Price’s descent into madness. Some of his family visit him at The Arbour (itself a woodsy word). He seems to be the magnet that draws his daughter, Sylvia, who has been living in America, back to England. Of course, she also wants to see her sister, Heather, and Heather’s nature-activist son, Sam, and their artist mother, Margo. Or perhaps it’s mostly the things in the seemingly sylvan woods that are calling her back, luring her to her family’s shared fate.
Campbell relies heavily on the woods to carry the tone of foreboding and suspense, but they are really not very expansive in size—less than a square mile in acreage. Yet, there are hidden things there, like a stone ring on the ground, and people somehow manage to get themselves lost within its confines. It’s a last refuge of mystery, myths, and legends, and Lennox was originally drawn to them from America because of reports that people who went into the small forest sometimes became deluded or insane. He went there to learn why, to see if he could come up with a logical, scientifically based solution, and he eventually came up with a likely culprit: a type of lichen that grew on some of the trees. The trees on which the lichen grew were destroyed, and the cases of insanity and delusions seemed to end. Doctor Price was one of its last victims, and still obsessed with the idea that the woods are the home to supernatural beings.
The rest of Lennox’s family seem perfectly normal. Divorced Heather is a librarian at the local university and lives with her son, Sam, who works part-time at a bookstore. Sam limps because he fell from one of the trees he was trying to protect from being cut down to make way for the construction of a freeway bypass. Margo, Heather and Sylvia’s mother, is a successful artist and has moved to a nearby apartment. Sylvia is a well-traveled published academician studying the myths and folklore that people around the globe have believed about forests and the beings who live in them. She returns looking emaciated, stick-thin, to bear a child. It’s the seeming normality of the family and their surroundings that also build the sense of unease as you read: if madness can destroy them, it could effect almost anyone.
Frightening and scary, The Darkest Part of the Woods proves why Ramsey Campbell is considered one of today’s best horror authors. But, again, don’t get the book thinking that the frightening bits will come at you fast and thick from the beginning to the end, or you’ll be sorely disappointed. Rather, its slowly building, psychologically atmospheric horror pays off in the end.