Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Barnett, The Dark Between the Trees (2022)

Fiona Barnett, The Dark Between the Trees. Solaris, 2022. Pp. 350. ISBN 978-1-78618-797-0. $24.99/£15.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

As a Canadian, coming to England has been an interesting experience. Much of Canada’s history prior to the arrival of the European settlers has been forgotten or deliberately lost. So coming to a country where we can walk freely through Neolithic ruins and 2000 year old Roman coins are routinely dug from the river mud is… odd. It is a place that is rife with mystery and secrets—and the potential for horror.

The Dark Between the Trees opens with a group of five academics making their way to an ancient woodland. They are there searching for the remains of a troop of 17th century soldiers who disappeared within its boundaries. The historical record describes the Parliamentarian battalion fleeing from an ambush, battered and demoralised, and then experiencing impossible horrors. Disappearing and reappearing landmarks, changing light… and the inescapable feeling of something following them. Two men deserted, and managed to stumble their way out of the woods and into the nearest village, where their strange story was written down into history. Their companions were never seen again.

Almost four centuries later, Professor Alice Christopher comes to Moresby Woods to search for any traces of the lost soldiers. With her are Kim and Helly, from the National Parks Authority, Sue, from the Ordnance Survey, and Alice’s PhD student, Nuria. Nuria is also the most familiar with the local history, and as the team camps for the night she tells them of the Corrigal, the monster said to stalk Moresby Wood, and the stories of mystery and witchcraft that was said to give it life. It’s about then that we’re switched to the B plot, the story of Captain Davies and his hapless men, told through the eyes of Sam Harper, Davies’ second-in-command.

What follows is a slow descent into impossibility, madness, resentment, and terror. The two journeys mirror each other, and both groups are torn apart by fear, anger, and obsession, particularly as supplies run low and it becomes clear they cannot find their way out. And through it all, the threat of the monster and the labyrinthine nature of the woods looms over all.

I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like this book at first. While I am a huge fan of folk horror, I guessed where the plot was going from pretty early stages. In addition, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly well fleshed out, with the possible exception of Nuria. This made it difficult to feel any real depth of emotion when characters started dropping dead. I also found the offscreen deaths of two of the characters to be more than a little underwhelming. I understand narrowing the perspective to certain characters for the sake of consistency, but it also meant (at least for me) that the desired emotional impact just was not there.

With that said, the more that I read, the more that I got caught up in the mystery. The Corrigal is a classic creature out of folk horror, an ancient being summoned via unholy witchcraft that now traps travellers in its wood, hunting them and harrying them and herding them towards its lair. And while none of the characters are particularly memorable, watching the two groups descend into violence and chaos was still harrowing. Particularly memorable was the mutiny that took place amongst the soldiers, and Captain Davies’ brutal response. And while few other characters stood out to me, I appreciated Harper’s compassion for his subordinates, particularly the younger men, mostly teenagers, who he feels a duty to protect. And this is a stark contrast to Nuria’s experience, as she comes to realise that the professor she admires and trusts is, in fact, more devoted to her obsession than she is concerned with her student’s safety. The betrayal and emotional pain that Nuria feels is stark, and certainly upsetting.

At the same time, however, I appreciated very much that Alice was not wholly a villain. I spent seven years of my life in academia, and I met many of these sorts of people. Scholars with radical ideas, rarely taken seriously, but with a thread of genius or madness or both that many find compelling. The drive their students hard, but not as hard as they drive themselves. I’ve spoken to students working under such figures, and they’ve described long hours in mouldering libraries or freezing, rough seas, long days without food beyond perhaps a few snacks, their concerns dismissed as irrelevance or laziness. These are undoubtedly bad things to do, but do I think that these academics are evil people? No. I think every scholar has felt the tug of that obsession at one time or another. Most of us find the balance that’s necessary to keep ourselves in the moral black. But those of us that don’t have still made valuable contributions, and can still be compelling, interesting, even lovable people. And I can viscerally understand the feeling of having given up everything for the sake of your obsession, with the result that this obsession is now all that you have left. Alice’s ending is the most poignant moment of the book, in which she realises the emptiness of chasing ghosts and the value of human connection. But I think she would say she had no regrets, were we to ask her.

But in a way, the real main character was Morseby Wood itself, and those woods are probably the best developed character in the book. The claustophic, labyrinthine nature of this forest turns the story into a bizarre melding of The Blair Witch Project and The VVitch. That is a good thing, in case you were wondering. It’s interesting for me as well, as I find English woods profoundly un-frightening. I come from Canada, a country which still has forests where no human beings have ever set foot (at least within the historical record) and which is full of animals like bears, coyotes, mountain lions, wolverines, fishers, and wolves. English forests are, in comparison, small, cultivated, domesticated, and the most dangerous animal you’ll find in its shadows is an irritated badger. So making this particular setting frightening to me is a bit of a challenge. And in this, Barnett succeeded. Moresby Wood is an eerie place, with its seemingly moving trees, unreliable landmarks, and above all, the feeling (which then develops into the surety) that the Corrigal is on your trail, driving you inevitably towards its lair.

The Dark Between the Trees may not go down in history as a classic of folk horror, but I do think it deserves to be read. Once you get past a slow start and some flat characters, you have a well-crafted, creepy tale about a obsession, loneliness, and the various ways we can all become lost. And while most of the cast was forgettable, I did come to hugely appreciate Alice, Nuria, and Harper, and found their endings to be bittersweet and satisfying. Give this one a look if you enjoy folk or historical horror, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Barnett’s next project.

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