Friday, May 10, 2013

The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell (2002)

The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell (2002): This novel, deliberately paced and filled to the bursting with unnerving, telling detail, is Campbell's most (Arthur) Machenesque long work, firmly in the tradition of that seminal horror writer's "The Great God Pan" and "The White People." There are cosmic, Lovecraftian elements as well -- Machen was one of the great influences on H.P. Lovecraft's conception of horror, after all.

30 years prior to the main events of the novel, biologist Lennox Price attempted to discover and contain whatever psychoactive agent had been mentally crippling generations of people unfortunate enough to encounter it in the small, ancient grove of Goodmanswood in the Severn Valley near Campbell's fictional city of Brichester.

Lennox apparently succeeded, but at the cost of his own sanity. Now, he and other similarly compromised men and women live in a mental hospital in Goodmanswood. His eldest daughter, wife, and grandson live nearby.

But a widening of the highway around the wood -- and the destruction of several of the trees therein -- seems to have awakened something. Or maybe it was never asleep. And while his younger daughter, wife, and grandson all seem to have been mentally influenced by the wood, it's eldest daughter Heather who will ultimately have to piece together what's been going on in the woods since before the Romans came. Birds fly over the wood, but they refuse to land anywhere in it, and wildlife has always been strangely absent.

This is Campbell's most densely descriptive novel, one with a fairly straightforward plot but an immensity of destabilizing descriptions and things almost but not quite seen. The wood itself was planted by the Romans to obscure or erase something that was there before, something the people we call the Druids either worshipped or feared. Or both.

Campbell's cheeky sense of humour occasionally shines through -- there's a particularly funny bit about religious book-burning -- but for the most part this is serious stuff. As Heather discovers early on, the Devil was often placated by being referred to as 'The Good Man.'

Readers who require subtext will certainly find some here (some of the effects of the thing or things in Goodmanswood closely resemble global warming, while others evoke the impact of non-indigenous plant and animal species on new environments). But the horror here is ultimately the Thing itself, and the price required to acknowledge it, much less stop it. Highly recommended.

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