Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Book Review | The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell

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The fate of the Price family is inextricably entangled with the ancient forest of Goodmanswood.

Dr. Lennox Price discovered a hallucinogenic moss that became the focus of a cult. After Lennox’s death, his widow seems to see and hear him in the trees — or is it a dark version of the Green Man that caresses her with leafy hands? Lennox’s grandson Sam heeds a call to lie in his lover’s arms in the very heart of the forest — and cannot help but wonder what the fruit of that love will be.

And Heather, Lennox’s daughter, who turned her back on her father’s mysteries and sought sanctuary in the world of facts and history? Goodmanswood summons her as well...


If you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise.

But be warned: you'll have to practice patience to see what lurks in The Darkest Part of the Woods. There's rather a labyrinth to puzzle your way through before you find yourself in the clearing where World Fantasy Award-winner Ramsey Campbell finally springs his trap, and even then... even then.

Decades ago, Dr. Lennox Price - an esteemed toxicologist - came to Goodmanswood to investigate a sharp rise in reports of strange sightings. There he found a rare hallucinogenic moss which became the subject of a small cult, before and after it was eradicated for the peace of mind of unsuspecting passers-by.

Alas, Lennox too fell afoul of the effects of the moss; he's been in an institution nearby ever since. His children have grown old around him, his wife - Margo, an artist fascinated by the forest - has had to learn to live alone, and now the woods too are changing: a road is to be run right through the dark heart of Goodmanswood, despite the efforts of a few protesters.

Amongst those who acted out against the plan: Lennox's grandson Sam, whose mother Heather seems to be the only family member unaffected by the forest. Sam isn't so lucky. Having fallen from the tree he was tasked to protect after sensing a terrible presence in the boughs and branches with him, he walks with a limp -- an ever-present reminder that there is something odd even now about Goodmanswood. Something... disturbed.

The Darkest Part of the Woods is not new Ramsey Campbell, strictly speaking, but I imagine it will be new to most of those who pick up this timely mass-market edition. Strictly limited upon its initial release by PS Publishing in 2002, The Darkest Part of the Woods marked Campbell's return to dark fantasy after a dalliance with the thriller; though as of now it's as if he never left the genre at all.

But is it a triumphant return? It pains me to say as much - after all, the author is among horror fiction's most composed proponents - but no... I really don't think it is. The Darkest Part of the Woods does a number of things very well indeed: when at last Campbell dispenses with the pleasantries that make up so much of this novel's belaboured narrative, it is excruciatingly tense, almost unbearably atmospheric, and so thick with foreboding that one finds it a relief to put down at the end of the day, the better to breathe.

The characters, too, are an interesting bunch. But for Heather, who is not coincidentally our primary narrator, the Lennox family are obsessed by the forest, or rather the darkness the dwells in the deepest reaches of Goodmanswood. Each in their own way they've longed to tap this source of primordial power, and as the intrigue builds - and builds and builds, creating expectations far greater than Campbell can ultimately satisfy - the reader cannot but share in their affected fascination with this "presence vaster than the woods [advancing] across the changed landscape - as if the night sky or the blackness of which it was the merest scrap was descending." (p.36)

The trouble is, Campbell takes far too long to get to clearing where the darkness is deepest. The Darkest Part of the Woods is fairly long for a horror novel, and it feels still longer than it is, because more than half of it has passed before anything of note actually happens, testing the tolerance of even the most determined readers, I don't doubt. Thereafter things pick up quickly: there are a few truly terrifying sequences, and finally some pay-off on the awful promises made early on, apparently abandoned. And then it's over.

As Heather's airy-fairy sister Sylvia says, "I just don't think you can ever grow out of hearing stories in the dark," (p.69) and no, indeed not. But though the critics call Ramsey Campbell a master of modern horror for good reason, sadly this isn't remotely representative of his best. The second half of The Darkest Part of the Woods is superb, assuredly, but it's just too little too late, and whatever the destination, the journey - the getting there - is simply too tedious for me to recommend this dark fantasy without the caveat I began with.

Which is to say: if you go down to the woods today, please... be patient.


The Darkest Part of the Woods
by Ramsey Campbell

UK Publication: April 2002, PS Publishing
US Publication: August 2011, Tor

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  1. So, I've just got to ask, how's the ending? Because a horror book with a weak opening and a great ending'd be a tad amusing after the question of horror endings a few weeks back.

    Also, and on a rather more serious note, what ever Campbell have you read? I've done The Face that Must Die, and really enjoyed it, but it was more on the crime side of things. I've got The Influence kicking around somewhere on my shelf (saw it used and cheap), but don't know too much about his best/most prominent. Recs?

  2. This one was sent to me by the publisher to review and I have yet to read it because I've heard the recommendation for people to read it with patience quite a few times. I usually love atmospheric books, but I"m not feeling that patience these days. Thanks for this great review. I'll keep this on my shelf for now, but your great review kind of lets me know what to expect in the way of pacing and such. I'll hit it when I'm in the mood for this sort of thing.

  3. @Sarah - Very sweet of you to say, Sarah. It's a lot of work, this book, and however interesting the pay-off, I hear what you're saying about that being too much to ask sometimes.

    And though the last thing I want to be is crass or insensitive, I have to say how sorry I was to hear about your latest update. Means a lot that you've been blogging through it all, and my thoughts, for whatever they're worth, are with you and yours.

    On a lighter note, totally with you on Prince of Thorns. I've actually been sitting on my review for something like four months now, but after Mark had a go at me here on TSS a while ago, I can't say I've been keen to set the timebomb ticking again. So let that be my official opinion: Prince of Thorns... it ain't all that, like Sarah here says.

  4. @Nathaniel - The ending's actually pretty swell, which... yeah, now that you mention it, that's a tad funny. But only a tad!

    As to other Ramsey Campbell, I've read The Doll Who Ate His Mother - because I couldn't not with that title - as well as, oh... The Long Lost, The House on Nazareth Hill, and a couple of Campbell's many, many collections. Every which one would be a better place to meet the man than this, I think.

    Haven't read The Influence, though. Hadn't even heard of it before you mentioned it, in fact, so don't imagine I'm any sort of authority on the man. But in the short form in particular, he can be darkly sparkly marvellous.

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