reviewed by Sarah Groszewski.
A story worthy of Halloween, the book is an unusual and atmospheric, twisted fairy-tale for adults with a liking for eerie horror and fantasy. Laird Hunt’s seventh novel is a contemporary fairy-tale that follows a young Puritan woman’s journey as she sets off into a forest to pick berries. Under the influence of a herbal root, she comes across a number of characters who promise to help her get home. Some are helpful, some are kind, some are terrifying. As the woman’s past begins to unfold, we see themes that can, at times, be uncomfortable to read – gory violence, abuse, deceit. We are led through a game, with an ending that reveals the main character in a completely different light.
There is no explicit reference to where and when the story is set, but there are hints at early Colonial America. Often eerie, there is a lot left to the imagination in this tale. We are told “Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went into the woods.” What’s left to the imagination is as important as all we are told. It’s the need to understand more that makes this book so gripping.
In the House in the Dark of the Woods alludes to familiar, cosy elements of fairy-tales including Hansel and Gretel and Alice in Wonderland, with atmospheric descriptions of journeys of discovery through dark forests, and twisted, psychedelic experiences and hallucinations. Like a traditional fairy-tale we are lulled into a false sense of serenity with a leisurely nap in a forest, then the horror is revealed through disturbing twists and turns.
Although the females characters are all strong, feisty types, there are undercurrents of fear and control in Goody’s life; constant references to “my man” and the fact that she has been discouraged from reading and writing, and is reluctant to try again for fear of chastisement from “her man” which is one of a number of subtle references to a Handmaid’s Tale type of existence; the main Character is known as “Goody” – short for Good wife, and all kept women bear the same abbreviation. Good girl, Good wife, Good daughter. Goody’s journey takes her through witch-haunted woods, and anyone familiar with the Salem witch trials will note the subtle references to those convicted in the choice of character names.
With a mid-October release date, this is a perfectly timed Halloween read for those days when you’re safely locked up inside. Not for the faint-hearted or emotionally fragile, it will stir up some uncomfortable feelings and remind you of the very worst of human behaviour. The lyrical prose isn’t for everyone, but it is an unusual and entertaining read if you enjoy fantastical fairy-tales for grown-ups; a truly chilling read.
Published by One (Little, Brown and Company). Out now and available from good bookshops, including October Books in Portswood Road, Southampton.