I can’t honestly say there was much new or surprising about Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood (2018), making the plot easily the weakest element of this Locus-nominated novel. Its strength, meanwhile, lies in its vivid, evocative prose and its portrayal of the inner turmoil of its main character.
When Charles Hayden was just a child, he came across an old book entitled In the Night Wood by the 19th Century author Caedmon Hollow and was mysteriously drawn to it, so much so he stole it from his grandfather’s library where he’d found it (the old man wouldn’t notice, since it was during his grandfather’s funeral that Charles took it). Years later, looking for another copy of it at the college library, he fortuitously runs into Erin, a young woman who was “not beautiful exactly, but striking … Out of his league anyway,” who turns out to be “the great-great-great-exponentially-great-something-or-other of Caedmon Hollow himself.” And then, as the novel goes, “They married six months later. They lived happily ever after.”
Or at least until the next chapter, when the two of them are in England, following a solicitor’s car to Caedmon Hollow’s estate, left to Erin as the sole descendant. And gradually, as they settle themselves into the imposing home and the nearby tiny village of Yarrow, we learn that their five-year-old daughter has been dead for a year, and that her passing was somehow related to Charles’ adultery. They’ve come here so Charles can write a book about Erin’s ancestor, and so they can try and put the tragedy behind them, gather the shattered pieces of their old life together in hopes of putting them together in at least the semblance of a new one.
But the past is not so easily left behind. Erin, still angry and depressed and broken, is withdrawn and taking far too many of the anti-depressives she’d been given back in the States. A young girl in Yarrow has gone missing and is feared dead. Silva, the pretty woman who heads the local historical society and who offers to partner with Charles on his book, drags up memories for both him and Erin of his fall into adultery and even worse, her young daughter is the spitting image of their own dead one.
Meanwhile, the gothic horror elements pile up around them. The Hollow estate backs up to the Eorl Wood, the oldest primeval forest in England and one that has seen the local villagers warning people (especially children) off from going into it for generations. Both Erin and Charles see strange things in the wood, goblin-like faces, an antlered figure known locally as the Horned King, and fleeting images, as well, of their daughter Lissa. Their groundskeeper, according to the villagers, has undergone a strange turn in his personality, and Charles notices him wandering into the woods at night. Erin is obsessively drawing, at first pictures of Lissa, and then strange, frightening illustrations she refuses to show anyone. And during their research, Charles and Silva discover an unsettling journal entry or letter from Caedmon, one that makes them wonder if horrific events of the past are repeating themselves in the village.
If the plotting, relatively predictable and formed of elements genre fans have probably seen before, is the weak part of In the Night Wood, the gothic atmosphere is one of its several strengths as Bailey creates an immersive, creepy mood by employing all the classic tropes: an isolated mansion, a dark and tangled wood, missives discovered by chance, creepy groundskeepers, motherly housekeepers, fortuitous coincidences, stormy nights, wise old men, ciphers, ominous warnings a la “stay off the moors” by the locals, etc. Again, there’s nothing new here, either in the building blocks or what they create, but Bailey proves himself an author who knows his tools and material well and if it’s a familiar sort of structure, it’s at least tight and shipshape — no holes or leaks.
Another plus is the meta nature of the tale, signposted from the opening — four simple words on an otherwise blank page: “Once upon a time.” This classic story opening, repeated multiple times throughout the novel, is followed by the first of several “excerpts” from Caedmon’s book, this excerpt ending with an ominous line from Grandfather Oak: “It is not a happy story … but so few Stories are.” Honestly, the fictional book within the book is some of the best writing here, a wonderfully fey and dark series of excerpts that had me wishing I could read the entire work. And then, when we enter the plot proper, with the introduction of Charles and Erin inheriting Hollow House, we’re told:
It felt to Charles Hayden like the culminating moment in some obscure chain of events … Where do tales begin, after all? Once upon a time … So tales begin, each alike in some desperate season. Yet how many other crises — starting points for altogether different tales — wait to unfold themselves in the rich loam of every story … How came that father to be faithless? What made his wife so cruel? What brought that witch to those woods and imparted to her appetites so unsavory? So many links … So many stories inside stories, waiting to be told.
These are characters within a story and characters who recognize, to varying degrees and some later than others, that they are in a story. And if all stories are the same at their core, then this story is timeless, and just keeps recycling itself:
Perhaps stories had no beginning or endings at all. Perhaps they simply branched out forever, like rivers, one from another, enveloping you for your brief span, each life a story within a story, intersecting with thousands of other stories …
Story and storytelling are integral to this tale and are explicitly referenced throughout. A more layered emphasis of the same subject comes via the heavily allusive nature of the text, with references to Rosetti, Shakespeare, the Brontës, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Coleridge, Faulkner, Tennyson, Faulkner, and more. Those who, as I do, respond in Pavlovian fashion to literary allusions, will finds lots to drool over.
Characterization is a bit of a mixed bag. Bailey does an excellent job with Charles’ interior turmoil over the loss of his daughter, his own role in her death, and the potential end of his marriage. It’s a truly moving portrait of a man overcome with grief, guilt, and fear. Erin, unfortunately, is far less compelling, though I find it difficult to overly fault Bailey for that, given that she is meant to be a person withdrawn from life, one suffering from depression and then under further assault by the Wood. In other words, as a character portrayal of the aftermath of trauma it’s wholly accurate and understandable, but as a character meant to compel or elicit an emotional response, she falls more than a little short. The other characters meanwhile are mostly solid but lack a true sense of depth.
Finally, on a pure sentence level, Bailey writes some sparkling lines, and overall the prose is smooth, clear, and precise, easily carrying you through the story but also vibrantly original enough in spots to make you stop and linger over a passage.
My biggest issue with In the Night Wood was its somewhat flat and predictable plotting, but even with that I happily read it through in a single sitting, meaning it never grew tedious or created a sense of impatience. And if I wasn’t reading to find out what happened with regard to the plot, I was caught up in seeing if and how Charles and Erin would manage to work their way out of the abyss. Meanwhile, I loved the excerpts from the book-within-the-book, and I’m also a sucker for self-conscious stories and literary allusions. If you turn to books to find out what happens next, then this may not be the best choice. But if you can find pleasure beyond plot in a story, then you should jump on in. Just stay off the moors.