Are you folks ready for another horror book review? No? Well too bad, I’m dragging you into the harrowing trees with me. This next book was marketed as a horror story for fans of The Descent and The Ritual, movies I particularly enjoy. I tried to avoid the high hopes, settling for a book that played to the same strengths as those movies, a psychological tale mixed with folk horror as a group of friends or comrades gets themselves lost in the wilderness. While the psychological aspects were lacking, The Dark Between The Trees, by Fiona Barnett, nails the spooky forest vibes I was looking for.
In 1643, a small group of parliamentarian soldiers escaped into Moresby wood after being ambushed by unseen soldiers. Only two of them are heard of again, while the other seventeen men are lost to history. Dr. Alice Christopher has been obsessed with this group since she learned about them. She has been waiting twenty years to get a chance to explore the Moresby Wood and trace the regiments’ steps and now she finally has it. Unfortunately, for Alice and the lost soldiers, Moresby wood has more secrets than one can shake all discarded branches in the wood at. But that won’t stop Alice, and the four other women she’s brought with her, from discovering truths that history has left in the mud. Equipped with as much survey equipment as they can carry, the women feel prepared for whatever myths the wood can throw their way. Not long after the women leave the outer edges of the forest do they begin to feel that they may have more trouble than they bargained for.
The Dark Between the Trees is an intriguing concept handled with rocky execution. That’s not to say this is a bad book, but I found myself teetering between mild frustration and captivated flow. I never felt the need to put the book down because of it, but I did find myself questioning the point of it all as I pushed myself to read further. Part of it was due to an unrealized sales pitch (that’s on me), part of it was due to the lack of character. When you’re trapped in the woods with two separate groups of people, it might help to have someone who is, if not relatable, at least able ground the narrative within their own perspective. Of the three major perspectives, none of them really felt compelling to me, forcing the book to be carried by the mystery of the forest. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a heavy lift that was managed unevenly for my tastes.
Let’s back up a little bit. Barnett’s novel takes place in two time periods. One follows the demoralized soldiers as they wander into Moresby wood. They have heard that this place is one of evil, after all it is the den of the dreaded Corrigal, a demon that predates England as a concept. The other involves Alice, her doctoral student Nuria Martins and the three women who are to help chart their way through the near mythological wood. The chapters dart back and forth between the time periods, offering a funhouse mirroring between their journeys. They both mapped the unsettling nature of the forest, without overshadowing each other. I initially thought I would dislike this tactic, but I found it to be one of the more fun aspects of the book. It built a nebulous tension you couldn’t quite grasp but you felt deep within your bones.
However, both of these periods are seen through characters blinded to their circumstances. Not inherently a bad thing, and can often serve quite well. But, in this case it felt underdeveloped. Dr. Alice Christopher is a woman possessed by the need to prove her value to the good ole boys of academia, to prove them wrong. She’s spent her whole life piecing together the evidence, and now she’s finally at the wood to bring it all together. It’s just a shame the reader doesn’t know this until the final pages of the book. Nuria is sort of along for the ride. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing there beyond trying to please one advisor over another. A chance to see history up close and personal instead of experiencing it third hand in a dusty library, or so Alice persuades her. Nuria herself is detached and unable to stand up against Alice and passively takes in her ordeal. While I found the dynamic between these two women interesting, it didn’t quite pull me through the book. Had Alice’s compulsions been examined through the book beyond “it’s our one chance to do this thing,” and her life story not served as an afterthought, she would have been far more compelling. I would have wanted to follow her deeper into the forest. Instead it was four people saying “we should turn around,” while Alice yells “no, we shouldn’t.”
The final perspective is that of Harper, a soldier and sort of right hand man to Captain Davies. Now Harper was not a man concerned with superstition. Like Davies, he was a soldier. Sometimes life, as with war, just deals you a bad hand and you have to push through. Obviously, he’s concerned with the fate of the men as they are slowly picked off by the madness of the wood, aided by the whispers of the word “Corrigal,” but he also feels powerless in stopping it. He waits for Davies’ orders and follows through. Most of his internal monologue questions the actions of his captain, or shuns his comrades as discipline erodes but that’s about it. It could have felt alien, being that he was from a different time and place, with a far different understanding of how the world works. But when placed next to Nuria they felt similar, in a way that reduced my immersion.
I have read several other reviews, and while most have felt let down by the ending, I will say I disagree. While it’s not as hard hitting as I had hoped, Barnett’s ending leaves many things open, teasing readers with many half answered questions. The horror lies in what the soldiers and the scholars don’t find within the wood. Every leaf that falls to the forest floor whispers its own question before emitting a final crunch as it’s stepped upon by an uncaring passerby. History marches on without concern for who it leaves in its wake. Whether it’s a mythical demon, a small cadre of soldiers, or brilliant women marginalized by the people they work with, history will grind them beneath its heel without even noticing. I just wish it was a little more apparent, a little more flavorful. Giving Alice more time to be herself in the front would have gone a long way for me, adding a bit more drive beyond “we just have to do this now.”
The Dark Between the Trees is fine. It’s enjoyable, especially when Barnett pulls you into their flow. Barnett plays extremely coy where ambiguity is concerned and while it works most of the time there are areas where it feels overplayed. The characters didn’t really do it for me, but they had the potential to be good shepherds for the reader. It’s a nice little tale if you are looking for some spooky lost in the forest story with a smattering of folk mythology.
Rating: The Dark Between The Trees 6.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.