Nearly 400 years ago, Roundheads fled a skirmish for the dubious sanctuary of Moresby Forest, long steeped in terrifying legend. Only two survived, spinning wild tales of the devil in the wood. Now, a well-equipped team of scientists are going to trace the squad’s footsteps in search of the truth. But what will they find?
The Dark Between The Trees is Fiona Barnett’s folkloric debut, an atmospheric nightmare of the monsters within and without that delivers exactly what its blurb implies. This is not a book in which 5 female mythbusters investigate and debunk the horror-soaked tales of a storied forest armed with excellent equipment and calm heads (although I’d be just as keen to read that version of events); rather, Barnett deftly deploys familiar tropes to strip away the courage and common sense of her flawed characters until they are left shivering in the dark facing their true selves.
Two narratives run in parallel, alternating chapters that notionally keep the reader one step ahead of the investigative team (oh god, don’t sleep THERE) even as I reminded myself that terrified 17th century soldiers should probably be considered unreliable narrators whose version of events can’t be taken at face value.
We join the soldiers on the march; suddenly facing – and overwhelmed – by an enemy force they can later barely recall or describe. Royalists, surely? Surely. Leaving far too many dead behind, they run for the trees rather than die on the hill. Determined to survive, they are well into the forest before two local recruits begin to murmur about the resident witch and the devil within. Their commander has no time for superstitious tales when actual flesh and blood enemies are nearby; but fear and religious fervour quickly corrode discipline. Soon, the question is whether Davies and right hand man Harper can keep the men from turning on each other.
The women are better prepared, in theory. The National Park team call fenced-off Moresby Forest the Black Hole and won’t even enter it to clear deadwood; a place of shifting trees that defy maps and magnetic anomalies that confuse compasses. With two experienced Park rangers and Sue from the Ordnance Survey along with them, they’ll be fine. Fine. Right? Well, at least they’ll have tents and tea.
I enjoyed the way Barnett establishes her characters and conflicts (so very British: the first crack appears when Sue hands around stewed tea). While few of the soldiers truly step out of the gloom to gain definition – they are centuries-dead, after all – Sam Harper’s internal muddle of grief, loyalty and fear was endearing. A career soldier, he has survived tight spots and trusts his commander; but these few days reduce him to a man desperate not to die here – loyalties abandoned in favour of pragmatic endurance.
Sam’s modern-day mirror is Nuria the grad student: where Sam discovers himself a coward, Nuria knows she is conflict-avoidant. The result is both get dragged deeper into trouble in spite of their instincts. Nuria cannot bring herself to stand up to Alice – one of her PhD supervisors (the other advised against her coming on this trip, of course) – and Alice is driven, even obsessive. Where the soldiers have no choice – if they turn back, they will be killed by the enemy – it is only Alice who pushes her team on. Academia is brutal: what chance she’ll get the grants to fund another expedition if she doesn’t get what she needs on this one?
As chapters are traded between the parties, the contrast between the rational and the superstitious narrows. Tempers fray, reason is undermined by fear, technology is defeated; soon everyone is lost in the woods – and some are starting to suspect there’s more than one forest…
While I enjoyed the book and heartily recommend it, I felt the final act was a little under-developed – I liked where we ended up, but found its acceleration jarring after the slow build of drama in the woods. I loved the notion of the other forest and the way in which Alice seems to step out of time at the end, but – given our academic framing (which, to be fair, gets thoroughly dismantled where Alice is concerned; we know she’s operating on passion) – I expected her to interrogate what was going on rather than simply accepting it. I was also a little non-plussed by the way certain characters were discarded (although I appreciated the sidestep away from the implicit gore; yes, I’m fickle).
I tore through The Dark Between The Trees, grateful to be sat under the comforting rumble of the flight path with no branches tapping on the windows as I read. Fiona Barnett has created a rich local lore that is precisely as unfair and unforgiving as most rural myth, and a surreal setting that taps into ancient fears of liminal places where we can only be small and sacrificial. The tangle of timelines and timelessness that pervades the final act resonated with me, being someone who (like Alice, natch) has longed to reach out and speak directly to the past.
A haunting read for anyone who has ever wondered about the long-dead or felt shivers down their spine when lost in the woods.
Many thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the free advance copy. THE DARK BETWEEN THE TREES is published on October 11th.