You know that deeply unsettling sense you sometimes get when you’re deep in the forest or bush, or walking past it, where it feels like someone is watching you?
It’s a cloyingly unnerving sense that you are not alone, egged on by flashes of movement you swear you see in your peripheral vision or a strange occurrence of that evolutionarily advantageous sense that someone is behind you, soon to attack you.
It’s almost always a product of an overactive imagination, but in the case of The Dark Between the Trees, the superbly creepy new novel from Fiona Barnett, it’s real, it’s happening and it must be heeded.
Not that anyone in the group who enters Moresby Wood in the middle of England is giving any talk of bogeymen and monsters much heed, despite the legion of folk tales that something very dark and wholly untroubling lurks in the dark interior of the ancient forest.
Led by Dr Alice Christopher, who is an expert on the Wood and the history of the 17th century group of Parliamentarian soldiers who fled into it never to be seen again, bar two survivors with impossible-to-believe stories to tell, the group of academics also includes Christopher’s student, Nuria Martins, who simply wants to be in a library somewhere reading and writing, and who, rather wisely, has a bad feeling about venturing near the place that is creepy in just about every possible way.
The woods looked wild. There was none of that expected uniformity of British woodland that comes the trees having been deliberately planted. Which came first, the dismal wildness of an inaccessible place or the ghost stories? Surely, in this place, they were now too intertwined to tell.
She should, naturally, have heeded her inner intuitive warnings.
For in the grand style of every seemingly innocent study that reduces down scary folk tales down to academic musing, Christopher has grossly underestimated what lies deep in Moresby Wood, a place of witches and monsters where the Devil himself is said to roam, seeking those whom he may devour.
The good doctor believes none of this, though she is convinced that there is something utterly otherworldly and strange about the Wood, something that defies common sense and logic and which places this near-magical forest into a realm far beyond our modern rationalist digital age.
But rationalism is as much a victim as the foolhardy souls who brave the Wood, as The Dark Between the Trees progresses chillingly ever onward, deeper into the trees which confoundingly seem to shift at will, there one night and gone the next morning, something both the academics and soldiers experience, their stories told in alternating chapters that don’t ever interrupt the story flow but burnish and build it until you are looking far too intently in the shadows lurking in the corners of your room or questioning the seeming blurs of movement that seem to occur on the very margins of your sight.
Much as Christopher and the others in her group treat the folk tales of many centuries old as hearsay and curiosities, the reality is that Moresby Wood cares nothing for their remove from its magical terror, every bit as it disregards Parliamentarian leader Captain Davies who treats with contempt some of the local soldiers’ tales of darkness at work within the trees which you treat lightly at your peril.
Quite what lurks in the murky scariness of The Dark Between the Trees is left, as much as it is explained at all – the sense of mystery that Barnett creates and masterful sustains is a thing of brilliance and finely wrought fright – to the final chapters of a novel that leaves you guessing throughout while waving a thrillingly intense story of how easily the bonds between us fray when unbridled terror makes its unwelcome presence felt.
It is the way a shared sense of community between very different people, some reluctantly thrown together like the soldiers, or mostly drawn together willingly like the academics, very quickly unravels that makes The Dark Between the Trees such a fascinating read.
This fracturing of group unity is something we see in a lot of creepy adventures into the unknown, one of the most memorable examples for this reviewer being the film Annihilation, but Barnett uses it superlatively well, underscoring how much the mental and emotional stresses of the barely seen or understood threat plaguing both groups is really what drives them into danger, more so than what is possibly pursuing them through the woods.
There is, of course, something darkly, devilishly dangerous in Moresby Wood and it makes it ancient presence felt in ways that fuel the narrative in ways terrifying and freakishly alarming, but there are more than a few occasions whenever the idea of whatever lurks in the shadows and blurred movement is far less of a threat than the way in which the beleaguered members of the two groups surrender any sense of rationality or quiet comfort in the known and well-established civilisational norms.
After a while, Alive got itchy feet and suggested they move on. Nuria hoped beyond hope that she was joking. She was not. They started walking again, and Nuria felt the freezing, silent tears fall down her face and wondered not why but how she was managing to do this to herself. It was colder now, especially for so early in the year. She found herself starting to shiver.
Again, while the monster within versus than without is hardly a new idea in these types of stories, Barnett consistently uses it thrillingly well, very quickly and with surprising depth acquainting us with characters who we come to understand thoroughly enough that their actions quickly make sense to us, allowing us to identify with a situation which is fantastical, yes, but also intensely, relatably human.
We all fear what we can’t explain and while many cling to civilisational certainty and the power of logic and clear thinking, the idea that something scary this may comes, something well beyond the rational status quo, it’s all too easy to throw that to the panicked wind, giving in to an evolutionary holdover that suspects we are always in danger and that it lurks in places long held to be evil, a designation that we often easily ridicule, but do not easily, or without great cost, cast aside.
In fact, try as they might, neither Davies nor Christopher, as the leaders of their respective groups, can silence the talk of Devilish mayhem, nor put aside the idea that the Wood exists in a dark realm with which we are poorly acquainted, and it’s this great battle between mind and instinct that makes The Dark Between the Trees such a terrifically (in the true sense of the word) frightening but enthrallingly clever read, one that lingers with you long after the final page is turn, leaving you wondering if something didn’t just rush by you, just out of rational sight …