‘If you go down to The Woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in The Woods today, but safer to stay at home…’
Hersham Horror has developed a modest range of short fiction and novellas over the last decade, always with an eye for quality, drawing upon fresh and upcoming talent. I’d been aware of them peripherally for a while and then last year had the pleasure of editing one of their novellas. Whilst Hersham’s authors and blurbs often appeal, there is something about their jacket designs that have made me think twice in the past. (Book covers and bad judgement, I know, I know…) It has been my loss. To date I’ve only read three of their books, but on the strength of the writing, I will definitely be back. I’ve already got my eye on Winterlong, Glorious Beasts, and Pauper’s Graves. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. The Woods is one of their ‘PentAnth’ mini-anthologies, each of which showcases original stories from 5 excellent authors. For this particular volume, we’re talking about Cate Gardner, James Everington, Mark West, Penny Jones, and Phil Sloman – the last of whom also acted as guest editor.
If I was initially concerned that 5 stories set in The Woods might feel a bit samey, the first story set me at ease. This was nothing like I imagined. The Iron Curve of Thorns – a wonderfully evocative title – concerns a tormented woman called Beth and the apparition of a vast battleship in her local woods. You would be forgiven for thinking this was a science fiction story, imagining the ‘ship’ to be a spacecraft, but no. This is very much the kind of craft you might find at Portsmouth or crossing the South China Sea. That questioning of expectation, the insecurity of one’s locus and the truth of what we’re seeing here very much keys into the true horror of **the tale. Gardner’s writing is personable, immediate, informal. We quickly come to feel for Beth and her anxieties. The time-line jumps around across a 30 year period, helping us to understand her troubles, learn where they stemmed, and unravel the truth. It is truly fascinating and whilst I struggled a little bit with the structure, the mystery drew me on. I think you will either love it or hate it.
Of course, this is the joy of short fiction. If you don’t like one story, another will soon come along to grab you. James Everington caught my eye with his incredible book, The Quarantined City, and I’ve been dying to read more ever since. A Short Walk Round the Woods feels deeply personal. It is a deceptively simple story about a newcomer to the village, the man he meets at the pub, and the relativity of time and space. It is infused with grief, throbs with unspoken heartache, and yet it still manages to lilt across the page like a shaggy dog story. Every day the man at the pub goes for a walk round the woods, and every day it seems to take him longer. Is it possible that the woods are growing, intruding upon the world of man? It’s crazy, right? But the evidence, day by day, appears to suggest otherwise. I cottoned onto the truth of the matter part way through, but it didn’t matter a damn. The writing is compelling, the characterisation intimate, the mental state vivid and true. Part of me was disappointed that there wasn’t more to the story in terms of plot, but I was wholly satisfied by what really matters – the emotional journey. It has stayed with me.
Mark West is a fixture in the circles I run in, beloved by all. He’s struck gold with his thrillers in recent years but somehow I’ve never read his work before. Though short, Compass Wood demonstrates what a talent he is. The set-up is simple and effective. Driving home at night, Jason takes an ill-advised short-cut, encounters a wild-looking man, and then his car breaks down shortly after. The ensuing hunt strikes a note of hysteria, balanced on a knife edge. The pursuing man feels ridiculous in some ways, ‘capering’ along, barely trying to hide his intentions, yet we never doubt the danger that he poses. It’s a tightly wound piece, filled with queasy possibility. The character work is sketched out, yet it contains all the detail you need to feel powerful empathy and fear for the stumbling, sweating, terrified new dad. Read enough of these stories and you do tend to spot patterns, but once again the quality of the writing was such I was able to shrug it off and go along for the ride. Like Gardner, West uses his dialogue to cinematic effect, sucking us into his scenes of torment and hope. His tale is more linear but no less engaging for it. In some ways this should have been the final story in the collection, such is its hold. How your reader feels after putting the book down has as much impact on the next purchase as the reading experience itself. Ah, well.
We take a sharp left with the next tale, and it is not entirely unwelcome. Where Compass left us reeling, Dendrochronology brings us back to earth, binds us to it in a strait jacket, then asks difficult questions. This is a very different kind of Wood – one which tugs fiercely at the constraints of the brief, whispering its twisted reasoning long into the night. The story features an unnamed protagonist in a mental institution, telling us about their life. There are no trees here, but their rings of growth and damage remain, stark and painfully fresh for inspection. Its author, Penny Jones, is a health care professional, and her intimate understanding comes through both in the harsh realities that people live and in the empathy she is able to evoke through the little details. I found it a tough but rewarding read, and one that could easily form part of a longer narrative, should she choose to tell it. The ending is a little abrupt, but I liked the way she leaves things with regards to the reader. Good stuff.
Our final story is The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, a peculiar piece penned by Phil Sloman. The horror here comes not so much with what our main character Amelia feels as she trundles her pram into the woods, chattering on to her stuffed-toy friends, but in the awful truths, lies, and marital wreckage that form the roots of her existence – invisible to her, yet plain to see for the rest of us. There is something of Banks’ Wasp Factory here, or Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the innocence portrayed and the corruption eating away at her life. As a father, I’m not sure what scared me the most – the thought of the peril Amelia puts herself in in the first act, or the randomness with which she is saved. Parental anxiety plays a big part in this one, and I think the readers’ response will largely depend on their own experiences, imagining themselves responsible for this wilful and determined child. There is sweetness to be found here, humour too, yet the over-riding feeling is helpless nausea.
Is there hope too? Perhaps, but the branch it offers is too slender for me.
It’s a cracking little anthology, all in all. Vivid, varied, and well written. It was shortlisted for Best Anthology in the 2020 British Fantasy Awards, as was Dendrochronology for the Best Short Fiction category. Neither won, but it shows the strength of the book that it was recognised in this manner.
If you’re looking for some short sharp shocks to while away the evening, I can heartily recommend taking a walk in these Woods. You can purchase a copy from Amazon. I’m glad I did.
* Matryoshka, by Penny Jones (which I edited), Becoming David, by Phil Sloman—both of whom feature in The Woods, which is, of course, the third. Each book offers a taut slice of psychological horror, deserving your attention.
** And of the anthology itself. It is so very easy to get lost in the woods, after all. Confused. To start scaring yourself with half-imagined sounds and hidden watchers.