The woods are dark. I think we feel this on an elemental level, probably some genetic hangover from tens of thousands of years of our ancestors making their ways through inhospitable and unknown forests and jungles. Part of us yearns for nature of course, needs it to mentally and spiritually thrive, and maybe that just makes this dynamic worse. That part of us, it’s waiting out there in those leafy, shaded spaces, waiting for us to rediscover it, or maybe for a chance to rediscover us. These are some of my favorite novels primarily set in the woods. Sometimes nature itself is the villain here, while in other books it’s what these places draw out of characters.
These forests may offer transcendence, they may offer answers to ancient questions, or they may just offer some awful deaths. It was only after putting this list together that I realized an odd number of these books are about kids suffering in the woods. A Stephen King novel (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon) I’ve left off the list but which is an excellent starter horror novel for younger teens explores this theme explicitly (though not gorily). Is this focus just a result of our inherited fairy tales, most of which center on children and forests? Or is there something about these settings that make us all feel little and lost? Whatever the case, if you’re feeling like taking a trip into arboreal horror, here are some good paths to follow.
David Morrell is best known for having invented the character Rambo in his novel First Blood. Unlike the reputation of the movie series that book spawned, Morrell’s work is neither jingoistic or chest-thumpingly macho. Instead, this author writes tense, dark books that are about people thrust into violent situations they haven’t prepared for. Testament is no exception. In this novel, reporter Reuben Bourne has just published an in-depth article exposing the means and motives of a violent white supremacist group he’d been allowed access to. Bourne promised the group’s nasty leader the article would be more flattering, and their response to his coverage is to try to murder him and his whole family.
In the very first chapter, the very first page, Bourne’s infant child dies from poisoning and he and the rest of the family are forced to go on the run into the wilderness. There, Bourne will be forced to try to survive both the elements and this group of psychopaths hunting him. This is a hard, cruel novel, one that promises from the first page that no one is safe. This is particularly recommended for readers who like survivalist stories and who aren’t put off by bleak, unfortunately realistic violence.
Off Season (1980)
Jack Ketchum was a legend in the horror writing world for his unsparing and tightly written novels. In Off Season, Carla, an editor from New York, rents a cabin in the woods just outside the Maine town Dead River. Several of Carla’s friends and family members are on their way to spend some nice relaxing time with her in these beautiful woods. Unfortunately, so is a clan of cannibalistic, inbred hill folk. After we get to know some of the people in both of these groups, they clash in a violent series of confrontations in which everybody involved is pushed to the limits in their attempts to survive and/or secure a good meal.
Off Season is the literary equivalent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but unlike that movie, one that’s surprisingly tame on the gore and explicit violence front, Ketchum’s novel doesn’t flinch from showing us the worst things desperate human beings can do to one another. The novel was followed by sequels and a few film adaptations, all of which involve copious cruelty and bloodletting.
The Darkest Part of the Woods (2003)
Outside the small British town of Brichester is the ancient and shadow-steeped forest known as Goodmanswood. For a long time, these woods have been associated with strange and seemingly supernatural events thought to be connected with the magical workings of the necromancer Nathaniel Selcouth. Local doctor Lennox Price, though, thinks he’s solved the mystery of Goodmanswood when he discovers that a moss found in the region has hallucinogenic properties. His rational explanations, however, don’t spare him from falling prey to the same darkness, and after he seems to lose his mind and is institutionalized, his family gathers at their house. One by one, this forest will invade their lives and minds.
A natural adjective to apply to this deliberately slow and subtle novel is “Lovecraftian,” but if Campbell is working in anyone else’s style other than his own, it’s that of Algernon Blackwood, another fine horror writer of the early twentieth century who wrote several stories exploring the quiet terrors of nature. This one (just like most of Campbell’s novels) is a real treat for those who like their horror understated and eerie.
In the Woods (2007)
With this novel, Tana French launched her Dublin Murder Squad series, each of which explores the lives and actions of a different member of the Dublin police. They are excellent murder mysteries, but In the Woods veers into more horrific territory than most. Here, we follow two detectives as they look into the killing of a twelve-year-old-girl and its possible connection to an incident decades before in which three kids walked into the woods and only one came back. That boy, bloodied and confused, suffered from amnesia and couldn’t say what had happened to him. Could the same killer be at work again?
French’s descriptions of the woods in which the girl’s body is found are quietly creepy, and the memories of the boy who survived hint that something more than a killer may have been involved in the disappearance of his friends.
The Ritual (2011)
This novel served as the inspiration for the Netflix movie of the same name and I highly recommend you check that out after reading the book. Even if you’ve seen it already, give this a read, as its primary villains are quite different in the novel. Four men who’ve been friends since college get back together for a hiking trip in dark Scandinavian woods. These guys used to be tight, but their lives have pulled them in different directions and despite their best efforts to reconnect, they soon find themselves bickering.
This situation only gets worse as they find they’ve lost their way in this endless forest and that someone, or possibly something, is following them. I won’t say much more about the plot, but I will say that Nevill does a great job of ratcheting up the tension, and when things go from quietly creepy to twisted, strap yourself in for a bumpy and nightmarish ride, one that combines a few old horror tropes into a tasty new mixture.
In this, the first book in the awesome and sui generis “Southern Reach Trilogy,” we are introduced to the enigmatic Area X. For three decades, this stretch of wilderness has been closed off by the government and the shadowy Southern Reach, a secret agency that becomes the focus of the next two books in the series. In this one, though, we are primarily restricted to the experiences of a four-woman team selected to explore the region. Area X has been hidden from the view of the public because some strange force has been changing it, mutating animals and plants within, as well as bringing madness and death to the members of the previous eleven expeditionary teams who tried uncovering its mysteries.
The zone is comprised of more than woods, but any list of weird and terrifying explorations of nature (supernaturally altered or not) would be lacking without it. Even if you’ve seen the effective and artsy film adaptation staring Natalie Portman, I highly recommend reading this series. It takes different turns and opens up onto a larger story than that movie could have. Great for fans of weird fantasy-horror-science fiction mixtures.
The Troop (2014)
This grim tale is about a troop of Boy Scouts who take their usual annual trip into the Canadian wilderness, only to discover they aren’t alone on Falstaff Island when an emaciated stranger stumbles into their campsite. What follows reads like a version of Lord of the Flies directed by George Romero, as the troop splinters along psychological fault-lines and their survival skills are put to a brutal test.
This is a gory one and it made me squirm in ways most horror novels don’t, so don’t expect quiet or eerie from it. Nor should you let the fact that the cast is mostly made up of kids convince you the body count will be low. Animals don’t fare very well in this book either, so just a heads-up to those sensitive to that theme. It is pretty well written, though, for the literary equivalent of a body horror B-movie. Just keep an eye out for the symptoms…
Through the Woods (2014)
This multiple award-winning graphic novel is perhaps better described as a graphic short story collection, with five tales linked more by tone and style than by a single storyline. One thing they do all have in common are unfortunate experiences in dark woods. Carroll’s art is beautiful, haunting, like some lovely nightmare kid’s picture book. The stories, though, aren’t children’s fare. Carroll’s story-telling reminded me of that of Robert Aickman and Joyce Carol Oates in its comfort with ambiguity and unresolved mystery. But there are surprises here as well, including one story that hit Junji Ito territory suddenly and mercilessly. The stories are also all set sometime between the 19th and early twentieth centuries, giving the whole thing a fairy tale feel. These stories are, in other words, a beast all their own. I can’t wait to see where Carroll’s talents take her next.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2016)
Elizabeth Sanderson has to face one of a parent’s worst nightmares in this mystery/horror novel: her thirteen-year-old son Tommy has gone missing. He and his best friends frequently visited a natural landmark known to nearby kids as Devil’s Rock, a spot they happily would hike to, but he doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the vicinity. Then, as the search party comes up dry, Elizabeth starts experiencing what seem to be paranormal events. Shadowy figures hover at the edges of her vision and pages of Tommy’s journal mysteriously appear.
In the novel, Tremblay takes us back and forth between Elizabeth’s POV, flashbacks to the events leading up to Tommy’s disappearance (including explorations of the wilderness surrounding that boulder and plenty of discussions about Minecraft), and the pages of that increasingly unsettling journal. Tremblay treats this material sensitively and with a subtle touch, going for ambiguity and creepiness rather than explicit violence or gore, but beware: like his fan Stephen King, this author is willing to break your heart at the same time as chilling your spine.
The Laws of the Skies (2016)
Oh, boy. Though far from being the most explicit and gory book on this list, this little French novel about a camping trip involving twelve six-year olds and their hapless chaperones is easily the darkest. On the very first page, we are told that none of these characters are going to make it out of the woods alive. You’d think that would soften the impact of the rest of the book, but, well, you’d be wrong.
This is the novelistic equivalent of Edward Gorey’s darkly funny The Gashlycrumb Tinies. The Laws of the Skies feels like a fable written by a sociopath in many ways, but it does spare some sympathy for its victims, showing some of them trying to help each other despite the natural inclination to save themselves. Courtois’s narrative voice is weirdly kind, even remorseful about what he has to tell us, but that doesn’t stop him from going to the loneliest, cruelest parts of the woods.