The Woods are Dark was one of Richard Laymon’s earliest novels. Whilst it’s certainly not the strongest amongst the many horror books which he wrote during his lifetime, it exudes much of that style which came to define one of the canon’s great contributors. He’s also a personal favourite genre writer of mine, but I won’t let that bias the review (too much).
The book focuses upon the dangerous and bloodthirsty backwater community of Barlow. Those unfortunates whose travels take them on a path through this small town find themselves at risk of kidnap, terror, torture and death, and often in that order. For Barlow harbours an evil secret, and a collective of duplicitous inhabitants set on murderous intent.
The locals have an arrangement in place with the ominously sounding Krulls. This evil, hybrid-human and mutant collective, ‘gibbering’ their strange language in the dark woods around Barlow, collect sacrifices regularly from the townsfolk. Later in the novel it’s revealed that as long as they get ‘eight or ten victims a month’ they leave the townsfolk alone, otherwise they’d go plundering from the local stock. However, the latest batch of captured civilians turns out to be more trouble than expected when freed by one of the locals, who bucks the trend of compliance and takes a fancy for one of the women who had earlier been offered up for sacrifice.
So it is that a traumatic chase through the night ensues, between escapees and their manic pursuers. Meanwhile in town, the plaster holding together the relationships between those towing the line with the Krulls’ demands and those wanting freedom begins to fracture. Laymon shows he knows how to get the reader’s attention and keep it. Familial relationships here and in the woods are pushed and tested, prodded, strained and broken to great effect, to exacerbate the levels of horror felt. Laymon knows how to get under our skin, and makes discomfort a watchword.
He also knows how to keep things highly readable, and nails the balance between delivering necessary levels of action and suspense whilst maintaining back story so very well. He drip feeds hints of plot line essentials in brief reference in otherwise innocuous speech of his characters. Quite a few modern horror authors would do well to take a few more leaves from the book of Laymon’s style here, and save their readers from cumbersome paragraphs of unnecessary prose.
The Woods are Dark is a short sharp trip to terror town and definitely needs to be read by anyone with more than a passing interest in the genre. It’s got gore and splatter a plenty too, and a leering sense of viscera splashed not infrequently across its pages.
Yes, this is a book that’s peppered with genre clichés, even for thirty years ago. But then, taking a look at the cover of my book, a first printing of the paperback version that hit the shelves all that time ago, it shouldn’t be anything else. It’s a green-foil embossed fossil of a different age. Kitsch, yet at the same time definitive of a time of horror literature which we should celebrate a little more often.
There is a horror story of an altogether different kind that surrounds the publication of this novel. Heavily edited, and chopped to bits, it wasn’t successful. This fact was also blamed by Laymon upon his failure to achieve greater success in the U.S. market – a fact that I was oblivious to in my youth as Laymon was very popular here in the U.K. It wasn’t until living in the U.S. in later years that I came to realise how hard it was to get hold of some of his works in comparison to their common availability in the U.K.
I should point out that there’s a newer version of The Woods are Dark available, put together by Laymon’s daughter after the author’s death, which I may too review one day. However, I am a little wary of re-edits and re-writes of books; not to the point of being entirely dismissive of them you understand, but enough to prefer sticking to published source.
Thus, for now, I am content with this original version of the novel. It’s horror pulp of vintage, and though it’s definitely a little rough around its old school edges, represents sound beginnings of a great horror writer’s enviable published catalogue.