Dale Bailey’s seventh novel, In the Night Wood, is a modern gothic fantasy, infused with folk horror elements and the spirit of a dark fairytale. Originally released last year, and featured on Tor.com’s best books of 2018 list, the novel is being re-published in a new hardback edition by HarperVoyager, who clearly see untapped potential.
The novel follows an American couple, Charles Hayden and his wife, Erin, who have left their home in America for Yorkshire, to inhabit the grand (and, of course, haunted) Hollow House that Erin has inherited. Charles is researching Caedmon Hollow, an obscure Victorian fantasist and author of only a single book, the fairytale bearing the novel’s title, In the Night Wood, which Charles discovered as a child, by chance, in his late grandfather’s library.
“The story showed up in his dreams for days thereafter, a hallucinatory montage of great trees pressing close upon a woodland path, a terrified child, a horned king, his pale horse steaming at the nostrils in the midnight air.”
When Charles finally read the book a year or two later the story haunted his dreams for days, left not knowing to what extent this lasting impression was attributable to the book itself or the “feverish condition he’d been in when he read it.” The book lost in a subsequent house move, the story was forgotten until years later when at grad school Charles chanced upon a footnote whilst reading up on Edward Lear referencing Caedmon Hollow and his interest (and, indeed, obsession) was again sparked. Also by chance, it is on this same occasion that Charles bumps into Erin for the first time, who reveals that she is not only aware of In the Night Wood but is distantly related to Caedmon Hollow. They marry and, years later, and the beginning of the book proper, Erin inherits Hollow House, the house that once belonged to Caedmon Hollow, where Charles goes to carry out his research on the mysterious Victorian figure and Erin goes to wallow in her sorrows.
If all of these coincidences sound a bit far-fetched, well, the book uses such chance occurrences extremely liberally. It’s supposed to be a theme; fairytales and once upon a times, stories that are destined to be told. All of Charles’ life (the novel practically follows Charles over the shoulder), the planets have aligned to place him where he is, now in the home of Caedmon Hollow, the author of a story he innocently plucked from a vast library he’d never visited before. Being intentional doesn’t make any of these contrivances used by the author seem less cheap and whether the theme of chance and destiny is supposed to mirror fairytales and old-fashioned storytelling or not, it doesn’t work in novel form.
Once upon a time. The entire introduction of the book leading up to the moment Charles and Erin descend upon Hollow House for the first time could have been replaced with once upon a time, taking as it did a mere nine pages. Nine pages are not enough to invest a reader in these characters’ lives – it is not enough to say “they’re going through a really hard time, care about them.” And they’re going through a really tough time. Their only child, Lissa, died nearly a year ago prior to their move and their relationship is on the brink of collapse.
“Effexor for the depression. Trazodone and Ambien to help her sleep. Her medicine chest, Charles called it. Her personal pharmacy.”
Erin attempts to cope by downing various prescription pills to induce a somnambulist existence spent staring out of windows and drawing in a sketchbook, firstly pictures of their dead daughter and then increasingly unusual and inexplicable images related to In the Night Wood and the creatures – namely, the Horned King – inhabiting the book and, apparently, the oppressive wood surrounding Hollow House. Charles, rather than collapsing into his misery, collapses into his research, becoming increasingly obsessed with the mysteries unravelling around Caedmon Hollow, Hollow House, and In the Night Wood.
“Afterward, while Erin bent to her obsession at the dining room table, Charles, susceptible to obsessions of his own, sat in the study, reading and rereading the cipher.”
This is a book that touches on a number of themes, one of which is obsession. Charles and his obsession with his research providing a tenuous grasp on his childhood and replacing the thoughts he might otherwise be having about his loss. And Erin, obsessing over the loss itself, drawing picture after picture of Lissa in her sketchbook, haunted by the ghost of her dead child. But the relationship dynamic is tiresomely cliched – the woman the emotional wreck, the man turning to work to mask his own emotional wreck – and the death of a child to drive a couple apart has been done far more elegantly before (think Don’t Look Now). Everything within In the Night Wood (the novel, not the fairytale) is so convenient, from the coincidences to the devices used to generate tension and conflict.
Whilst Bailey does conjure a creeping folk-horror atmosphere with the quality of his writing, the setting is unconvincing. Perhaps coming at it as an Englishman taints my view, but the England of In the Night Wood is the England of someone who views it as a foreign land. The job of a writer setting their work in a country other than their own is to give the impression that they understand it and not make it obvious that everything (from the beer, tea, food, weather and even soil, at one point) is alien. Erin and Charles not only inherit the house of Hollow House but its maid and caretaker too. This is not the reality of modern England.
As for the horror, we are treated to various visions of the mysterious creatures of Caedmon Hollow’s In the Night Wood spilling out into the woods surrounding Hollow House (a wood the locals tell strange tales of) but each one of these encounters fails to make an impact. In a story that excuses itself of using coincidences to progress, uncanny elements lose their ability to unnerve.
In the Night Wood sets out to draw us into an unravelling mystery where the fantastic bleeds into reality but banal characters, an unconvincing setting, and frustrating liberties taken in plot progression, fail to deliver a happy ever after.
In the Night Wood written by Dale Bailey is published by HarperVoyager. Buy the book here.