The Night Will Find Us by Matthew Lyons wastes no time in taking us into the woods, and fans of supernaturally active forests – from Adam Nevill’s rural Sweden in The Ritual to the Burkittsville woods of the Blair Witch Project – will find much to enjoy in its deftly-conjured location. But the novel’s bold and satisfying blend of folk and cosmic horror put me in mind of Gemma Amor’s masterful White Pines, and this comparison only grew stronger as the novel continued, demonstrating its deep preoccupation with grief and loss.
The set-up is familiar and simple: six teenagers embark on an end-of-school-year camping trip in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a vast and ancient forest with no mobile phone reception and a hike up to a campsite chosen for its remoteness. The forest has a distinctive feel from the outset – branches hanging low in heavy canopies, foliage so dense that the campers can only see a few feet in any direction, the constant rustling of leaves – and, as a reader, I found myself tracking instinctively who had the weapons and the keys to the van. Lethal violence breaks out quickly; but there’s also a creepy vision of a girl in black lurking behind one of the female campers, and the subtle – but terrifying – vanishing of the path away from the campground. It’s a very appealing start, with the tone and teenage characters reminding me of a superior modern Point Horror novel.
I had some initial problems keeping track of all six characters, but this settled quickly, as one of Lyons’ real skills is writing believable teenage protagonists. The friendship group as presented feels authentic – even containing a character who’s so repellent, juvenile and full of bluster that the reader wonders why the rest of the group keep him around. When they get to the campsite, Parker – who’s shown in the initial pages to have a very scary hair-trigger tendency towards violence when mocked about his missing father – lashes out in a memorable way. It’s testament to Lyons’ skill that Parker thereafter walks the line between being one of the book’s villains (“there’s no coming back from this”) and an authentic and sympathetic protagonist in his own right.
The choice to present Parker’s outburst as the start of the novel is a telling one: The Night Will Find Us is as concerned with teasing out the origin stories’ for its teen protagonists as it is with those of other entities within the woods. The novel deals sympathetically and in detail with its mental health issues, including those of Parker’s parents (the depiction of his mother’s alcoholism is chillingly scary from its teenage point of view). The terrible choices he’s made are rooted in the real horrors of grief, loss, and the heartbreak of finding your friends drawing away from you just when you need them most. And Nicky, who in other hands could be a tough-girl stereotype, is also beautifully characterised: “when she was running, all of her burned because she didn’t have any other choice. When she wasn’t, soon or later those fires started to catch inside of her anyway. They always started out small… built into catastrophic blazes she carried around until she didn’t have a choice but to turn them on someone.”
This delicate characterisation sometimes makes it feel as though we’re making quite slow progress through the Pine Barrens’ supernatural world. There’s a lot to explore in The Night Will Find Us, from an impact-crater style lake hiding a cosmic intelligence in its depths, to an unexplained altar deep beneath an abandoned town, to eerie white aspen trees which bear lush, dark red poison fruit overnight. This is in addition to a backstory involving a terrorised servant girl and a mad preacher bearing a hatchet which sparks fires in the trees – a backstory which the main protagonist, Chloe, sees in visions. While I enjoyed the sequences of period axe-wielding and scenery-chewing horror, to me they felt not quite fully integrated with the main story, which revolves around the evil genius loci (“patient, cruel, and eternal”) controlling the woods. Lyons’ depiction of that latter concept is fantastic: once we meet the entity’s “human” form, it’s a truly terrifying apparition, “grinning, his lips drawn thin and tight, the smile not even close to his beady black eyes… a crocodile smile, all its features turning in nauseating knots before bouncing back to its original configuration.” This well-pitched use of the uncanny bubbles over when Chloe encounters what’s beneath the lake: in beautiful and Lovecraftian evocation of an eldritch sunken city, its “nauseating arabesques” make her head throb, and she experiences the “feral and baroque” voice of the forest.
Lyons’ writing is bold and fully realised, pivoting from detailed and cinematic action sequences – of which there are many – and fine-brush depiction of the more personal horrors. The moment when the characters encounter crows eating the body of their friend – “flapping and lashing their dirty black winds at each other, jockeying for position as they stitched their sharp beaks into their cold perch” – will stay with me, as will a desperately sad and drawn-out sequence in which two characters prepare to bury another body, heavy and unyielding. The visions experienced by Chloe even allow Lyons to show us death from the point of view of a dying character (it turns out, chillingly, to be the literary equivalent of Get Out’s Sunken Place). There’s also full-on, bone-cracking, flesh-sloughing transformation sequences as the forest renders one of the characters into its own vengeance monster, reminiscent of the squelchy and visceral body-horror in Nick Cutter’s The Troop.
The Night Will Find Us features elements from a wide range of horror genres, but it’s Lyons’ writing and characterisation which turns it into a satisfying whole. There’s a real human quality to the teenage characters – even when they make patently stupid choices – and their struggles and pain really hit home. Once the book takes off, it’s a very compelling read, jumping from character to character, situation to situation, blending past and present and juggling several mysteries simultaneously so the action doesn’t drag. As a particular fan of cosmic horror, I found myself hoping for those elements to become bigger and bigger – and the novel didn’t disappoint as it built to a satisfyingly cinematic conclusion.
The Night Will Find Us by Matthew Lyons is published by Keylight Books.
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