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A Walk In Darker Wood Main

"A Walk in a Darker Wood" Book Review

Written by Jeff Tolbert

Published by Oxygen Man Books

a walk in darker wood poster large

Edited by Duane Pesice, Sarah Walker, and Gordon B. White
2020, 368 pages, Fiction
Released on December 8th, 2020

Review:

Folk horror is much discussed these days. What makes something folk horror isn’t always clear, though much has been and continues to be written on the topic. “Paganism”—here meaning any non-Christian, non-monotheistic, “nature”-based religious tradition—is at the heart of much of the genre. A Walk in a Darker Wood is no exception, and staples of folk horror, from witches to the “Green Man” to a preponderance of eerie trees, are here in abundance.

In the Introduction, Sarah Walker, Scott Couturier, and Shayne Keen make some broad claims about human cultural development and suggest that the traditions of ancient and Indigenous peoples from around the world somehow relate to one another and speak to a shared human inheritance. Our (horror) storytelling traditions, they suggest, come from our shared heritage, the reality of weakness and helplessness in the face of a threatening natural environment. These are problematic statements, but they reflect attitudes that underly a lot of folk horror. Ideas about ancient heritages, and about humans drifting dangerously away from nature (or conversely, drifting dangerously close to a mistreated and misunderstood natural world) are common. One problem with these claims is that they assume commonalities across cultures based on superficial resemblances, ignoring the specific histories and social contexts of different human groups. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m writing a scholarly book on folklore in horror, so I have a very specific perspective on these issues.)

The individual stories reflect these issues to varying degrees; this variation is matched by significant variations in quality, as is often the case with anthologies. Unfortunately, there are editorial issues throughout. Numerous typos and grammatical issues seriously detract from individual stories, and give the work as a whole a hasty, unfinished feel. In fairness, Oxygen Man Books seems to be a new publisher, with just three books to its name. Undoubtedly it takes time for a press to establish itself, and I expect things will get more polished as it gains experience. Nevertheless, many of A Walk in a Darker Wood’s thirty chapters are rough enough to be distracting.

Things aren’t helped by the inclusion of poems, many with simplistic rhyme schemes, which attempt to convey a feeling of witchiness but typically come across as, frankly, derivative.

Fortunately, there are some bright spots in the collection. Among them are “Jack and the Magic Ham” by Adam Bolivar, which seems to be “folk” horror primarily because it mimics traditional “Jack tales”; “The King of Mudlings” by Shane Keen, about a boy who rejects the aboveground world of his family for a weird subterranean realm where he becomes “king”; William Tea’s “The Blackdamp,” which features tommyknockers and seems to allude to the real-life story of Centralia, Pennsylvania; Can Wiggins’ “King O’ the Wood,” about a young girl who discovers an ancient tree who dispenses furious justice against a would-be rapist; and John Linwood Grant’s “A Slow Remembered Tide,” about an English maritime village with an unusual relationship with its souls lost at sea.

My favorite story in the anthology, “Fine and Fancy Arms” by Gordon B. White, centers on dowsing—the supernatural ability to find water and locate lost objects—somewhere in Appalachia. The protagonist, Harwin, is by age eleven a renowned dowser. He loses his arms in a questionable “accident,” only to receive a pair of wooden prosthetics that greatly augment his supernatural abilities. The story details his rise to fame and his precipitous fall after extracting a “haint”—an evil spirit—from one of his clients.

A Walk in a Darker Wood is at times a challenge to read. The lack of polish, the very different tones of its stories and poems, and the odd editorial decisions make it hard to get through the text. (One story, “The Untold History of the Grimorium” by Maxwell I. Gold, is an explicitly Lovecraftian cosmic horror, an attempt to create a fictional book even more evil than the Necronomicon. Its inclusion here is baffling.) But the inclusion of a number of solid stories here suggests the possibility of better things to come.

Grades:

Overall: 2.5 Star Rating Cover
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About The Author
Jeff Tolbert
Staff Reviewer - USA
Jeff studies folklore for a living (no, really) and digs the supernatural. He loves a good haunting, and really strongly recommends that everyone stop what they're doing and go play Fatal Frame right now.
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