"The Woodkin" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by CamCat Books

the woodkin alexander james poster large

Written by Alexander James
2023, 410 pages, Fiction
Released on 22nd August 2023

Review:

It does not matter how many books you review, there is no better thrill than discovering an absolute belter from a debut novelist. Published in mid-2023, if I had come across The Woodkin upon initial release, it would definitely have been in the running for a place in my Top Ten Novels of 2023, as it is a gripping and terrorising knockout.

I am a sucker for survival horror novels, and this beauty had me coming out in cold sweats. Its impact is undoubtedly heightened by the fact I read it relatively blind and was suckered by a cool quote linking the author to one of my favourite writers: “America’s answer to Adam Nevill”. If you have read both The Woodkin and The Ritual, then it is an easy (and not inaccurate) comparison to make, particularly with the film version of The Ritual rather than the book.

I am not one for long hikes, but in the first quarter of The Woodkin, I found myself happily keeping pace with Josh Mallory, who is tackling large swaths of the Pacific Crest Trail. Temporarily leaving behind complex marital problems, the 28-year-old picks up the trail in the vicinity of the small town of Belam, in the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. He is enjoying temporarily abandoning civilisation, apart from the odd chat with other hikers he meets along the way. As Josh clocks up the miles, it is initially unclear which direction the story might take, until he stumbles upon the dead body of a fellow hiker.

On the trail, Josh is known by the trail name ‘Switchback’ and after he meets the elderly ‘Appletree’, the two travel together until Josh makes a forced detour to Belam for fresh supplies. Upon arrival, nobody has a phone and there is even less interest in the dead hiker, who Josh wants to report to the mountain rangers. Feeling something is not quite right, he hurries back to the trail, but soon something is chasing him, and he wishes he heeded a “be careful” warning a friendly driver gave him earlier. Suddenly, Josh realises all those ‘Missing’ posters on the diner wall are there for a reason, and The Woodkin takes a horrifying turn.

To reveal what goes on once Josh returns to the isolation of the mountain trail heads into spoiler territory, but hold onto your hat for a punishing and painful ride into hell. The levels of fear are palpable as the young man simply cannot believe what befalls him. Some of the chase sequences are totally exhilarating and I felt exhausted just reading them. Even if there is not much to the plot which has not appeared in similarly set backwoods novels, Alexander James skilfully weaves his own narrative around familiar tropes and morphs it into his own living and breathing beast. Even if I predicted the direction the novel heads into and prompted some of the twists but not all the betrayals, it remains a riveting read.

There are also numerous clever dream sequences which develop the plot nicely, backtracking into childhood fears and trauma, as well as the clashes Josh has with his wife. Once Josh finds himself up against it, the level of cruelty continues to spiral, and what he endures had me wincing. The mountainous landscapes, and the hidden threats they hold, are also captivating and described in exquisite detail, as Josh finds civilisation to be a world away. The Woodkin could be seen as a bastard cross between hillbilly and cult horror with the sense of isolation, that no help is coming anytime soon, literally throbbing from the page.

I also enjoyed the manner in which Josh uses his trail alter ego Switchback as a psychological survival mechanism, compartmentalising his fears. Josh works for Amazon and has marital problems, this was not the case for Switchback, who, if he was going to go down, was going to do so swinging, biting and screaming. The Woodkin is an exceptionally cool debut, and it makes me very pleased I’m a cyclist.

Grades:

Overall: 4.5 star rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Cover
Buy from Amazon UK.

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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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