By: Laird Hunt
Illustrator: Corinne Reid (Cover Art); Julianna Lee (Cover Design)
Release Date: October 16, 2018
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Laird Hunt’s In the House in the Dark of the Woods combines horror, historical fiction, and the fantastical into one slim novel. The author is no stranger to fiction; he has several other novels of varying themes and exploring various historical settings.
In the House in the Dark of the Woods is rather straightforward in premise if perhaps not in execution. A woman leaves home in search of berries and gets lost in the woods. While trying to find her way back home, she stumbles in odd characters living ever deeper within the forest.
This particular novel is set in colonial New England. Though the exact timeframe is never quite specified, I suspect it’s most likely the late 1600s to mid 1700s. However, I don’t believe this is immediately obvious to anyone who isn’t already extremely familiar with the history of that time period, as most references in text to the specific time period involve specific terminology like “Goody” or “Goodwife.” This does also seem to be a very calculated move, as themes such as autonomy are explored within the text and having our main character more loosely defined time-period wise does make it very easy to superimpose any woman from any time period upon her. This, of course is part of the point of the novel, and is generally very well carried out. On the other hand, this method does leave our protagonist a bit loosely defined throughout the majority of the novel, which can be aggravating at times when such an interesting and under-utilized time period is present within the novel but very unused for large swaths of it.
This is the sort of book that gives no helping hand or easy explanations as to its plot, motifs, or themes. It’s the sort of novel that waits for you to have an a-ha! moment, that one moment where all of the surreal, the horror, the themes, and history pull together to give the reader that brilliant moment of clarity. I’m not quite sure the book fully realizes that moment, or that I myself quite ever got there. And I will certainly be reading this again at some point in the future with a fresh set of eyes, as I suspect this is one of those gems that leaves you something a little different upon every read. At the same time, certain sections felt almost deliberately obtuse rather than especially surreal or poetic, and I suspect this will cause a certain portion of those who’d otherwise be a solid reader base to become frustrated while reading.
The prose is fluid and can be quite beautiful and poetic in many sections. It’s written in the first person, leaving the reader in the same confused, worried state as the protagonist, coming to slow realizations at the same time as her. However, the prose also tries to write in a much older style, something that would be found in the 1700s, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Certain lines would be written in a bit of an older style, something more at home on a shelf with Dickens than King. Full dedication to this older style of language would have been amazingly immersive. Yet, Hunt never quite fully dedicates the main character’s voice to this older style, instead starting and stopping the historical language and sentence structure.
There is a quiet sort of horror to this novel. Being lost in the woods with no way out spirals. There are people living there, strange women who may or may not be witches that know things that they maybe shouldn’t know at all. A ship of bones lies deep within the odd forest, something that should never exist. Some of these horror aspects may peer through much better on a second read than a first read-through, as much of the readers time will most likely be parsing through the surrealism opposed to the horror themes.
While I enjoyed my time with In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt, I’m unsure that it is a book I can easily recommend for many readers. If you enjoy the surreal, something a little more poetic, and the horror of being lost (in all the many aspects of the word), then this might be something you’d like to pick up. Otherwise, this might not be the horror novel you’re looking for.