Reviews: Atmospheric folk-horror in the Dark Between the Trees

The Dark Between the Trees,
Fiona Barnett,
Publishing 11th October, 2022

When we returned to the hillside, I saw by the moonlight that there were but two of us left. Pray God have mercy for the ones we left behind.

Moresby Wood, like many isolated, rural locations in the British Isles, has a story attached to it – or really a thread of interconnected stories. It is not a place anyone local will visit; indeed it feels almost as if the authorities too realise something is simply wrong about these Deep, Dark Woods; the area is fenced off and secured, no visitors allowed. Rumour has it the MOD use it occasionally for Army exercises, but nobody really knows, and few care to venture close, let alone inside, in any place.

Except for a team of five women academics, lead by Doctor Alice Christopher. She has studied the folklore and scant records of this place for decades, inspired in turn by her original academic mentor; it is almost an obsession now, and she has taken years of snide remarks from colleagues and endlessly rebuffed requests to her proposals for a field expedition. Finally she has the academic grant and the authorities have permitted access. They are following the rough route of a group of Civil War Parliamentary soldiers, lead by the veteran Captain Davies, who records tell were ambushed on a road by the edge of the woods on a hill, as they marched northwards to join their regiment.

Cut down by a force hiding in the treeline – they never get more than a glimpse of them, despite the ferocity of the onslaught – the much-depleted company is forced to retreat into the woods to evade their attackers. One soldier, a local boy, warns them that they shouldn’t enter the forest, that there are tales, that nobody who lives in these parts will go near much less inside, but with musket balls whizzing past them and a number of their comrades lying dead in their own blood behind them, they have little choice.

Barnett splits the narrative between the modern-day academic expedition, and the troubled Parliamentarian soldiers of 1647. As the former attempt to trace the route of the latter, using very sketchy resources; out of date and incomplete maps – an OS cartographer with them explains even today they somehow can’t quite map the area properly – local legends, and a survivor’s account, dictated by one of the only two men who managed to flee the wood, telling a local priest of what happened. Doctor Christopher hopes her team can find evidence of what happened to the missing men from nearly four centuries ago.

However, as both strands of the tale progress, we find that both groups will encounter similar phenomena. What starts as worrying and disturbing – encamped overnight in a clearing by a mighty oak, they (in both time periods) wake the next morning to find the tree is simply gone – soon escalates from concerning to quite clearly dangerous, but what exactly is the danger? What is it with this place? There are tales of a family who did live here, centuries before, there are tales of a creature, the Corrigal (one soldier is reluctant to even name it, less the naming draw its attention to their group), but as so few have left this place, no-one can be sure,

Our modern academics are prepared with maps, GPS, mobile phones, compasses and notes, yet they will soon find that their knowledge and modern equipment will not give them any advantage over the lost military company from centuries before. The compass readings are wrong. The GPS doesn’t work, then the (fresh) batteries fail, as do replacements. The other electronics like their phones and digital cameras also fail; for some reason the batteries, even new ones, simply have no charge. And the forest itself is disconcerting, just somehow wrong, like it isn’t really a natural part of the British landscape.

And then there is sudden, visceral, bloody death…

I won’t go any further as I don’t want to risk spoilers. But I will say this is one of the most satisfyingly creepy horrors I have read in a long time. It draws deeply on one of my favourite sub-genres, the British folk-horror, and does so effectively that you find yourself feeling that the folklore here should be real, it should be like Black Shuck, something you could go and read about. While it does have moments of terror and violent death, most of the book is far more concerned with slowly building an atmosphere of ever-increasing dread, that permeates right under your skin until you almost feel you are walking in those strange, dark woods yourself, the air of unreality and disorientation, the feeling that there is something older, something not natural, in these woods put me in mind of the likes of A Field in England. A perfect read for the long, dark nights of autumn.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity