Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend at a writers’ retreat in Woodstock, NY. We were staying in a cozy little cabin in the middle of a quiet, dark, snowy wood. A friend finished the book she had been reading and when I asked how it was, she told me it was strange, disquieting, and difficult to describe, but good. Then she pressed it into my hands and told me I should read it. The book was IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS by Laird Hunt.
In colonial-era New England, a woman leaves the cabin she shares with her husband and son and heads into the woods to gather berries. She gets lost and meets an assortment of mysterious and faintly unsettling women. Captain Jane, who wears a wolf skin cloak and helps people in need—but is she really helping? Eliza, a beautiful woman who lives in a lovely cottage by herself. But is it as lovely as it seems, and is she really alone? And then there are whispers of the elderly but malevolent Granny Someone. The protagonist comes to feel that she is fleeing something evil in those woods. Or perhaps the something evil has been within her all along.
This book is a haunting fever dream, a sharp little nightmare. It is a dark fairy tale born of the repressive, Puritanical society of New England’s past, of the colonists’ mingled terror of and fascination with witches. You can never fully get a read on what is happening, who to trust, what is real or not. The women who populate this wood are, none of them, what they seem. And the dark deeds of the past cannot be left in the past. What is the truth? Even if you could see it, would you truly want to? Hunt’s prose is lush and beguiling and the world he draws us into is haunting. There is a flying boat made of human skin and bone; a shiny, egg-shaped scream that can be put in a pocket; a piece of bark with a hole in it that, when one peers through it, reveals things as they truly are. The tale is as terrifying as it is seductive and, like the protagonist, you may find it difficult to leave the woods behind and find your way home.
This is a tale best read in a single sitting, preferably on a dark and stormy night. Or even better, in a little house in the dark of a quiet wood.