In the Night Wood
by Dale Bailey
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review copy received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Description: In this contemporary fantasy, the grieving biographer of a Victorian fantasist finds himself slipping inexorably into the supernatural world that consumed his subject.
American Charles Hayden came to England to forget the past.
Failed father, failed husband, and failed scholar, Charles hopes to put his life back together with a biography of Caedmon Hollow, the long-dead author of a legendary Victorian children’s book, In the Night Wood. But soon after settling into Hollow’s remote Yorkshire home, Charles learns that the past isn’t dead.
In the neighboring village, Charles meets a woman he might have loved, a child who could have been his own lost daughter, and the ghost of a self he thought he’d put behind him.
And in the primeval forest surrounding Caedmon Hollow’s ancestral home, an ancient power is stirring. The horned figure of a long-forgotten king haunts Charles Hayden’s dreams. And every morning the fringe of darkling trees presses closer.
Soon enough, Charles will venture into the night wood.
Soon enough he’ll learn that the darkness under the trees is but a shadow of the darkness that waits inside us all.
As a young boy, the protagonist, Charles, discovered a book called “In the Night Wood” by Caedmon Hollow and it remained in his mind ever since. As an adult, he sought the book out at university and became a professor teaching literature. He then vows to write a biography of Caedmon Hollow, and he’ll have the perfect space to do it in as he goes to live at Hollow House where the author used to live. Bailey’s writing is vivid and rich like a savoury butter, especially for the first half of the book. He definitely knows his bibliographical studies quite well with his descriptions of rare books, which was nice to see from a Book History standpoint but might get a bit too detailed for the average reader.
After a tragedy that has created a huge rift in Charles’s marriage to Erin, and they go to Hollow House, their marriage is barely hanging on by a thread and they really don’t have much else of a choice of where to go because of their situations and to hope that this can be the mark of a new beginning of sorts. Charles, as mentioned above, is determined to write his biography of Caedmon Hollow. The story within a story within a story structure works well here, with the legends going that Caedmon himself used to live at Hollow House (hence the name) but maybe he saw things like The Horned King and the other creatures. There are ciphers to be solved and other mysterious goings on to contend with as well as workers of the house and the townspeople who each seem to be hiding something.
Erin, Charles’s wife, over-medicates and drinks herself into a stupor to deal with her grief and anger while Charles buries himself in his work and tries to ignore his own repressed sadness and grief. He also tries to pretend there’s not a problem in his marriage, or at least won’t acknowledge it outright even though he wants to several times.
Although I found much of the first half of the book gripping, exciting, and page-turning and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next, I found that the author dwelled a bit too much on the marital situation between the protagonists and there were some repetitive elements that bogged down the pacing. By the time that things picked up again, it was difficult to renew my interest until near the end.
My other gripe with the novel is that I didn’t like either of the protagonists. Some of the other characters were great, but it’s asking the reader a huge investment to spend an entire novel with protagonists who are central to the book, and if the reader doesn’t find them likable and doesn’t root for them, it’s difficult to sustain their interest. I understand, of course, that given Charles and Erin’s situations that it wasn’t easy to make them likable given their circumstances and all they’ve been through, but as I reached the end and discovered the horrid truth of what happened to cause them such tragedy, I hated Charles even more.
Then again, the most interesting characters are those that make us feel something, even if that happens to be strong dislike in this case, because there’s nothing worse than “perfect” and dull characters, so I suppose in that regard, one could argue Bailey did a good job with picking these folks for his protagonists. In any case, that’s just a personal reflection and others may have thought they were fine.
Nonetheless, the action picks up towards the end of the book, and I found the ending to be mostly satisfying and it fit with the overall tone of the story. I would definitely recommend horror and fantasy fans pick this novel up, because it’s a great autumn read and is one that I think fans of “Sleepy Hollow” and that sort of vibe of horror story will really be quite interested in.
About the Author: Dale was born in West Virginia in 1968, and grew up in a town called Princeton, just north of the Virginia line. His stories have appeared in lots of places—The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Sci-Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, and various anthologies. Several of them have been nominated for awards, and “Death and Suffrage,” later filmed as part of Showtime’s television anthology series Masters of Horror, won the International Horror Guild Award.
In 2003, Golden Gryphon Press collected his stories as The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories. Two novels, The Fallen and House of Bones, came out from Signet books around the same time. A third novel—Sleeping Policemen, written with with his friend Jack Slay, Jr.—came out in 2006. He has also written a study of haunted-house fiction called American Nightmares.
He lives in North Carolina with his my wife and daughter.