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How 'The Dark Between the Trees' Perfects the Haunted Forest Trope

Ghost stories are perhaps the oldest and most prominent type of fiction within the horror genre. So ubiquitous is the name ‘ghost story’ that it was used long before its modern sibling the ‘horror story’ introduced itself. This is most likely because, like all the best horror stories, the ghost is not only a great aesthetic and functional monster, but it is also representative of a deeper base fear. This is most often, with the ghost, the fear of the unavoidable coming of death, the indestructible and unfathomable and inescapable fate that awaits us all – character and reader alike. But it can also relate more strongly to that haunting aspect – a feeling of pursuit, of not truly being alone, of being unable to escape a hidden gaze.

In this way, the ghost is the most iconic and most inescapable symbol of the horror genre.

It’s not only the ghost that has dug its roots into our fiction either, since its archetypal settings have also become iconic, not to mention inseparable from the horror genre as a whole. The setting in question is most often that of the haunted mansion, or some other ancient house or building. Most likely because of its age, the mansion is synonymous with ghosts and hauntings because it speaks to something primal within us – our instinctual ability to recognise a place filled with history, and in turn, filled with sadness and mourning.

But I’m not going to talk about a haunted house today. Instead, as we now find ourselves in the autumn season, I want to talk about a different setting that has become equally synonymous with the ghost story.

That is the setting of the haunted forest.

The forest has long been associated with fear. And there is a long tradition in supernatural writing of using the forest (or woods, or groves, or…) as a setting to deliver a ghost story. It’s no less common than the haunted mansion, in fact.

Forests can be a frightening place to find yourself even if you divorce them completely from their ghostly ancestry. There’s the wildness and unpredictability of nature, and its overt detachment from civilisation and thus, from your fellow human and any help they might offer you. There’s the darkness, the struggle sunlight will inevitably have with getting through the thick canopy of leaves blocking out the sky, and the walls of branches all around you which similarly hinder your vision, submitting you to that permanent dusk. And, following on from this, there’s the ease with which you can get lost inside a forest if (or perhaps when) you inevitably stray from the path – if indeed there ever was one.

With all of these factors at its disposal, a forest hardly needs any ghosts to exhibit a strong feeling of fear. Perhaps that’s the reason forest-setting ghost stories often don’t feature ghosts at all, instead opting for an unsettling atmosphere, or an otherwise more abstract supernatural presence that haunts the character. And yet, they are still often called ghost stories. Perhaps, because that abstraction, that undefinable quality, is what really makes something a ghost, as opposed to dark eyes, mournful wailings, or burial gowns.

All of this background brings me to the book I want to talk about today. Because for all I’ve been spending a lot of time reading classic ghost stories set in the haunted forests around Britain this summer, it is a modern book from a brand new author that I believe most compellingly explores the trope of the haunted forest.

That book is Fiona Barnett’s ‘The Dark Between the Trees.’

In a lot of ways, this book embodies the same qualities I’ve discussed about the haunted forest already. With the book’s large cast of characters setting out into a forest in the pursuit of historical knowledge, or the escape of death, and soon becoming lost within that titular dark between the trees.

I want to talk about that pursuit of history for a moment because I think it’s important to the haunted forest for the same reason it was important within the haunted mansion. But on top of that, it’s one of the more interesting facets of this novel.

See, the book follows not only one group of protagonists, but two, with both groups becoming lost in the forest in two separate time periods. This is relevant to our main group in the present because it is the group lost in the past who they have come to this forest to investigate. More than that though, it speaks to the permanence of the forest they are both lost in, not to mention the permanence of the fear that comes along with it.

Being lost in the woods is a fear as old as fear itself. And in this way, long before the book ever introduces its more speculative dangers, the author spends crucial time setting up the forest itself as an antagonist. Both groups are at odds with nature, and so nature becomes their most immediate threat. The cold, the wet, both biting at their skin, making them ill and delirious. The ground slippery, holding them back and slowing their progress. The fog spreading throughout their surroundings. The instinctual knowledge we have that this location is probably filled with wild animals and poisonous plants…

It is, in short, dangerous. And it’s easy to see how these purely realistic dangers lead directly to the groups getting lost and, in turn, becoming frightened of the story’s setting. Because, as we’ve established, first and foremost with a ghost story, the setting must be where the fear begins its ascension.

The author clearly understood this, because she implemented a unique science fictional element to this haunted forest that adds an incredible level of depth to its familiar fears. It’s something I haven’t seen from this genre before, and it affects the narrative, and more importantly the themes, throughout.

See, this forest is changing constantly. It starts simply enough – a tree present when the characters sleep is gone when they wake. From then on, these changes happen constantly, with things and people popping in and out of existence, or backwards and forwards in time, as more than one forest from more than one time period interlock and detach again.

The book was a perfect haunted forest without this element, but it’s something that makes the story really unique and interesting. Not to mention enhancing the fears and anxieties present within the forest.

It’s also an element that is reflected in the campfire stories (another genre staple, not through its presence in the narrative but as a lens through which that narrative can be delivered) of the Moresby family, whose lives seem to act as the background to the haunting of this forest, but whose story keeps changing both over time, and from person to person – just like the forest. But what’s important is the weirdness, the uncanniness of what stays the same – the family either disappearing or possibly dying under mysterious circumstances, with only the young daughter left behind.

The most powerful effect this has on the characters is for them to become isolated, confused, and most prominently, feeling increasingly under pursuit. This is something that affects them with one or all of the elements the author plays with in this book, but every additional element enhances that feeling of pursuit.

It’s a feeling that could just be paranoia, or could just be the natural effect of the forest, but of course, this is a ghost story, and so the danger does not stay in the realm of the normal forever. No, there is something else that poses a threat.

One of the main factors that causes the characters to feel under pursuit, is that people keep disappearing. Either going missing, or dying. Now, this can be easily explained away in the past group’s storyline, since they are soldiers in a war. But things aren’t that simple for the present group, and so we’re left feeling that things are not so simple in the past either – especially with that dimensional element constantly seeping in and out (which, I suppose is what the forests are doing as well!) of the story.

This is where the book’s monster comes in. And while it isn’t a ghost, exactly, it is supernatural. The monster is called the Corrigal, and its role in the story is… complex.

The main role of the Corrigal is to depict a supernatural threat within the forest, slowly picking off characters, seen only from a distance if this mostly invisible monster can be seen at all. But just like the unique angle the author has placed on the setting, she has also placed a unique angle on this monster, because (thanks to that dimensional angle) it could be just as haunted, just as much a prisoner of the forest as the protagonists.

Either way, the Corrigal functions as the ghost of this ghost story, both haunting the protagonists and making them feel under pursuit, and complicating the emotional backbone of the story. The thing about fear, and vulnerability, is that they build paranoia. And so, right from the first hurdle, these characters become scared by an endless and omnipresent feeling of pursuit. Regardless of whether there is anything there, the characters feel they are not alone, and so we readers feel their unease. It is this piece of their psychology that the Corrigal preys on moreso than their flesh.

Speaking of psychology, I want to talk about the symbolism of fear. Because the real dark between the trees is not a literal darkness, nor is it the supernatural threat of the Corrigal. The real dark between the trees is something else – their subconscious fears and insecurities.

See, the characters in this book are all haunted in the way all haunts function – not merely by a hostile spirit or other supernatural threat, but by the mental torment of the protagonists themselves. None of these people are okay. They never have been, and the forest and its dangers and the paranoid anxieties it breeds are simply making their pre-existing anxieties worse the longer they’re trapped between those haunted trees.

The groups inevitably fall to infighting, not for arbitrary reasons like normally happens in fiction, but for reasons directly relating to their mental haunting. Neither group has trust in their authority figure, and each authority figure is themselves struggling with a sense of purpose and failings. On top of that, the soldiers are all wanting to desert, and the historians are starting to wish they had never come on this expedition at all. These are both very dysfunctional groups, which leads to major conflict, both relational and physical, as a result of both their literal and figurative hauntings.

Regardless of the Corrigal, and the very real physical threat and unfathomability it represents, these characters would nevertheless be haunted. Their internal conflicts and tensions grow evermore with every passing chapter they’re stuck in the forest. And it’s the distrust, the hurt, the abrasive dialogue, that’s what they’re really haunted by. And it is that that will put them in harm’s way – whether it takes a Corrigal to do so, or something else.

So, what is it about the haunted forest that makes it such a mainstay of ghost stories? Well, in ‘The Dark Between the Trees,’ we can see three core reasons:

  1. Like with all ghost stories, classic and contemporary alike, the setting itself is a source of fear. With the forest in particular, there are physical dangers from the unpredictable wildness of nature, and there are psychological dangers thanks to the labyrinthian geometry. The book takes these fears, and dials them up to the max.

  2. The ghost in a ghost story does not need to be a literal spirit, but a supernatural danger that forces the characters to contend with a physical representation of their basest fears, such as the fear of death and the fear of pursuit. In this book, the author also involves intra-group conflicts that are tested by the haunting they experience at the hands (or claws) of the Corrigal.

  3. The haunted forest primarily features in the short story, and has not seen the same prominence in longer fiction that its sibling, the haunted house, has. This book gives the haunted forest a greater amount of time in which to breathe, to haunt, and to frighten, and uses that extra time to build up tension, and utilise a larger number of characters, leading to an unparalleled sense of scale for the subgenre.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that this book’s prose is so Shirley Jackson esque. It’s clear right from the beginning that the author has a deep love and understanding of classic ghost stories, and the haunted forest setting in particular. So it’s no surprise that her prose is so reminiscent of Shirley Jackson. This understanding is, ultimately, what led to such a finely crafted book as ‘The Dark Between the Trees.’ I fully believe this is among the most compelling of haunted forest stories, and it deserves a cult following when it releases in October. Please don’t miss this!


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