There is a certain primal quality to forests—a sense that they’re entities unto themselves: ancient, maze-like constructions, ubiquitous as they are impenetrable, older than living memory, full of secrets. They’ve an undeniably surreal quality, even in the most mundane circumstances—a feeling that only intensifies at night, creating gaps the imagination fills in with the most unnerving ideas.
Naturally, fiction provides all sorts of ways to fill in those gaps, from gargantuan wolves to strange cults (okay, stranger cults) to feral people living in the treetops. Submitted for your approval, nine books that cast forests in their proper light: dangerous, dark, and deep.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Carroll (of The Yawhg and “His Face All Red” fame) collects multiple graphic stories about dark and dangerous forests, all created in stark color and gorgeous, visceral linework. These unusual tales of terror cast the woods as dangerous, dark, and filled with horrifying monsters, each more unnerving than the last. Carroll’s grotesquerie is terrifying on its own, with deep use of shadow and bright red flashes of danger, but it also has a strong grounding in emotion, each story dealing with subjects like death, the changing makeup of family, and jealousy, among others.
Little Heaven by Nick Cutter
Taking its cues from a wide array of ’70s and ’80s horror, Little Heaven follows a trio of mercenaries on the trail of a missing person into the mountainous forest compound of a Christian cult where the people slowly lose their sense of empathy, the woods are filled with horrifying mix-and-match creatures, the undead do their best to drive their former friends and families insane with fear, and a massive obsidian pillar seems to radiate corruption over the surrounding area. While Cutter’s work is a shining tribute to the lurid gore, creatures, and excess of horror’s most prolific, twisted periods, Little Heaven concerns itself more with the three mercenaries at its center, and the Faustian bargain that ties them to the Little Heaven compound and the sinister thing presiding over the madness within.
Starr Creek, by Nathan Carson
Rural Oregon is already a fairly wild and unnerving place, full of odd compounds, unincorporated communities, dense woods, and the occasional unsolved murder, but Nathan Carson’s novella ups the ante considerably by mixing in a moon cult, a mysterious lake, a bottomless body-disposal pit, a valley that might be an alternate dimension seen on acid, a clan of rural psychopaths, and further insanity it would be wrong to give away. While Carson’s gift for sickening imagery and fever-dream levels of berserk narrative is evident, the crowning achievement of Starr Creek is that it follows its own tight internal logic, ensuring that no matter how off the rails the plot goes (and we are talking Monty Python levels of off the rails) it coherently communicate its thrills.
Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero
In the remote town of Blyton Hills, a group of preteen sleuths solve crimes involving pirates and sheep smugglers—until an investigation into a lake monster traps them in a haunted mansion out of a horror movie and puts them face-to-face with the Lovecraftian fishpeople of the Zoinx River Valley. Thirteen years later, the snarkier, more genre-savvy, still traumatized members of the Blyton Hills Summer Detective Club reunite to solve the case that haunts their every waking (and sleeping) moment, battling their way through the creepy forests, abandoned mines, and through the haunted DeBoën Manor to stop the cosmic horror at the center of Sleepy Lake. Cantero’s smart enough to know we’ve already seen snarky heroes fighting their way through cosmic horror, and uses the opportunity to explore the deeper themes of closure, trauma, and learning to move on from the past.
The Woods are Dark, by Richard Laymon
One of the grandfathers of “hardcore” and gruesome horror, it should probably first be said that the late Richard Laymon’s books deserve every trigger and content warning under the sun. He made a career out of turning simple situations into horrifying nightmares peppered with cannibalism, sickening violence, and twisted, barely human abominations. In The Woods are Dark, he turns his gaze toward the woods of California for a story about six tourists left in there as sacrifices for a race of feral cannibals. Laymon moves fast, with the grotesque Krulls setting upon his horrified heroes within two chapters, but uses the setting to deepen the tension and warp our perceptions, as the already dangerous, cannibal-infested woods become something even more terrifying.
Wytches, by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Matt Hollingsworth
When a place has been around for a long time, it legends and rituals kind of seep into the fabric of its being, passed down from generation to generation. This is especially true in small towns, where everyone knows everyone and people tend to stay for a while. Wytches plays on one of these old folk legends, with townspeople “pledging” others to be torn apart by the tree-dwelling “wytches” in exchange for granting their wishes and desires. Snyder’s plot is somewhere between The Witch, The Woods are Dark, and The Wicker Man, with the feral, hungry wytches tearing their victims limb from limb and the ominous woods sometimes literally looming over the town. Jock’s dark, scratchy art style (with moody colors by Matt Hollingsworth) further drives home the ominous, foreboding nature of the story, even in daylight.
The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King
King often favors moments of unnerving isolation in his fiction—the tricks a solitary mind plays on itself—and no book better exemplifies this proclivity than the twisted modern fairy-tale of Trisha McFarland, a nine-year-old girl who wanders off during a hike on the Appalachian Trail, only to get lost in the maze-like forest. King blends that unsettling sense of aloneness with the overactive imagination of his young narrator, as Trisha is guided through the woods by an imaginary version of baseball player Tom Gordon and beset upon by a terrifying supernatural presence that might be a bear, or might be a supernatural god and his skeletal undead high priest, or might just be a side-effect of starvation. King’s woods mostly stick to realistic terrors and leave the supernatural ones ambiguous, but they feel every bit as terrifying and dangerous, whether their hazards are real or not.
On the Edge, by Ilona Andrews
Ilona Andrews’ paranormal fantasy takes place in a deep, dangerous wood known as “the Edge,” halfway between the mundane world of “the Broken” and the rigid hierarchical magic society of “the Weird.” The Edge is presented as dangerous, conferring magical abilities to those who live in the boundary area and full of creatures like “leech birds.” There’s also the fact that anyone from Earth can just suddenly wind up there one day if they wander down the wrong path in the woods, then suffer mild to excruciating pain when they need to come back out again. Andrews’ setting is fascinating, but their story, which begins with the heroine having to shoot her undead grandfather in the head, and follows with her arming herself to take a simple shopping trip to the Wal-Mart, carries itself with wit and style to spare.
The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
Creepy woods are often the stuff of fairytales, and Albert’s forthcoming debut gives us a doozy: the titular Hazel Wood surrounds the estate of reclusive author Althea Prosperpine, who retreated behind its sheltering boughs after the publication of a book of fairytales that became a cult sensation—but may also have opened a door into another, more dangerous world. The novel follows the story of Althea’s granddaughter Alice, who has been obsessed with reading her grandmother’s stories (impossibly difficult to obtain despite their infamy) for as long as her mother has forbidden her from reading them. When Alice’s mother goes missing, the only clue to her fate a scrawled note telling her to stay away from the Hazel Wood, the girl finally has a chance to explore her family history. What she finds there, deep in the woods, is far more fantastical and deadly than she ever imagined.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
The woods become the literal antagonist in Novik’s transporting, Nebula Award-winning fairytale. Plain young Agnieszka lives in a small kingdom on the border of a malevolent wood, alive with unspeakable horrors, riddled with corruption. Every year, the Wood’s angry, unnatural magic takes its toll: stealing children, infecting livestock, turning people into changelings and killers. Only the protection of a secretive wizard known as the Dragon keeps the darkness contained. In return for his services, the Dragon demands a terrible price: a decade of servitude from one of the girls of the village. As the time of his choosing nears, Agnieszka despairs, fearing she will lose her best friend, the beautiful Kasia. Her fears turn out to be…misplaced. Chosen by the Dragon, Agnieszka learns the secret of the rot at the heart of the wood, and is drawn into a conflict that will force her to use her untested magic to root it out—lest the whole world be consumed.
Have we forgotten the most terrifying dark wood of all? Let us know in the comments.
Editor’s note: Melissa Albert is the editor of the B&N Teen Blog.