This review first appeared in Horrified magazine, 2021
Forests, as William P. Simmons writes in the appetite-whetting introduction to this absorbing anthology, are the seat of humanity’s primal fears. Literally or metaphorically, these dark liminal zones are the source of all folk tales and horror: ‘nature is horrifyingly, deliciously alive in a wild, uncompromising manner that mortals both dread and delight in.’ Simmons focuses on the wood as the locus of Pan, the wild god of the woods, and he appears in many of these tales in his myriad guises.
Simmons categorises three types of horror tales set in nature: nature as sinister setting; as the haunt of dark denizens; or as itself possessing independent consciousness. It’s this latter category that is most successfully – and most terrifyingly – represented here. Logically, according to Simmons, if nature is alive, there’s no such thing as the ‘supernatural’ – just some form of ultra-reality. And isn’t that more terrifying: the prospect that existence itself is a form of cosmic horror?
The introductory essay and notes at the start of each tale show that this is a real labour of love for Simmons, whose enthusiasm is evident. Among this collection’s riches are classics of weird and ghost fiction such as ‘The View From a Hill’ by MR James, and Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’. One of the defining pieces of Weird fiction, the latter’s appearance is always welcome, and few stories evoke such a strange, otherworldly atmosphere amidst ostensibly familiar hills and woods.
EM Forster, a genuine giant of English-language literature, is perhaps a surprising inclusion here, but his ‘The Story of a Panic’ is a great curtain-raiser. A party of English tourists is picnicking in the Italian hills when a sudden stillness falls upon the countryside. In the space of a few lines, Forster conjures a chill from nowhere. It’s a moment that – only a few pages in – made the entire anthology worthwhile, by making something as insignificant as a breeze rippling through trees feel utterly terrifying. An adolescent boy is evidently touched by the wild god while his companions flee, and though the distorting lens of the boorish, irritable, and xenophobic narrator portrays the boy as a nuisance, viewed more objectively this is a heartbreakingly poignant tale. As you would expect, many of the other stories here also rely heavily on the evocation of atmosphere, and an eerie stillness is again used to great effect in ‘Dead Valley’ by Ralph Adams Cram.
RH Benson (cousin of the better-known EF Benson) is a new name to me. ‘The Watcher’ unsettles from the start. It begins ‘the day following’, with no explanation of what happened the day before, and we don’t have any idea who our narrator is, or who this old man is, recounting an episode from his youth. The ambiguity of the framing is highly effective, lifting what is otherwise little more than an anecdote.
Some of the stories have a strikingly contemporary resonance. ‘The Wind in the Woods’ by little-known female author Bessi Kyffin-Taylor is, at root, a story of betrayal. The narrator, jilted on his wedding day, has subsequently shunned human company, seeking solace in a beloved Welsh countryside. An out-of-season trip upsets his expectations, and we see revealed a sense of proprietorship: a favourite haunt is ‘his’ little wood, and for there to be a breeze, in a place he has only ever known as a site of utter serenity, is an affront. The attitude towards nature is one of ownership and entitlement.
Set in the wilds of South Africa (a proxy for the author’s native Scottish Borders), nature in John Buchan’s ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’ is the source of visionary transcendence: ‘the calm fact of Nature broke for me into wrinkles of wild knowledge’ is a wonderful, proto-psychedelic image, and the story’s horror lies in the narrator’s self-awareness of what his actions at the climax signify. Like ‘The Wind in the Woods’, we see a reflection of our own parlous relationship with the environment. There’s a similar transcendence in EF Benson’s ‘The Man Who Went Too Far’, which I’ve read before, and which fits perfectly into this collection. It shares with Buchan’s story a visionary communion with nature, at once strikingly modern but also redolent of the Romantic concept of the sublime: that sense of awe engendered by nature, which can – as Aldous Huxley writes in Heaven and Hell (1956) with reference to psychedelic states – tip easily from bliss to terror.
Some of the stories are less memorable, and a few of the earlier 19th century ones are written in an overwrought Gothic style typical of the time, but my one complaint about this collection is fairly minor. ‘In every culture there is a sacred borderland between folk tale and written literature,’ writes Simmons, yet the anthology only contains English language tales, and nothing in translation. But it feels churlish to criticise a book for what it isn’t, and I’d recommend Wildwood to any reader willing to risk a brush with Pan…