Review: The Darkest Part of the Woods

The Darkest Part of the Woods
The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure how I feel about this book.

On a technical level it’s something close to a masterpiece, the horror’s slow ooze engulfing the reader with glacial deliberation. The prose is a kind of vernacular poetry unto itself; Campbell plays with sentence structure and character interaction in some really clever and illusive ways. This kept me on edge the whole way through, not necessarily because of the narrative’s momentum, but because the prose has this delicate intricacy to it that punishes even the slightest lapse of attention. The way Campbell draws the woods as the novel’s dynamic nucleus and builds the atmosphere is wonderful, and the hints of hallucinatory weirdness are deft and restrained.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how well this all works within the broader context of the book. The whole thing consists of characters talking in this beautiful rhythm to each other. Their world is so tiny, and I get that this insular, almost claustrophobic feel is kind of the point, but what I didn’t so much enjoy was being stuck with this cast of characters, none of whom I ever really came to like or feel close to. Because they all mostly talk the same way, it felt like I was listening to a group of people sharing a private joke: it’s fascinating and I want to know more, but they won’t let me in. I felt held at arm’s length the whole time.

The ending felt like both a letdown and a promise, a missed opportunity that didn’t build the kind of character-breaking tension or stakes to the extent it could have, or even to the extend that just got my blood racing. Having said that, the last few lines are powerful and playful and just awesome, so it redeems itself there for sure.

There’s no doubt I enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Woods. There’s no doubt it’s a well written and crafted book. This was my first Ramsey Campbell, and I’d definitely go back for more after this, but it felt to me like there was some small thing missing here, something flat that needed a little contouring, a jagged edge.

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