The woods have been a popular setting in literature for centuries, from the Grimm Brothers to today’s bestsellers, but what makes a forest such a seductive setting for fiction? When I started putting together ideas for my second novel, What Waits in the Woods, I turned to this interesting and ubiquitous setting. But why? What draws us to the deep, dark woods?
We all shudder at the fairy tales the Grimm Brothers gathered, edited, and published in 1812. Since, generations of children have been lulled (or terrified) to sleep by these dark tales. In more modern times, fairy tales have been softened to exclude the most brutal and bloodthirsty elements. Still, the story of Hansel and Gretal, for instance, remains a pretty scary tome for little kids. One common element of these age-old tales is the forest. Hansel and Gretal are abandoned in the woods where they struggle to find their way home, back to civilization, but find instead, an evil witch who has other, shall we say, cannibalistic, plans for them. The idea that this hag has made her gingerbread house, a trap for children, in the woods is important and vital to the story. The woods are a place where evil lurks. Where mean old ladies can safely capture children and no one from town has any idea what’s up, and it’s up to the kids to fight their way out, which of course they do. Thank goodness!
The dichotomy of the forest, I believe, is what intrigues us. It is a place that is wild and free. Where childhood adventures are given free rein. Where sprites and fairies hide beneath flower petals. And a place where even forbidden romance can bloom. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the forest to great effect in his masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. The woods are where Hester goes to meet the love of her life, Arthur Dimmesdale. There she can literally let her hair down far from the prying eyes of her critical and rule-bound Puritan neighbors. But even Hester recognizes the dark side of the woods when she admonishes her young daughter:
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.”
For the forest is not only a place of freedom and magic, but also a place where one can break all of societies’ rules, like Hester, a married woman, having an affair with the local pastor. Although Hester believes her husband has been dead these seven years, her society still considers her affair adultery. They see an erring woman whose reputation is further tarnished when she gives birth to a child years after her husband was last seen.
The forest literally is a place where nature rules, where man’s laws go to die, where what people do is shielded from society’s view. Thus, terrible things can happen there. There is a feeling of anonymity when one is in the woods and for someone who is harboring villainous thoughts, the woods are the perfect venue to act on those evil designs. Therefore, the forest makes the perfect setting for fairy tale and thriller novels alike.
In 2007, Tana French’s debut thriller, In the Woods, was released. I’m a huge fan. Her books are cleverly written and atmospheric beyond measure. That she chose the woods as an integral setting in her first thriller only makes sense. She introduces her detective, Rob Ryan, who as a child goes into the woods to play with two of his little friends. Only Rob returns and the fate of the other children is a tantalizing mystery.
The acclaimed Ruth Ware got her start with her bestselling debut, In a Dark, Dark Wood. The story relies heavily on an eerie forest setting. Main character Nora is invited to spend the weekend with old friends in a glass house surrounded by thick and menacing woods. So, of course, everything goes downhill from there.
In 2017, Karen Dionne’s bestseller, The Marsh King’s Daughter was released. Okay, this takes place in a marsh, but it’s surrounded by woods in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I’ve been there. There are LOTS of woods. The setting is natural and isolated, beautiful and scary at the same time. And it is the perfect hideout for Dionne’s sadistic villain.
I chose the woods as a key setting for my second novel, What Waits in the Woods, partly because I love this setting in the books noted above (and so many others!) and also because I grew up in the wilds of upstate New York. When I first moved to Georgia many years ago, people assumed I hailed from New York City. They were astonished to learn that my hometown of less than 200 people is a five-hour drive and a world away from the Big Apple. My town, like so many others upstate, is a tiny village surrounded by farmland and forest. I spent my childhood playing outside, like we all did back then when the only media entertainment available was Saturday morning cartoons on one of the three TV channels. The woods and fields became our playground, an enchanted natural world that we explored in minute detail. We might be gone for hours but never after dark. When dinnertime summoned or the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, it was time to come inside, into the man-made safety of our homes and leave the natural world to the creatures of the forest. And maybe a ghost or a bogeyman or two.
In What Waits in the Woods, we return to the fictional small town of Graybridge, Massachusetts. My main character, Esmé Foster, lives in an old house on the edge of the forest. Paths through the woods connect her house to the dilapidated Ridley homestead in one direction and a gloomy Victorian mansion inhabited by the eccentric Mr. York in the other. Of course, there’s a murky, sinister pond in the middle of the forest for good measure. Esmé reminisces fondly about her childhood, and then her teenage years, with her close group of friends and their exploits in the woods. But all is not fun and games. The woods were also the scene of mishap and murder in the past. Now, in the present, Esmé is home again and trying to pick up the life she left behind over ten years earlier. She is drawn to the woods and yet frightened, especially since her best friend is found murdered in her backyard at the edge of the woods. What was Kara doing in the woods that dark night? And was the killer actually looking for Esmé? Is there a murderer hidden amongst the oaks and pines? Esmé fears for her own safety, yet the woods call to her.
Again, I think it is that duality that makes the woods such an alluring setting. Wild wonder and enchantment—and hidden danger. No one employed this theme more expertly than the iconic Robert Frost. His poetry, which features the natural world of New England, is filled with beautiful renderings, yet fraught with sometimes sinister undertones. Consider one of his most famous works, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It is a bewitching poem, one of my very favorites. A traveler stops to admire the sublime beauty of snow softly falling on an isolated wood, yet the theme of the poem has a much deeper, darker interpretation.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The narrator is torn—natural world or man-made world? The choice is between darkness and light, magical or mundane. Or consider the deeper interpretation, he is teetering between choosing life or death. Scary stuff, and yet . . .