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The Darkest Part of the Woods
By Ramsey Campbell
"We're the lucky ones," says an inhabitant of a madhouse. "We are, because we're what people call mad or whatever they say we are these days. They don't know that it means we'll be readier than they are. We're already on our way, so it won't be as much of a shock."


The Darkest Part of the Woods
Ramsey Campbell
Tor / 400 p/ $24.95 US
ISBN: 0765307669

Allow me to introduce the main characters--

Dr Lennox Price: An American academic and authority on mass hallucination and popular delusion. Back in the "druggy sixties, he "proved" (with his book, The Mechanics of Delusion) that fringe beliefs interdepend with the more mainstream and skepticism is the result of the same psychological mechanism that produces the very beliefs it questioned. He came, originally, to the Brichester area to prove that the odd stories locals told of what they saw in the Goodmanswood were the result of a mutated lichen. Evidently Dr Price's contact with the hallucinogenic symbiotic organisms drove him to insanity some years back. He became obsessed with the woods and is now a resident of the Arbour, an institution for the mentally unstable. Dr Lennox is not the only "casualty of the sixties" with connections to the woods at the Arbour. These others as a leader of sorts recognize him.

Margo Price: An artist popular enough to have her paintings collected in a glossy coffee table art book. Not long after coming to England with her husband, she produced an enigmatic Escher-esque painting that became ubiquitous adornment for many dorms and lofts of the 70s. Margo's art is all about making the viewer look again, presenting more than initially meets the eye.

Heather Price: The elder Price daughter. Capable, stable, the one who handles things, and the single family member who "lacks imagination." She has a longtime job at the local university (which had also employed her father) as a librarian. The other members of the family create books, she catalogs and properly shelves them. Although now long estranged, she married, of all people, an accountant. Their union produced --

Sam: A 22-year old recent university graduate with a degree in English literature who works in an about-to-go-under sf/f/h bookstore. Sam is very much a modern young person, although many readers may not recognize just how iconic he is. Bright, well-educated, appreciative of family rather than rebellious, underemployed, and a bit lost. Except Sam is a bit more lost than he or anyone else realizes.

Sylvia Price: The younger Price daughter. The one who could leave the nest because Heather stayed. She has collected folktales for at least one published book The Secret Woods: Sylvan Myths and she's been off, evidently pursuing her bliss and another book, to the Americas. Her welcomed return to her family is complicated by a joyously accepted, but somewhat mysterious pregnancy. She is also becoming as obsessive about the woods as her father and begins to gather the information that will explain the unexplainable.

Book Cover Home turf for the Prices is Woodland Close, a suburban neighborhood of the small city of Brichester in England's West Country. (Yes, this is the same fictional Brichester Campbell visited before in his very early tales. Back then it was a depressing urban landscape. It seems much more pleasant now.) Woodland Close, a mixture of old English village and newer residences, is situated on the edge of Goodmanswood, a dense forest that dates back to the Roman era. The woods lie between Brichester and Woodland Close and have, for the first time, lost a part of itself - despite local protest - to a motorway bypass. Sam , one of the activists trying to protect the trees, suffered broken ankle from a nasty fall. He still limps.

There you have it. What happens next is pure dark magic. Campbell takes these characters and, word by word, reveals them and the story. Although some of their dialogue seems, at first, enigmatic, you quickly realize each always tells the truth and that the supposedly illogical utterances of the "insane" and those descending into insanity are quite logical and just as true.

While making each character an individual whole, the author exposes the geography of the pervasively supernatural nature surrounding them. Over and over Campbell describes the trees, the woods, the environment in creatural terms. They are insect-legged, have fingers full of panic, reptilian claws, and even greyish tentacles; they swarm, their leaves become messengers. Humans are described in sylvan terms: quiet as a tree stump; sleeping like a log, like a piece of wood with no ideas; stiff and frail as a bundle of sticks; unresponsive as a tree trunk.

Every word, every space between becomes a part of a complex incantation. Names are full of meaning. Language is marvelously significant. Like Margo's art, we are compelled to look and look again at the pictures the pages present.

Books are just one symbolic metaphor Campbell develops and embellishes. The main characters are all involved with books, they write them or plan to write them or work with them or sell them in a world that, as we all well know, places little importance on the written word. Books are of a more than dual nature. Books are rational and reasoned but are also magical and irrational. They are sources of enlightenment and at the core of the darkest doom. Hidden and unknown, common and well understood, they can be turned into series of zeros and ones; they are hand-crafted and singular. Books are clean and neat, they supply entertainment and knowledge; they are decaying stinking things that lead to horrors so abhorrent the human mind cannot conceive them...

Revelations are made. Horror crawls forth and becomes inevitable. The world is turned upside down. The Prices and we must accept the impossible and enter a new reality. There is resistance, but no way of escape. The Prices become outcasts in a world where even the most ordinary becomes laden with portent and dread . (In one small but brilliant bit of business, Campbell transforms three mundane women in a small grocery into a trio of weird sisters of Shakespearian proportion.)

We survive. Some of us do anyway. But the world is no longer the same. Literally. That's what happens when we are truly disturbed and more than discomforted by, well, it's just a book now isn't it?

As for reassurance -- we're left with damned little. "We're the lucky ones," says an inhabitant of a madhouse near the end of Darkest Part. "We are, because we're what people call mad or whatever they say we are these days. They don't know that it means we'll be readier than they are. We're already on our way, so it won't be as much of a shock."

Ramsey Cambell's been dabbling in the non-supernatural with his last three novels. He returns to it with an unparalleled potency and power. This one's a classic, boys and girls. Someday you'll be pretending you were perspicacious enough to recognize The Darkest Part of the Woods as such back in '03. Don't lie to posterity. Make it true.

An Addendum: I'm amazed (considering TDPW came out over a year ago in limited hardcover in the UK and has, therefore, already gone through one round of review) that so few others have seen it as the Supreme Art that it is. Then I thought of a few reasons:

  1. This is Ramsey Campbell. Of course it's good and maybe even great. Fulfill our high expectations, sir! Thanks very much. What's next?
  2. Campbell makes the assumption that the reader is intelligent.
  3. This assumption means you may have to actually read and understand most every word of an incredibly unified whole.
  4. This assumption further means that you understand those words and have a respectable appreciation of the English language.
  5. This assumption also means that you can recognize and savor some splendid intricacy.
  6. Amongst the infinite variety on the menu of horror, this is haute cuisine and a lot of folks have a palate dulled by too many Quarter Pounders with Cheese.
-- from Cemetery Dance #48

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