The Woods Are Dark

January 28, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

woodsThe Woods Are Dark by Richard Laymon

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The Woods Are Dark has a checkered history. As the story goes, this novel was to be Laymon’s big break into the world of horror, but the publisher requested rewrites and cuts, which, along with a copy-editing process that messed up a lot of the grammar, doomed the book — and Laymon himself — to obscurity. The novel has since been restored to its original version, but a lot of the blame for Laymon’s lack of recognition in the US is placed on this book’s original publisher. As his daughter tells us in the foreword, the changes the publisher requested made the book unreadable.

I’ve read this book before, though it was several years ago, and I don’t remember much about it. I read it before the novel was restored, so I couldn’t say how the two books differ, but if this is the original version of the story as it was submitted to the publisher, I’d say that part of the blame belongs to Laymon, too. This novel is terrible.

The story is about a community of cannibals, living in the woods and feasting on the victims that the residents of a nearby town supply to them. Visitors to the town become the victims, and Laymon gives us six people who become the potential victims — two friends on a hiking trip, and a family of three, plus one boyfriend. It doesn’t take long for them to wind up in the hands of the townspeople and then the cannibals, which I think harms the story. Laymon seemed so eager to get to the action that he forgot to create characters to support his story. And for a story about survival, those characters are pretty important.

Like those in The Cellar, the characters in this book are defined by a single trait, making them shallow. They’re nothing but cardboard standouts to support the shock of the story, which results in a book that lacks any attachment with the reader. The victims all seem like good people, but it’s hard to care about them when we don’t know enough about them. It’s like we’re expected to empathize with them simply because they’re friends, or family, or lovers, but that’s it. Laymon attempts to give some depth to the father character by having him descend into madness while quoting Shakespeare, but it wasn’t believable. There’s no real development of any of them to make them stand out above the story.

Laymon also tries to create some complexity with one character who shows regret at taking the victims to the cannibals, even having him apologize to them as they leave them to their fate, but then we find out the only reason he has second thoughts is because he finds one of the women so attractive. He fantasizes about what kind of life they could lead, and then goes back to save her. He’s not willing to help her friend or the other family that’s been left there, and the only reason he does is because the woman he came to save insists upon it. So he’s not a complex character at all; he’s just a guy who thinks he can impress a woman he left to die by saving her. That’s not as bad as the woman he saves, though, as she falls in love with the guy within the span of one night, even after he admits all that to her.

Other reviews of Laymon’s work talk about how obsessed his characters are with sex, and I can see what they mean. It’s really all these folks think about, even as they’re being chased by cannibals. In the opening pages, one character hopes to find a mountain man to satisfy her on her camping trip, wishing the same for her friend. A chapter or so later, a father can’t stop thinking about his daughter having sex with her boyfriend, and then later has the gall to refer to her as oversexed. Later, as they’re being chased by the cannibals, one woman stops and suddenly becomes acutely aware of her stiff nipples. Later still, one of the men, after stripping down in order to blend in with the cannibals, comes across two of the cannibal women in a stream having a quickie, so of course he gets an erection and starts thinking about killing one of them and raping the other. Keep in mind that this is one of our protagonists, who has just raced off into the dark woods to save his wife, leaving his daughter and the other victims behind.

Laymon’s narrative is odd, too, as he throws in several asides that have nothing to do with the story. There’s a page or two that talks about the father, now naked, running through the woods and having to adjust to running so that his genitalia don’t slap against his legs. This same guy, when he finds himself in a group of the cannibals, starts to urinate. Laymon doesn’t clarify why he does this, either. It just happens, and Laymon tells us about it in a casual style, as if to say, “Of course he started urinating; why wouldn’t he?” We don’t know if it’s out of fear, for marking territory, or to blend in. It’s just there, standing out like … well, like a naked man urinating in the woods.

There’s also the casual racism of a remark like “Rotsa ruck” just tossed into a conversation. Again, there’s no context for the remark, nor any real point. Why Laymon didn’t just go with “Good luck” is beyond me, though this book was originally written in 1980. Times were different then? I guess?

I don’t expect a lot of horror from the 1980s to be great, but I do expect people with reputations like Laymon to show some indication of why they’re so well-regarded. Jack Ketchum told a similar story with Off Season, which I also disliked, but at least Ketchum’s style made his story stand out above the dreck of a lot of horror from that time. The Woods Are Dark reminds me why casual readers consider horror to be juvenile. That this book is somehow considered to be one of Laymon’s finest works concerns me.

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