There is not one person among us that isn’t aware of the presence of forests in media, fiction, and non-fiction. It is the place where little girls must not leave the path, the place where people go to find themselves, and a place where others go to die. Some of us fear it and some of us wish to disappear into it. It is common in fantasy tales like mine because, let’s be honest, what is a good tale of sword and sorcery without the dark forest at its back? So here I am with this new blog, and I’ve named it after my own creation, a forest where, trust me, nobody wants to go camping and a weekend visit will probably turn into a Monday funeral. It only seems fitting that, since I named the blog Darkwood, to make the theme for this first month forests. All forests. From weekend getaways to spooky and haunted. Maybe it’s the release of The Dragon Rune, a book four years late, that has reawakened my love of haunted forests – not that it ever really goes away – or maybe it is simply that it is the long side of winter and everyone, myself included, is starting to look forward to spring and getting outside without three layers of clothes and boots so heavy that every day is leg day. For myself, spring and summer mean long walks with the huskies in Allerton Park, a place that, despite its smallish size, packs a heck of a hike.
Allerton is one of my favorite places in the world, by the way. I’ll be doing one full post for this place because I owe it a lot. It is the granddaddy of Darkwood, and it is the only place I ever fully panicked and became hysterical – which is a strange little tale itself. This is not the place that spawned my love of forests or my love of weird, but it is the one that cemented it. Allerton is both beautiful and strange, well worth a full post. If you ever find yourself in Midwest Illinois, at a loss for something to do, it costs nothing – though donations are welcome – and it is well worth the trip. Who knows, maybe you’ll even meet up with some crazy lady walking two adorable (read hyper and extremely excitable) huskies. Only approach if you don’t mind 60 pounds of fur jumping up on you.
So what is it with forests? Why is it that we feel like getting out into a forest will help us find ourselves? Why do so many fantasy novels and stories take place there? Everything from Into the Woods to The Forest says that these are places where you go to find magic. Or fear. In old fairytales, the forest often represents the world, dark and unknowable. Little Red Riding Hood is told to keep to the path and, when she fails to listen, disaster is the result. This cautionary tale was basically meant to illustrate not just the dangers of leaving the well-travelled path, but those of talking to strangers or not listening to your elders. In this story, as most fairytales, the forest is never just a bunch of trees.
Spooky woods, enchanted forests, overgrown jungles, and unexplored wilderness, I bet that, if you thought about it, you’d realize you’ve followed more heroes into the woods than you knew. Snow White hides from the evil queen and meets seven dwarves there and Red Riding Hood went off talking to wolves and forgot about the path. It’s where fairies live and Tolkien’s elves kept the best ones for themselves. Every single cabin in the woods is the stomping grounds for monsters and camp is either a never-ending party of hiking and macramé or the preferred site for blood soaked slaughter. Beast’s castle was hidden in one, both unicorns and overgrown spiders prefer them, and werewolves stalk the shadows beneath the trees. Winnie the Pooh lived there, as did the three bears, proving that thieves don’t always stay in cities and bears love honey. And porridge. Tarzan’s jungle was a place we all wanted to go swing on a few vines and I certainly spent a good deal of time wishing I was lost in the wilderness with a tree house of my own.
There are hundreds of forests in our childhoods, some of them haunted and some of them places that we wish we could have found at the backs of all our closets. Any way you cut it, though, the forest is a huge backdrop that runs through more movies and books than you probably realize, casting a shadow of atmosphere that is, like it or not, rooted right down into our subconscious minds. I’ve always thought of my writing as me tripping through the woods looking for castles and werewolves and I suppose the inner imagery was born in my initial love of both fairytales and Disney (don’t you judge me).
It isn’t just fiction, though. People are always daydreaming about going off into the woods for camping, and the idea has a sense about it that is nearly as religious and enchanting as the Buddha meditating for three days to gain enlightenment. This is how you find yourself. This is how you discover who you are and how you prove you are tough and capable. Driving out into the woods, putting up a tent, gathering firewood, roasting marshmallows, and telling spooky stories are all things that have gained near mythical prominence among human kind, especially in America. And we all know somebody who loves the idea of vanishing into the woods – I am that person.
People love to plan camping trips and it creates stories that they can tell for the rest of their lives. Being out in the woods in the dark is spooky, sometimes, sure. Who hasn’t seen those stories at Halloween about strange noises or sites in the wilderness? I’ve got a few of my own and even though the weirdness was explainable in all but a few, that didn’t stop it from being darn spooky at the time. Does that mean we stay away? No. In fact, the chance of getting scared silly seems to draw more of us in. As humans, we fear being lost, a holdover from a more primitive era when being lost meant all sorts of horrible things could happen.
Never mind supernatural enemies or wandering hook men, there are plenty of realistic things to be afraid of when you’re lost, like dying of hunger or thirst, falling and breaking a leg, hungry animals, and poisonous snakes or insects. Yet we keep returning to the forest and nature because we long for the new and exciting or because it is peaceful, a place where we can contemplate our lives and cleanse our souls of the endless cacophony of technological noise, day to day problems, and the strain of being part of the crowd. Of course, most of us also secretly want to believe there are places in our world still unexplored and possibly harboring everything from an undiscovered species of human to mystical temples of doom where magic – and wishes – could be real.
And what better place for a haunting or ancient secrets than out in the dark, where there are no lights or friendly signs to point ‘this way to the food court’?
Yes, we are instinctively afraid of the dark. But we are also naturally drawn to it and where better to find it than out in the woods? Personally, I have this deep attraction to the sort of forests where weird is the daily drill, but that is because I gravitate toward the dark and creepy and my favorite forests reflect that. In Japan, there is the Aokigahara or Sea of Trees, which is known as the suicide forest. In Romania, there is The Hoia-Baciu Forest, which has so much unexplained and frightening activity that the locals refuse to enter it. Josh Gates has been to both and any ghost hunting show worth a second season eventually finds itself wandering around someplace similar asking ‘is there anybody here who would like to talk to us’.
I’ve used reflections of those forests in my own stories, first for my fantasy forest, which is pretty much my favorite creation, ever, and the namesake for this site. Then I wrote another version for Bone Deep, the sequel to Getting Thin (due for release very soon, I promise). Sometimes, the ideas behind these two stories – fear, shadows, hidden evil, getting lost, death – seem best embodied by the forests themselves or the things that can only live in a dark forest.
For me, Darkwood began as a mad forest. It is dangerous, a place where the rules change constantly and the path might seem nice and straight but, without any warning at all, might vanish and leave you lost, alone, and scared out of your mind in the dark. I wanted to create an enchanted wood, but not a nice one because, well, rainbows and unicorns aren’t really my style. I did give the elves of Inìsfail a very nice enchanted wood. I just didn’t want to live there myself and, for the first book, at least, I pretty much had to live in the forest. The whole point of Darkwood was to give this sense of mystery and darkness, that not everything is wonderful and perfect in this place. It is presented as almost evil, but only in the way of a grouchy old man with a gun who shoots trespassers. Stay away from the forest, don’t upset her, and you’re fine. Go digging up her trees or dancing around being annoyingly cute and you probably won’t be coming out. Snow White would not have lasted long, but only because I wanted a very different sort of main character. I wanted to create a heroine that wasn’t in need of rescuing, someone who grew up in a dangerous place and, while naïve, was also tough enough to learn to adapt. And Darkwood was born.
My forest is something that will kill those who break its peace, no matter who they are and while I am not into symbols or trying to hide the idea of a crazy, dangerous world behind the mask of wilderness, I suppose Darkwood does sort of represent the reality of Inìsfail. It is an evil that is sleeping. Not gone. The darkness that once held sway in this place is still there, just beneath the surface. When I’ve finished the series, I’ll be glad to talk about why Darkwood had to be the way it is, why it was important to Shea and who she is, and why it was never a symbol for anything but itself, but that has to wait; I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for my readers 😉 Anyway, anyone who gets to the last book will already know.
What I’d really like to get into over the next few weeks is the tapestry of forests that hangs in our background as a species and as individuals and why the idea of running out into the wilderness lingers on, possibly even more desirable now that our world has grown so small. I’ll be writing about a few famous haunted forests and a few not quite so famous forests I, personally, have been in. We’ll talk about the prevalence of the wicked wood in fairytales, and maybe even find a few new places to camp. If you’re brave enough. Also, I’ll be posting one or two of my own short fictions. I’d love to hear from everyone else, of course. What’s your favorite forest and why? Have you ever been lost in one? Ever had a creepy experience in one or gone out soul searching? Personal stories are always welcome here, please feel free to share 😉
Category: Dragons, Ghosts, and HeroesTags: Aokigahara, Author, Books, Camping, Elves, Fairies, fairytales, Fantasy, Fiction, Forest, Ghost, Haunted, Hoia-Baciu Forest, Horror, Japan, Lost, Magic, Mystery, Nature, Romania, Scary, Sorcery, Spirits, Spooky, Suicide Forest, Supernatural, Trees, wilderness, Witches, woods, Writer