First published back in August of 2017, ‘Forest Underground’ formed the debut novella from US author Lydian Faust.

DLS Synopsis:
The last sharp thing Luna had within arm’s reach was the box-cutter she’d used on her wrists.  Now it was all white padded walls and rounded corners.  Although Luna’s residence at the facility was completely voluntary.  There she was provided with a unique alternative to the state hospital, including lodging and treatment all free of charge.  Of course it wasn’t out the goodness of Doctor Sizemore’s heart that Luna was given such help and care without any cost to her whatsoever.  Luna would be providing the doctor with a truly unique research opportunity.  More than enough to make it worth the doctor’s while.

In the facility there were other patients under Dr Sizemore’s care.  A handful of desperate cases somewhat like Luna.  Those who had put their trust in the doctor to release them from their demons.  But Luna was kept separated from the others.  Isolated because of the delicateness of her case.

From early on Luna’s therapy sessions had exposed something that worried the doctor.  She talked of her grandmother’s cottage, down at the end of the trail in Birnam Wood.  Her grandmother would get Luna to bring food to her in a padlocked basket.  Enough to keep her going.  Enough to keep her alive.

But there was something in these stories that troubled the doctor.  Stories of a grandmother that would devour the infants that were brought to her in the baskets.  Twisted fairy tales of an old hag that would suck the life out of her helpless victims, then cast their lifeless corpses down into the cellar below.

This was why Luna had to be kept separate from the others.  Untainted by their crude forms of madness.  Not that Luna wasn’t mad.  She was certainly unwell, but the doctor saw her lunacy as more intricate.  Complicated.  A puzzle.  A woman who thought herself some sort of fairy tale heroine.  Or beast.  Or perhaps, in some ways, she was both…

DLS Review:
Madness.  It offers up such a magnificent array of possibilities for horror.  After all, with madness gripping the reigns, almost anything can happen.  Indeed, those possessed by a certain degree of delectable lunacy are capable of launching into all sorts of episodes of terrifying unpredictability.  From behind their eyes, the world can become distorted, things can be exaggerated and twisted; all to allow the inflicted to garner some sort of vague understanding out of the world.

This is the pathway which author Lydian Faust delicately treads in her dark little novella.  In essence, the stigma of lunacy is used as a tool for the gradual unpeeling of her tale.  Behind the madness, something far darker is allowed to fester.  And brought out of it all is the question of the evil’s origin.  And ultimately, how real all of what we’re hearing actually is.

Interestingly the novella’s split into two distinct halves – the first being the unveiling of Luna’s fairy tale like story under the gentle probing of Dr Sizemore’s immersive sessions with her.  The second half of the tale takes us back to when the good doctor was a young nine-year-old girl and sent off to an all-girls preparatory school where she’s subjected to some pretty damn horrific bullying.  The final handful or so of pages stitch the two halves of the story together, and bring the tale circling around on itself until the delicately engineered little twist is unveiled in all its grim glory.

There’s a lot of mystery within the story.  A sort of foggish lack of clarity that lingers at the end of every sentence.  You’ll doubt the truthfulness of almost every word, until it’s confirmed by the two officers Faust brings in as a mechanism for providing some much needed stability – a final sort of grounded understanding to it all.  Although, with a cheeky smirk, she does this through the most unlikely of characters – that of the dopey Deputy Dan Smithers who the Doctor appears to wrap around her little finger in seconds.

There seems to be a great deal of symbolism slotted into the tale.  Whispers of a potentially further reaching meaning behind it all.  The nods to classic fairy tales.  The choice of character names (‘Luna’).  There’s always this unspoken suggestion of something connecting it all together.  But what that is, is always kept tantalisingly out of reach.

Despite the mystery there’s also a good shovelful of dark fantasy and bitter horror laid on top of the tale.  It’s not the darkest of horrors, and there’s certainly nothing that lunges for you in the darkness, but the quietly sinister undertone that’s threaded through every aspect of the story does, oh so delicately, slither its way under your skin as the story progresses down its creepy pathway.

There’s a lot to like about the tale.  There’s its rich and varied characters, the unpredictability of where things are going next, the twists and turns and dark pathways it leads us down.  But it’s also not without a few areas that leave the slightest irritating itch upon the reader.  The story, although tight in its delivery, feels just that tad too formulaic.  Its aspects are all split too cleanly.  The different threads in the tale don’t bleed into each other the way you wished they would.  The end result is something that feels just a little too engineered and perhaps overly constructed.  It lacks the natural curiosity that often sees a story venturing off into unknown territories.  Instead of being pulled along by the natural current of the tale, you’re flung one way and then the other, as the direction the story’s taking is carved out before you.

Nevertheless this is still a wonderfully intriguing and ultimately entertaining read.  It’s delivered with a nice, crisp prose that keeps your attention.  There’s plenty of fleshed-out characterisation in those that matter to the story – with the others quickly paling into the background.  But altogether there’s more than enough meat on its bone to for any good fiend of dark speculative fiction to really gnaw away at.

The novella runs for a total of 100 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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