First published back in June of 2019, ‘The Woods’ formed the sixth anthology in the Hersham Horror Books ‘PentAnth’ series, offering up five more chilling tales, here with their roots in dark terrors that lurk in the woods.  The anthology was edited by British author Phil Sloman, who also provides the final tale in the collection.

Foreword – Phil Sloman – 3 Pages
Editor and contributor, Phil Sloman introduces the book with a short foreword telling of his unease around woodlands, reaching back from childhood fears to the caution he still exhibits around them.  From here, Sloman continues with the history of Peter Mark May’s PentAnth series, and the highly revered authors who have contributed to the books.  Sloman closes the foreword with an author-by-author overview of the contributors in this current anthology, showing nothing short of gentlemanly admiration for each.

The Iron Curve Of Thorns – Cate Gardner – 24 Pages
Their home sat at the edge of the woods.  The woods which had such a dominant role in their lives.  The woods where Beth’s goody two-shoes brother, Sam, had gone missing.  The woods in which her Mother had gone into, and never come back from.  However, it was the arrival of the battleship in the woods which, as odd as is sounds, started to make sense of it all.  Obviously, it’s not every day a battleship moors up in the tangle and thicket of the neighbouring woodland.  However, for Beth it started to pull the pieces together. The memories she’d cast aside.  How she’d retracted herself from her actions.  Taken no responsibility for the repercussions.  All it took was a vast sea vessel landing in the woods, the woods which had taken so much from her, for Beth to finally understand that her anger had consequences…

British horror author Cate Gardner has a very particular style to her writing.  Often strange and surreal.  Here the story is fabricated through the stacking together a series of fragments of time.  A sort of jigsaw of absurd oddities.  When the pieces of this jigsaw are placed beside each other, although there’s not a tight fit, they do start to form a picture which makes some sort of sense.  It’s far from lucid, but rather a fuzzy sketch that draws more upon the emotional turmoil of the characters than it does any tangible footing in reality.  I appreciate that all sounds a bit vague.  However, that’s kind of the best way to describe the nuts and bolts of the story.  It’s told with a picture book of visual representations and happenings, which ultimately feed into the world of one girl – Beth.  She’s at the heart of the story.  How she interprets the actions of those around her, the supposed injustices she regularly bears the brunt of, is what lays the path for the entire tale.  A story that’s delivered through sporadic snippets from her life, which the narrative haphazardly jumps to and fro between.  The beauty of the tale though, is in the subtle rhythm that starts to emerge from all of this.  A merging of strange events from the past, which gradually start to paint a picture.  It’s as haunting as it is beautiful.  A heart-wrenching exploration of a troubled mind delivered with mind-boggling imagery.  The sheer creativity in the story is nothing short of exquisite.

A Short Walk Round The Woods – James Everington – 24 Pages
He’d moved to the small village to forget about what happened.  The new house was meant to be a fresh start.  However, when he moved in, he found he couldn’t bring himself to start unpacking.  The boxes contained too many memories.  So, he headed out to explore the village and grab something to eat from the first place he came across.  It happened to be ‘The Chestnut’.  A small, rustic public house located at the edge of the woods.  It was here where he first met Alan.  An unkept and ageing regular who would time himself walking around the perimeter of the woods each day.  He claimed it took longer to walk round each time, not because he was getting older, but rather, the woods were getting bigger.  Expanding at such a rate it took noticeably longer to walk each time.  Then after walking the perimeter he would appear from out of the woods and take his usual place at ‘The Chestnut’.  He was a man who appeared to be wracked with grief from the death of his wife.  A man who refused to move past the loss.  Instead getting swallowed up with the ritual of walking the woods.  A man whose troubles were all too familiar for the village’s newcomer…

British author James Everington is next up with his strangely inquisitive story of a woodland that appears to be expanding at a rapid rate each day.  It’s the sort of story which relies heavily upon the atmosphere and quaint rural backdrop which he so painstakingly establishes.  The story’s little more than two characters and their interactions together.  Well, and a landlord who mutters the odd acknowledgement every now and again.  However, where the body of the story lies is with the purposefully understated connection these two men have with each other.  A quietly whispered suggestion of an overlap, a merging and an echo of grief.  Along with this the tale is awash with an overbearing sense of loss and pain, which feels to be woven into the very DNA of every element within the story.  A sense of past regret which can’t be shaken off underpinning every word spoken between the two.  Of course the surreal suggestion of the expanding woodland provides a wafer thin slice of something edging towards supernatural.  However, the sense of dread these woods begin to create is never developed much further than a vague suggestion.  Instead the tale focuses upon these two characters and the merging of their lives.  It’s a strangely hypnotic read.  One which carries you along with the intriguing suggestion that something will eventually make sense of it all.  And ultimately that’s where the story takes us.  To a lifetime of loss and self-pity that’s smothered everything.

Compass Wood – Mark West – 20 Pages
Jason Paterson had never liked driving along the Compass Wood road.  It was too winding and dark, but it was a shortcut to get from his parents’ house back into Gaffney, so a necessary evil to cut the journey time down.  It was late at night when he’d been driving back from his parents’, after stopping off on his way home from the hospital.  He’s popped in to show them the pictures of newborn Baby Peterson.  Tired, he just wanted to get home.  Which was why his mind was on other things when the man came out of nowhere, waving his arms like a lunatic.  Jason managed to avoid him and keep driving.  However, as he approached the empty car that was parked in the layby further down the road, guilt got the better of him.  What if the man was in trouble and was trying to flag him down?  That area was a notorious blackspot for mobile phone coverage.  However, as he pulled in to find out what had happened, his rear tyre suddenly burst.  It appeared someone had scattered broken glass across the roadway.  However, it was when the nervous female voice from the darkened woodland called out to him that Jason realised there was more to this than mere car problems.  Something was wrong about this situation.  Suddenly Jason realised, his life was in danger…

Oh yes my horror loving fiends, this is some proper old school woodland horror.  British author Mark West pulls a textbook scary as shit slasher horror out of the bag, pulling together all the right ingredients to deliver a high-calibre nerve-wracking slasher.  We’re talking a thick woodland that’s almost an impenetrable mass of black in the gloomy night.  A crazed lunatic who’s set a trap for passers-by.  A lonesome young female, pleading for help.  It’s got the frigging lot.  What’s more, West delivers this heart-pounding tale in a fast-paced Richard Laymon-esque style.  Zero padding.  You’re just flung straight into the lion’s jaws!  Literally within a few pages we’re racing through the undergrowth of the pitch-black woods, with a knife-wielding maniac hot on our heels.  This is pure adrenaline-pumping, blood chilling stuff.  An eighties slasher, without a hint of cheese.  Just mounting horror that gets you clawing at the pages until that tense, inevitable heart-stopping moment when there’s no other choice.  It’s fight or flight time.  A magnificent piece of old school slasher horror that’s penned to perfection.

Dendrochronology – Penny Jones – 14 Pages
Like the rings in a tree, you could see the years of hurt etched across her body, from the many rings that scarred her flesh.  Her life had not been easy.  From a young age she’d been abused by her father.  After she confessed this to her mother, it split the family apart, ultimately leading to her mother’s breakdown.  After that she was placed into foster care, where she was bullied by her new foster brother.  It’s at this point she learnt the release that could be found in cutting herself.  But no matter how much self-harm she inflicted, it never rid her of the worst of her hurt.  So, the next step seemed natural.  Another two rings to her collection, only these were meant to be the last.  The end to a life of rings.  Each one a document of the hurt, the pain, and the unending hardship she’d endured…

For her story, British author Penny Jones utilises the first-person-perspective of an unnamed, and wholly undescribed character, who’s been locked away in a mental asylum, after multiple attempts at suicide and continued self-harming.  I should point out that the author, probably quite purposefully, gave absolutely no indication of the narrator’s sex anywhere in the tale.  However, I personally read the story picturing the narrator as a young girl (and then young woman), so as to try to give the character an identity and establish a connection with them.  That’s why the above synopsis refers to the narrator as a female.

Anyway, as you can probably tell for the synopsis, this isn’t exactly a tale brimming with laughter and rainbow-filled skies of happiness.  This is one emotionally heavy and painfully sad story.  Indeed, through a lot of the short tale, it feels like you’re being smothered by a blanket of hopeless misery, as you watch helpless as this poor child endures so much hardship and suffering in their young life.  The story flicks back and forth between memories of the poor child’s traumatic childhood, and the ‘now’, when she’s locked away in a mental hospital.  These adult years are still hard to swallow, but probably due to her being an adult at this stage, marginally less so than the earlier years of her life.  In fact, it starts to feel almost akin to a ‘One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1962) revisited in these aprts, only far, far bleaker.  Aside from the aforementioned (albeit initial) disconnection from the narrator, the tale is otherwise a damn good one.  The impact of the abuse is obviously lessened by the thin connection you’re able to establish with the non-descript victim.  Nevertheless, if you’re able to get past this, then the tale certainly has more than its fair share of strong, emotionally evocative merits to it.

The Teddy Bears’ Picnic – Phil Sloman – 14 Pages
Amelia Fitzgerald loved to play out back with her toys.  She’d put them in her mother’s old toy pram and push it out to their back garden.  The weather was hot, so she was wearing her favourite cotton dress.  The one with all the birds flying on it.  She loved to watch the birds, soaring effortlessly up high in the sky.  She’d even climb the trellis along the side of the house so she could get up on the roof.  Up high where she could see the birds so clearly.  She so wanted to join them.  Hungered to be up there soaring in the sky.  Of course, when her Father saw her up on the roof, he called her down straight away.  He’d only ever pay attention to her when he wanted her to stop doing something.  That put an end to her ideas of flying.  Which is a shame.  Because she could tell her friends really wanted to see her fly.  Mr Hoppity, Mr Teddy, Tiny Ted, Sue and Sebastien, and even Humpty Dumpty.  All her closest friends.  They all wanted to see her fly so very much…

Ending the collection, we have British author Phil Sloman’s enchantingly sinister tale of a young girl and her delightfully active imagination.  The story reads like a heart-warming tale of a carefree young girl who’s simply enjoying playing outdoors with her cuddly toys.  However, ever-so-slowly the first unnerving tendrils begin to quietly slither into the story.  There’s no big song and dance about the arrival of these worrying elements.  You see, the story’s told from Amelia’s happy-go-lucky perspective.  Everything is seen through her eyes.  Her cuddly toy friends actively joining in the games.  Their assistance with the ‘offerings’ to the woods (akin to ‘The Wasp Factory’ (1984) in many ways).  And in particular, her toys’ eagerness to see her fly.  It’s undoubtedly through this childlike vision of the world, her heart-wrenching naivety and utter innocence, which makes the reality of the situation that much more terrifying.  But then when you add in those snippets your given of her family life.  Her troubled upbringing.  It sets off alarm bells.  Raises further, more disturbing questions in your head.  This is the genius of Sloman’s suggestive horror.  It sets off a maelstrom of troubling thoughts.  A domino effect of worries which escalates towards an utterly, gut-wrenching, heart-in-mouth conclusion.  Magnificently written and hauntingly ominous.

DLS Summary:
The anthology is one that delivers an eclectic mix of woodland set and inspired horror stories.  To be honest, on the whole, I found it to be a bit of a curate’s egg.  The unravelling mystery of Cate Gardener and James Everington’s stories, whilst intriguing, seemed to skim the jawline with the final punch.  That said, the creativity and atmosphere exhibited in both tales is phenomenal.  Mark West’s story was superb.  It’s unashamedly down-to-earth with its goal – that of a proper old school slasher.  The pages fly by as the mounting horror drags you along in an adrenaline-pumping flurry.  It’s just a great tale that’s pure entertainment from start to finish.  Following that you have Penny’s offering, brimming over with heart-wrenching pain and sorrow.  There seems to be an abundance of honesty festering in the blood of this tale which really chills the blood.  However, it feels let down by the (probably purposeful) vague identity of the narrator – the poor victim in the story – which lessened the impact of the tale’s delivery.  Then you had Sloman’s offering.  A magnificently executed piece of ominous horror that’s as enchanting as it is utterly heart-wrenching.

Altogether though, this is still one hell of a good anthology.

The anthology runs for a total of 110 Pages.

© DLS Reviews



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