By Laird Hunt
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The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations — witchcraft in colonial America — wrapped up in a lyrical novel of psychological suspense.
“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.” In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.
On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along.
In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, told in a vivid way you will never forget.
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there
I told my man I was off to pick berries and that he should watch our son for I would be gone some good while. So away I went with a basket. I walked and picked and ate and took off my shoes. I left them to sit by themselves and tromped my bare feet in the stream. Along I went straight down the watery road, singing and smiling under the sun. The water was fresh and clear and I went farther away from our home than ever I had before. It was nice in the field on the far bank of the stream so I lay down and warmed my wet legs and tried to think of a song as clear and fresh as the water to sing that evening to my son. There would be sweet fish in my song and young frogs and green fronds to wave the good long length of it. Weakness would not be in my song. There would be no harsh word. My man would sit silently and listen.
A noisy band of blackbirds swept over me as I lay there. I leaped up and thought to recross the stream and find my shoes, but the blackbirds had all landed in the trees in the far woods. They were making such a clamor that I thought they were laughing at my bare feet so I ran to them and banged my basket and scattered them away. Into the woods I went, following the birds at first, then finding berries, riper and redder where the sun could catch them at the edges of the glades. Light came spilling down everywhere, and as I stood in one of its bubbling pools I saw at a distance a little girl dressed all in yellow running through the trees. I thought I heard her laugh too but it may just have been one of the blackbirds laughing as it flew or a pleasing trick of the wind leaping in and out of my ears.
There in the wood my promise to my man and boy to bring home spring berries to eat with cream from our milking cow came to seem not just a promise I had made but one that I could also keep. This was not a dinner of fat, fresh rabbit for me to ruin. This was not a torn shirt for me to forget to mend. This was not a story whose tail I would take off with my carving knife for having thought of a better one. Fresh spring berries in a bowl. What sweeter end to any story? So I went from glade to glade and bush to bush and plucked and ate and filled my basket. After a time of wandering, I came upon one of the first folk filling a leather sack. When he saw me he dropped all his own treasure and shook his head angrily and pointed back the way I had come. He was small and slight and despite the beetling of his brows had a strange, sweet look about him, so I laughed and walked straight over, lifted his sack, and set it smartly in his hands. I told him that there were berries enough for all who wished to harvest them, and when he set his jaw and shook his head and pointed again, I told him he was just being greedy and that greed was a sin and that if he wasn't careful, God would come to punish him. I trotted away but not toward the stream. It was too early. I did not have enough berries yet.
On I went. A woods can be a miracle of light and shadow. A woods can be a place to dream. Long ago, my father once told me, handsome men and women went to the woods to feast and dance. I'll feast now and dance later, with my boy and my man, we'll all dance together as I sing my song, I thought. I popped one fat red berry into my mouth after another. I laughed aloud at the memory of the angry face my fellow gatherer had made at the sight of me.
Presently something pricked my bare foot so I sat to feel at it. Sitting, I realized I was tired. I lay with my feet in the sun and the rest of me in the shade. I pulled my bonnet low. It chafed me so I untied it then I took it off. Two white butterflies flew past. The first of the spring. My man's face then my boy's flashed fast before me. I closed my eyes. I slept.
The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come. I smiled a little but didn't mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run. There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope. This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one. I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind. I shifted my basket from one hand to the other. I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flowers. A gift from my dead mother.
I took a sniff at the air to see what it would tell me. But the smell was bitter somehow and weak and I could make no meaning of it. There came a crackling as of steps a way off in the dusk light and for a moment I thought it was my fellow berry hunter, but it was not him. It was not my husband and it was not the girl in yellow either. It was no one. I hooked my basket on my arm and thought to say a prayer but found it hard to bow my head and press my hands together, so I set first to walking then running again. When I stopped it was because I had caught a root and had fallen, and as I was rising I remembered I should feel at the trunks of the trees to see where the moss grew best. I felt at one tree and then at another. The moss was scattered thick and cool, and even on the third tree it grew hardiest on one side. But then I couldn't bring to my muddled mind in which direction the moss liked to grow. My man had told me. Had told me in case I was ever in the woods and felt lost. It was a great wide new world we had come to after we had left our troubles behind and he had told me were I ever to wander into its shadows, the moss could help me find my way out again.
Now in its shadows I was. With wet moss tufts at my fingertips. Far from all fair guidance. Alone and now it seemed to me I could hear my son crying through the dark. Weeping for his mother lost. And that I could hear myself, somehow, holding him tight in my arms, crying with him, my cry deeper and longer, almost a howl. Off toward this crying I ran. And realized, when I began to catch speed, that the ground was falling away beneath me and though I liked the feeling of racing downward I stopped because I had not, in coming, climbed any hill. My basket was gone now too. There was little moon and the air seemed made of black butter. Some mist was about. I moved slowly through vines that crept across the course of walnut and hickory. Now and again I stopped, trying to hear what I could hear beyond my breathing. There were bats at work. Bigger things too.
In our new-built barn we had had an owl to visit just the past week and it had chased away the many pigeons that had fouled our sheep and goat stall, fouled our cow stall, fouled the soft dirt over which we came and went each day. The owl had stayed in our rafters long enough to see off the doves and pigeons and then it had left again. My son had found the bones of a rabbit beneath its roost, and my man had hung its skull above the door from a piece of purple thread he took from one of my bobbins and said it would keep the pigeons from coming in again. I laughed at him and earned something sharp when I said I didn't think such work was godly, but so far he was right. Often he was right. No new pigeons had come. Now, here, an owl went its swooping way through the trees and something squealed. My legs were heavy when I heard this squealing, long and loud, so I did not run. I thought I saw eyes off in the darkness, eyes open at the very minute of their own ending, but how could this have been, for there was almost no light in the woods, just the smallest sliver of a moon?
Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man with his thread and skulls, and of what was godly and what was not, and more and more of my feet, which were bruised and wet with blood. My man, I thought, would have found my shoes and brought them back to the house with him when he started to wonder at my long absence. Or he might have filled them with spring flowers—snowdrops, asters, and sweet daisies—to welcome me back from my walk. Now the flowers would be drooping. Or my shoes themselves would droop, there in a heap with the others, where my man had dropped them by our front door. Dropped them and set the latch so that when I came home I would have to knock. To beg entrance. Thinking of my shoes taken from the stream and lying now in a heap and the door latched against me, I bit my teeth together, breathed hard through my nose, and clenched my fingers into fists. I hit my fists at the sides of my legs. "Don't be weak," I said to myself. I laughed scornfully for having said it aloud. No need for foolishness so far from home, I thought. A woman came out of the darkness and touched my arm.
At her touch, all my fine, false courage curdled into a kind of sob and my eyes flared wildly and I have wondered since why I did not leap back when she put her hand on me, leap and run. For here in the flesh was what I had feared most, or thought I had, someone else abroad in the woods with me. Someone with a knife, a cudgel. Someone with nails long and sharp. Still, this woman bore neither of these things, that I could see, and her nails were cut down to the quick. She had a dark string tied around her wrist, a leather pouch slung over one shoulder, and a smaller bag of sailcloth hung from her waist. There was a long, thick scar down the side of her right cheek. Smells foul and fair slipped from her but the first thing that sprang from her mouth was a laugh of her own.
"I am Captain Jane," she said. "And not the ghost you look as though you've seen!"
"What are you the captain of?" I said.
"Of all you see, deary."
"I see only shadows, only you."
She laughed again and said I must come with her, that whether she was truly captain of anything or no, she would pilot me to safe harbor where I could drop my sails, set my anchor, and tend my poor feet.
"Why would you help me?" I asked.
"Are you not lost?" she said.
"As lost as I have ever been in this wood of yours."
"It is not my wood, but I will help you through it just as I have helped so many others."
"Have there been many others?"
Captain Jane touched me again, touched my hand this time. "Come," she said. Her fingers were long and warm, and, though she was not so old, they made me think of my grandmother's, who would sometimes watch me when I was at my littlest, long ago. I had not thought of her in some time and I found some cheer in the memory of her and of her soft, long-fingered hand clamped good and snug over mine as we would walk here or there near the house. I did not much hold my son's hand, which was rough and clammy and touched at things it shouldn't, and I wondered if my man did. Perhaps he did. They walked together well and often enough.
Captain Jane did not hold my hand, of course, but I followed her through the dark woods and when my feet, bruised and torn, began to slow me, she took a root from her small bag and bade me chew it, and before even I had chewed through all its bitterness I felt the pain begin to dull and then fade. My tiredness fell away from me too and whether some stronger trace of the moon had come to trouble at the shadow we swam through or it hadn't, it seemed to me that I could see better and farther, that my eyes, always strong, had become lanterns to pierce the dark. When I told Captain Jane this, she smiled over her shoulder and said it was a powerful root, one plucked from deep soils that had never seen the stars. Roots such as these had been sought after by kings to give to their queens but had only rarely been found. She was making a study of the underparts of the earth, where secrets grew.
"Are you an herbalist, then?" I asked.
"I have walked these woods for a fine many number of years now and made a study of such things even before I arrived," she said.
"You gather at night?"
"Only at night."
"You walk with the ghosts, then."
"But am not one myself!"
"How can I be sure?"
"You can't, but if I were a ghost it's not here I would walk, for I come from far away, from a village in a valley that lies the year round in shade."
"Do ghosts get to choose where they walk?"
"Some do, some don't."
"You are well-schooled in ghosts!"
"I am well-schooled in many things, my dear."
"I know something of ghosts."
"Do you, now?"
"Don't we all?"
She stopped short, gazed long and carefully at me, said, "How do I know you're no ghost yourself? A ghost washed up on the shores of these woods to haunt me?"
Her look was sharp and serious. She took a step back as if to better gaze. I started to say that I wasn't a ghost, that I was flesh and blood and firm in my step, that I was not gray at my eye, nor dead at my pulses, but she snorted merrily and wiped her nose and gave me a playful shove at the shoulder to show that she was taking all we said in stride and fun. The root was in my head and I had forgotten my feet entirely and I smiled at my own confusion and gave her a sturdy shove back. I asked her other questions and she answered them, sometimes by nodding, sometimes by winking, and then there was a silence between us and into this silence a wolf howled.
"It chills the blood," I said.
"As it's meant to," she said.
"My man shot a wolf when we still lived by the sea. Which is where I would walk—by the sea, I mean—if I were truly a ghost and could choose."
"Out over the waters, on top of the waves?"
"And down below, where shells grow slow and sailors sing in their graves."
"There is no sea where I am from."
"Where would that be?"
She pointed off into the dark distance, then let her hand drop. Another wolf howled as her hand touched her thigh.
"Has your man killed other wolves since that first one?" she asked.
I shook my head for I did not know. He was often away from us with his gun. Sometimes he came back with good meat, deer butchered on the trail and carried to us in bloody bags. Recently he had brought a brace of pheasants. He loved best to eat the birds of the forest. He said that after he ate pheasant he could fly in his dreams. He gave the prettiest feathers of the birds he shot or snared to our son, who sometimes made me string them in his hair. I have never liked to eat wild birds. Their meat lies too thinly on the bone. My man rarely spoke of his trips abroad. He rarely spoke anymore at all.
"I have a wolf cloak now to wear when it is cold," said Captain Jane. "There is nothing warmer. I have it fresh from its former owner. She will miss it terribly but it is mine now."
"Did a wolf give you that scar on your face?"
"It was not a wolf."
"We ate the wolf my man killed."
"Did you wear it afterward?"
"My husband traded the pelt."
"The meat was fine and fat. I didn't expect it to be."
"I have eaten wolf too. Of course I have. I have eaten so many things."
"It was a hard winter. Even with the town nearby we were down to boiling bones and boiling them again. I was carrying my son still inside me. My son was born, my mother died, and we left to come to this part of the country soon after."
The wolf howled again and another, nearer by, answered it. Captain Jane smiled over her shoulder and laughed, and I saw a light through the trees.
"Here we are, deary. Here we are, you poor dear," she said.
I had thought Captain Jane was leading me to her own house and that I would soon see her wolf-skin cloak hanging on its wall, but she turned as I started forward and began to stride back into the trees. I stopped and called after her but this time she did not turn, said only that I would see her again, that Eliza would care for me now if I would only go and step through her door.
"Eliza?" I said.
"It is a common enough name!" The voice that said this came from the house. It was high and handsome. I turned and saw the front door had opened. A woman stood just inside it. She was lit from behind so I saw only an outline of long, buckled hair. I paused and thought of leaving.
"Don't be afraid, Goody," she said.
"But I am afraid," I said.
"I left to find berries for my man and boy, that's all."
"And what did you find instead?"
I shrugged. I shuddered. The woman beckoned and I went to her. She put a hand on my shoulder and I stepped through her door.
I had wandered in the night for such a time that it took my eyes longer than I liked to adjust to the light of this Eliza's fire and candles and lanterns full of oil. It would be dawn soon and she liked to greet light with light, she told me as she bade me sit at a bench by the fire where a small black pot bubbled and steamed. Just as, she said as she ladled water from the pot into a basin and instructed me to place my feet in it, she liked in the evening to greet dark with dark and, fires for heat and cooking excepted, wouldn't suffer any flame to be lit until a day had gone completely to its grave. The water was more hot than warm and my feet were so badly bruised and cut that I cried out when I put them into the basin.
"That's a pretty cry, Goody," said Eliza. "I cry like this." She gave out a sharp sound that made me think first of a fox then of a hawk. Then she put the backs of her hands against the waist of her skirt and said, "No, I think it must be more like this." This time the sound seemed to come from the back of her throat or the root of her tongue, and it was deeper and louder both, like heavy cloth taken in the teeth and torn.
"Make your cry again, Goody," she said.
But I was tired and shook my head, and she said she understood, that it was only a bit of play, for she was in high spirits to have a visitor and had slept well and not walked away the long night without any shoes as I had. She put a woolen throw over my shoulders and said I should rest and she should be quiet and soon the night would slink away to count its accomplishments and day would come.
"It will come again," she said.
I started to answer then didn't because I realized I didn't know whether she had meant the day or the night, or in truth what she had meant at all.
While I soaked my feet, Eliza chopped then mashed a smart pile of fragrant herbs she had pulled from pegs on the walls. She did not speak or make strange cries any longer, just sang quietly a little, and, as my eyes had grown accustomed to the light, I was able to look around. The front room of her house was large and neater by far than my own front room with its pile of shoes and my man's gun and the toys he had carved for our son. My man often complained about the state of our front room and about the size of the webs the spiders built in its corners and of the size of the spiders themselves. He had often enough made us both kneel in the dust and beg forgiveness for the sin of my sloth, but there would have been no cause for kneeling and begging here. Here everything glistened. Everything gleamed. There were no cracks in the sturdy stone walls, no dust on the well-laid wood-plank floor, no work-worn clothing and soiled rags heaped on the backs of the three chairs. No old food in buckets and bowls. Often I did my cleaning, when I did my cleaning at all, in the night when my man and my boy were asleep and the fire was but a bit of glowing ash and glistening ember. I could work loudly as I liked, for my man's snores filled the house to bursting and there was no one to tell me I had missed a spot and so must beg God's mercy when I hadn't even started sweeping yet. Sometimes I spoke aloud to those snores he made. The answer was always one I liked. "Have you finished with this bit of meat that fell from your beard?" Snore. "Have you brought at last the gold cup and the silver plate you promised I would have when you carried me so far away from my home by the sea?" Snore. More than once I came to stand beside him as he slept and pick crumbs from his beard and stare into his open mouth. He did not like me to do this. He did not like this at all. My son never snored but I stood very close to him in his sleeping sometimes too.
"There!" exclaimed Eliza and I started a little because I had dozed. She was crouched beside me, sprinkling her herbs into the basin with one hand and ladling in fresh hot water with the other. She must have been out in her gardens to work while I dozed, I thought, for there was black at the tips of her fingers and under her nails. I started to tell her that since she kept everything so neat, she could use the water in the basin to wash them, then stopped because I couldn't remember if they had been like that when I arrived.
"Let your sad feet soak a little longer, then I will rub and dress them," she said cheerily. "Perhaps when I do you will cry out again."
A New York Times Book ReviewEditors' Choice
"[Hunt] has fashioned an edge of-the-seat experience more akin to watching a horror movie. Don't go in the cellar! Don't eat that pig meat! Darkness is everywhere. . . . So prepare yourself. This is a perfect book to read when you're safely tucked in your home, your back to the wall, while outside your door the wind rips the leaves from the trees and the woods grow dark."—New York Times Book Review
"Engrossing... a game abundant in mysteries but scant in resolutions. The book's greatest strength is its striking, sensual prose."—The New Yorker
"Like Richard Hughes' In Hazard or Arthur Machen's 'The White People,' Hunt's In the House in the Dark of the Woods tells a dark story brightly, leading the reader to see and sense the things that the protagonist isn't saying, and maybe can't even acknowledge. A wonderful, luminous, sly tale that orbits around a very grim core, growing darker and darker as it goes. A stunning contemporary fairy tale."—Brian Evenson, author of A Collapse of Horses
'"A dark treat of a novel: lush, exciting and gorgeously strange."—Sarah Waters
"I adored this book and found it to be entirely spellbinding and scary and strange... It carries us along in a current of intoxicating dread, bearing witness to one woman's dreamlike journey of the soul."—Mona Awad, author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
"A thrilling, magical tale that straddles two worlds: the harsh, at times grim reality of colonial New England, and the imaginative shadow world from which the oldest fairy tales are woven."—Kathleen Kent, bestselling author of The Heretic's Daughter
"With the surprise of fairy tale and fable but with the complexity of one's favorite literary novel, Laird Hunt again gives us fierce, complex women living in American history."—TaraShea Nesbit, author of The Wives of Los Alamos
"Hunt's accomplished prose creates the atmosphere of possibility and danger that lurks in the best fairy tales, where anything can happen but everything has a cost. Highly recommended for fans of that amorphous border between fantasy, horror, and literary fiction as found in the work of Kelly Link, in Joy Williams' The Changeling (1978), or in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979)."—Booklist, Starred Review
"The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations--witchcraft in colonial America--wrapped up in a lyrical novel of psychological suspense."—BookBub
"It's tough to give a simple description of this book, except to say that it tackles witchcraft in colonial America, providing a mythology that's sure to disturb."—Bookriot
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown and Company