The Dark Between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

As someone raised on Swallows and Amazons and Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, I’ve always known – even if it is a myth – that you can orientate yourself when walking in the woods because the mossier side of a tree will be facing North.

This idea was just a tiny niggle in my mind when reading The Dark Between the Trees because so much of the plot is contingent upon people trying – and failing – to walk in a particular direction. I’d be perfectly fine with moss grows on the North side of trees turning out to be a myth and a useless piece of lore for finding your way when lost; I just wish someone had at least mentioned it.

This all sounds as if I’m ready to lay into this gothic folk-horror novel, but that’s not true. I’m just the kind of person who gets snagged on a detail like that. There is so much failing to find a direction in this book: a compass that doesn’t work as it should; a lack of mobile phone signal; a GPS unit that doesn’t, and so on. So there could have been a former Girl Scout or an army scout who mentioned the moss thing, but there isn’t.

And if I seem to be going on about it a bit too much, that’s only because I’m writing my own version of this story as I read it, because it is both Right Up My Street and something I wish I was good enough to write. Barnett’s style is refreshingly clear and straightforward, transparent enough to take you straight into the narrative without getting lost in the weeds. And for this reader who loves plot above anything, it just takes you straight there.

Two groups of people, two time periods. One group, all male, English Civil War era soldiers; the other, all female, academics, researchers, cartographers. One group desperately fleeing an ambush and never seen again, the other seeking answers with metal detectors, maps, GPS, and mobiles. Then there are the woods, which have a reputation for supernatural wrongness, which have been fenced off and unexplored for decades – centuries.

Chapters alternate between the bickering soldiers and the bickering women as the woods seem to pull all kinds of tricks on them. Is there something scary in the woods?

Your mileage may differ, but while I really enjoyed reading this, I didn’t quite get to the body chills stage of horror, as I did with Pine by Francine Toon, but I don’t very often get to that state anyway. I guessed what was going on quite early, but that didn’t spoil things, and I enjoyed the ride. Wish I’d written it.

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