REVIEW: The Dark between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

A French literary critic whose name currently escapes me once argued that all genre storytelling resembles a jewel necklace in so far as it can be seen as a series of eye-catching jewels held together by a tiny thread. There are no structural differences between genres; the only things that change are the colour of the jewels.

Under this view, the character of each genre is determined by the appetites to which the various jewels appeal: A work of erotic fiction is a series of sex-scenes strung together to create a story. A work of science-fiction is a series of speculative set-pieces strung together to create a story. A work of horror is a series of terrifying interludes strung together to produce a story. A work of traditional literary fiction is a series of psychological interludes strung together to produce a story.

If we accept this characterisation of genre story-telling, then it makes sense to distinguish between a story’s affective payload and the technical proficiency with which it is delivered. It follows from this that there are two primary failure modes for genre story-telling: Firstly, there are stories that have the wrong affective payload for their designated genre. Secondly, there are stories that are so technically flawed that the audience never gets to connect with whatever it is that the author wants to show us.

While Fiona Barnett’s debut novel The Dark between the Trees is too well-structured to be an example of the latter, I do have serious questions as to the nature of its affective payload. Which jewels are supposed to be catching our eye? The publishers seem unsure as despite its dark cover and a blurb that speaks of witches and sinister forests, the book is not being marketed as horror. Instead, much like Francis Toon’s excellent Pine, The Dark between the Trees is being marketed as something called a Gothic Thriller.

The Dark between the Trees is a story that plays out across two timelines: During the English Civil War, a group of parliamentary soldiers are ambushed and sent running into Moresby Wood. Seventeen men enter the wood and only two make it out alive. They tell their story at a local tribunal and centuries later a group of academics manage to scrape together enough permissions and funding to launch an expedition into the wood in the hope of finding out what happened to the soldiers. Not many of them make it out alive either.

Moresby Wood is a place that is shrouded in myth and legend. According to some, the woods are haunted by a witch. According to others, the woods are home to some sort of hulking supernatural monster. There is also talk of a family who sought shelter into the woods and experienced some traumatic happening but it’s not clear what sent them into the woods, what the traumatic event is supposed to have been, or how the family relate to either the witch or the monster. While all of the various myths seem internally coherent and seem like they might somehow join together to present a historical truth, the more you dig into one set of stories, the more the other stories seem to fade from view. Only one thing is sure: Moresby wood is a dangerous place to be.

As I said in my review of Toon’s Pine, the term ‘gothic thriller’ seems to be a sign that the publishing industry is pivoting towards horror whilst trying to skirt around the kinds of transgressive themes and imagery that often characterise horror fiction and which are likely to put the wind up readers who aggressively refuse to move on from books aimed at children. Toon manages to pull off this tonal balancing act by focusing on the characters, their internal motivations, and their flawed perceptions of the supernatural events to which they are witness. Stressing her characters’ internal worlds allows Toon to talk about feelings rather than dead bodies and to downplay the transgressive subject matter through a process of artful abstraction. This is not the approach taken by Barnett.

The Darkness between the Trees fails as a horror novel because it does not provide the kind of affective payload you would associate with a work of horror: This book is not in the least bit frightening, it contains neither scares nor chills. The book does contain a monster but it’s mostly in the background and when it does eventually turn up, the only thing that Barnett has to say about it is that it’s really tall and has laboured breathing. Sounds a bit like my dad and he’s only somewhat monstrous.

Though the book’s blurb and PR material stress the presence of monsters and witches, most of that type of stuff lurks in the background. This is fine as the same can be said of the haunting in Pine, the problem is that if you are going to shove a load of stuff into the background, you need something to occupy the foreground in its place and that stuff that Burnett places in the foreground of the novel tends to be rather thin and under-whelming.

The book’s primary plot-engine is the mystery of what happened to the soldiers and why these woods are so damned mysterious. I knew I was in trouble when the novel’s first big set-piece involves a bunch of academics going to sleep at the base of an oak tree only to wake up and discover that the oak tree has disappeared. This isn’t a set-up for another idea… it’s a scene that Burnett keeps returning to over and over again throughout the novel. While one could charitably say that the mystery at the heart of The Dark between the Trees is a reference to the Blair Witch Project and the way that the woods seemed to shift and change around the film crew but Burnett’s handling of the mystery is less Folk Horror and more like an episode of Star Trek where the characters work out that they’re stuck in a temporal anomaly that allows different times and places to co-exist. Burnett is so engaged with this idea that there’s a section towards the end of the novel where the entire story seems poised to pivot into out-and-out science fiction but the academics investigating the forest are archaeologists rather than theoretical physicists and pretty much admit that their training in sinking trenches and unearthing pottery shards didn’t exactly equip them to solve this kind of mystery.

This presents us with a problem: Given that The Darkness between the Trees delivers neither the intense psychology of Toon’s Pine, nor the chills of traditional horror, nor the eyeball kicks of science-fiction, what affective payload does it actually aim to deliver? Well… I am not entirely sure.

Despite not being particularly long, The Darkness between the Trees is a very slow-moving story. Burnett initially moves quite quickly: She introduces us to the wood, the characters, and sources of in-group conflict before dragging both time-frames into the wood. Unfortunately, once the story reaches the interior of the woods, the entire thing grinds to a halt and there follows about fifteen chapters of people wandering aimlessly about. At one point someone finds a shed.

Some people might argue that The Darkness between the Trees lacks plot but this is to misunderstand the difference between payload and technique. I can see why The Darkness between the Trees was published in that it has a very strong structure that is almost cinematic in so far as you have these two distinct plotlines that meet up at the novel’s conclusion. There are characters, there are ideas, and there are even gestures towards themes and I can imagine an over-worked junior editor coming across this manuscript, clocking the technically proficient structure, and pushing it up the ladder to a more senior purchasing editor. The Darkness between the Trees is a very slick and professional-seeming debut… it just has nothing to say. There is no affective payload: It’s not exciting, it’s not psychologically intense, it’s not scary, and it’s not full of mind-bending speculation. It doesn’t even function as a fantasy novel as Burnett’s idea about a wood where different times and places co-exist on top of each other makes any kind of coherent world-building or sense of place impossible.

Curious as to what it was that this novel was trying to achieve, I happened upon some of the publicity materials surrounding the book’s launch and I learned that Burnett used to have her own civil war podcast and I thought that maybe the book was supposed to be about history and the differences between modern academics and the subjects of their historical research. The closest this book gets to this kind of historical thinking is right at the end of the book where one of the academics notes that while people from the present can learn about people from the past, people from the past cannot have an opinion about people from their future. Despite being ostensibly false, this is the germ of an interesting idea but it has no presence in the novel other than as a throwaway observation. This also gestures towards another source of frustration, namely the book’s lack of substantial characterisation.

We spend chapter after chapter with these characters and yet they never acquire anything approaching either thematic weight or psychological substance. There is a section towards the end of the book where Burnett tries to convey one academic’s life-long obsession with the wood and how that obsession is linked to grief over the death of her academic mentor as well as bitterness over the fact that she wasn’t offered her mentor’s old job but all of the psychological rawness is buried in the past and is largely untethered from the events of the novel. Much like the witch and the monster that haunt the woods, they are there in the background but they have no real impact on the stuff happening in the foreground of the book. It’s almost as though Burnett had planned out a number of ideas and character beats only to discover that she had no real means of organically folding them into the story and so rather than revealing themselves through events, they tend to tumble out as fragments of dialogue or irruptions of crude authorial fiat in the weft of the story; ‘Oh… by the way… this character is really bitter about being passed over for her old mentor’s job… hope this helps’.

A similar thinness is evident in the book’s handling of the soldiers as despite much being made of the fact that these were parliamentary soldiers who were fighting in the English civil war, there is no mention of politics and the closest we get to religion is when one soldier goes a bit mad. A more experienced writer might have been able to do a lot not only with the cultural differences between the two groups but also with the differences in conflict-resolution styles between the genders as the soldiers are all men and the academics are all women.

The problem for me is not that The Darkness between the Trees failed to be the book I wanted it to be, it’s that it failed to become any book in particular: Rather than deciding to be a work of horror, it shoved the monster stuff and the witch stuff into the background. Rather than deciding to be a psychological novel, it downplayed the character beats and bungled the implementation of the few ideas it had. Rather than being a science-fiction novel about a wood where different times and places are forced together, it refused to do any of the speculative heavy-lifting required to fully implement and explore an idea. At the end of the day, this is a novel that fails to amount to anything because its author ran away from tough decisions. Rather than commit to any one thing, it committed to nothing and resulted in a novel that feels cavernously empty.

I love stories about getting lost in the woods, I love folk horror, I love stories about the differences between people from different historical periods and I even love science-fiction stories about temporal anomalies. There is definitely a place in my heart for a book like The Darkness between the Trees but the book that Burnett has written feels so thin and under-developed that I am genuinely puzzled as to what it was that Burnett was trying to show us.

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