The Dark Forest by Austin Cunningham

The Dark Forest by Austin CunninghamWith several stories-within-stories and a slow accumulation of hints at a lurking threat, this short story reminded me of the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood.

The story opens with John and his wife, Amanda, hiking through the forest. While their exact past is not mentioned it seems their marriage is in difficulties. They meet Tom, who tells them he used to be a park ranger. As the story unfolds John becomes certain Tom is not what he seems, but Amanda dismisses his opinions as reactions to the past. In parallel with his rising concern, John starts to believe the forest itself is dangerous.

Apart from the use of an omniscient narrator in the short tales each character tells, the story is told entirely from the perspective of John. This limits the reader’s access to evidence of events, successfully preventing the reader from making a calm assessment of John’s fears and sanity. It also gives a feeling of claustrophobia, which the use of a three person cast enhances.

Despite the obviously biased narrator, each of the characters is well enough realised that they not only seem real but also display behaviours that can be interpreted differently from John’s gloss.

The balance of the work is also well handled. Both the main story and the stories each character tells intertwine at a good pace without loosing their distinctiveness.

However, there was one area that did not work for me at all: much of the narration of events in the present occurs in the conditional perfect. For example:

And he leaned back and followed her gaze, as he would lay eyes upon the old and withered trees which surrounded the immediate vicinity.   And he would note that many limbs were barren, and the ancient bark appeared gnarled and discolored in comparison to the state of the season, and he would glance down and see a small emergence of a map placard which was riddled with injury and graffiti, and so he would shake his head and think back to his youth, when the forest seemed so much more alive, so much more exciting and real. – page 5, Kindle Edition

While this did create a feeling of uncertainty, it was uncertainty about what the author meant rather than whether John’s experiences were real.

Overall I enjoyed this story; however the almost ubiquitous use of a future tense made it harder going than it could have been. I would recommend it to people who like horror fiction from the 1920s.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

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