Is there a sound that evokes more visceral dread than the rustle of leaves when you think you’re alone? Our ancestors survived because they heeded this warning and it is now one of our most primal fears – the thing that lurks in the woods, just past where we can see. Given this, the woods are a perfect setting for horror. Four friends from college hike the remove woods of Scandinavia in Adam Nevill’s The Ritual. At first, the tension arises from their strained relationships, having grown apart as they approach middle age. Soon, however, they have much more to worry about, as they discover this ancient forest is more inhabited than they thought, and by a far from benign presence. The Ritual has recently been adapted for Netflix.
One of Nevill’s inspirations for The Ritual is surely the work of Algernon Blackwood. No lesser personage than H.P. Lovecraft called “The Willows” the finest supernatural story and many critics have agreed with him. “The Willows” is about two companions boating on the Danube near the Black Forest. Soon, they come to an area devoid of anything except willow trees – willow trees that seem to have a malevolent force of their own. “The Wendigo” is set in the Canadian wilderness, but similarly features existential dread in a remote winderness. Both of these stories can be found in the collection The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll is a set of graphic short stories set in the woods. By “graphic”, I mean told largely in pictures, but these are not comics. Each story is strikingly drawn against a black background and it is clear from the first page that this is horror – but with a fairy-tale quality to it. Each story confronts some kind of supernatural horror that lives in the woods.
For more obscure, but equally chilling title, look for The Dead Path by Stephen Irwin. Recently widowed Nicholas Close returns to his hometown to grieve, and hopefully escape the nightmare visions he’s started having since his wife’s death. His suburban Australian hometown, however, is not the refuge he hopes. The woods surrounding the town were the site of his best friend’s murder, and another child is murdered shortly after Nicholas returns. This well constructed ghost story builds suspense fast enough to keep your interest, but slowly enough to really let the tension build. You won’t want to turn off the light after reading this book!