Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain

Title: Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain

Writer: Various edited by John Miller

Publishing House: British Library Publishing

Date of Publication: August 27th 2020

Rating: 5 stars

‘’These are the aspects of our experience of nature that cannot be offset; the history of a place cannot be traded off against the history of another place; you can’t erase the history of one location and just put some more history somewhere else. Weird woods are singular places with very specific energies.’’

Woods. Mysterious, formidable, haunting. Haunted. The forests of Britain signify the land’s history, the legendary past, the folklore, the ghostly, and the supernatural. The unknown. Whether we read about an orchard, a park in a crowded urban area or a dark forest, whether we travel from Scotland to Wales, from London to Yorkshire, the ‘’weird woods’’ of these marvellous stories hide bewilderment and sensuality. They stand for heroic deeds and murderous secrets. And all along the way, we are reminded of Nature’s power and our own insignificant mortality…

The Whisper in the Wood (Anon): A husband disappears in Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor. Twenty years later, his son will experience an uncanny adventure in this most mystical of places.

‘’The church looked at its best and weirdest on that night, for the shadows of the yew trees fell through the windows upon the floor of the nave and touched the pillars with tattered shade. We sat down together without speaking, and watched the solemn beauty of the old church, with some of that awe which inspired its early builders.’’

Man-Size in Marble (Edith Nesbit): 31st of October. An old church, a bierbalk, a young couple, and an old legend. A marvellous, quintessentially British Gothic tale. Outstandingly atmospheric, it made me shiver on a hot June evening. 

The Striding Place (Gertrude Atherton): A dark, enchanting forest and a river in North Yorkshire allure and punish…

 ‘’The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and ‘’little people’’, who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.’’

The Man Who Went Too Far (E.F.Benson): Two friends meet again. Frank seems younger and there is something otherwordly about him. The New Forest hides many secrets and a dreadful one is revealed in this Folk Horror story that makes excellent use of the archetypal figure of Pan…or should I say ‘’Lucifer’’? Lovely summer images walk side-by-side with the grotesque.

An Old Thorn (W.H.Hudson): An ancient hawthorn found close to a village in Wiltshire may just be the evil cousin to the Glastonbury Tree.

The White Lady of Rownam Avenue, Near Stirling (Elliot O’Donnell): A White Lady haunts an avenue of trees in a story set in Scotland.

Ancient Lights (Algernon Blackwood): A story about the consequences we have to face when we think we are able to ‘’adjust’’, or even worse, ‘’improve’’ on Nature. Set in West Sussex.

‘’This is my name- tree,’’ she said. ‘’Do you know the old belief about name- trees? If the tree dies, you die. If you sicken, the tree withers, If you desert it, a curse falls.’’

The Name-Tree (Mary Webb): A beautiful cherry orchard is threatened by the ambition of new -and ruthless- owners. A young woman is ready to sacrifice everything to protect it. Dark sensuality and the need for independence that comes at a terrible price form the essence of my favourite story in this beautiful collection.

The Tree (Walter de la Mare): A story that links colonialism and the repercussions of imperial Britain to Nature and its children.

‘’He Made a Woman’’ (Marjorie Bowen): In another outstanding story, the myths of Wales that are marvellously represented in The Mabinogion still influence the ones who live close to its woodland. The haunting presence of the tragic Blodeuwedd permeates the tale and the result is one of the most memorable stories you’ll ever read.

‘’That which walks in Betton Wood

Knows why it walks or why it cries.’’

A Neighbour’s Landmark (M.R.James): A fragment of a mysterious verse indicates the hair-raising presence of a spirit in Betton Wood. Regardless of the fact that M.R.James chooses to set his story in a fictional location, the power of the haunting and the poignancy of its message (the effects of landownership) create an extremely tense atmosphere.

N (Arthur Machen): I always believed that there are quite a few secrets to be found within the woods of a primarily urban area. This story, set in Stoke Newington, seems to agree with me.

‘’Come with me to Wales. I think you would like me place.’’

Charnock accepted; he knew that Blantyre lived in scenes of complete isolation in a remote valley, among the hills haunted by many a mysterious legend, the setting of some of the oldest tales of Europe, and this disturbed him, for he was very sensitive to the influences of the past; yet for Blantyre’s sake he went.

  It was October; the strangest month in the year, Blantyre always said, culminating in the awful vigil of the last day which has some mystic meaning now lost.’’