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The Butcher of the Forest cover

What is a monster, and what is it for? In The Butcher of the Forest, Premee Mohamed almost holds her monsters in abeyance, crafting the kind of atmosphere and dread that cue us to expect—at any moment!—the arrival of a horror that will rend an unsuspecting innocent in two. But she never quite lets that happen. Indeed, the novella’s central quest into a darkly magical wood proves so without a cathartic moment of monstrous violence that when something bad—something awful—does happen, the reader experiences it as far more shocking than any jump-scare.

The story begins with Veris—a woman whose name evokes truth—being summoned to the hall of her ruler. Fear is her instant reaction: “Her fingers tightened on the windowsill till it creaked under her grip. Still he has this power over us. And it has not waned one whit since the day he came” (p. 11). The ruler is a conqueror, a man famed for the violence of his vengeance. He has rendered the valley of which he is now overlord a frightened place, mean and also meek. The guards who come taciturnly at night to take Veris away are dressed, of course, in all the paraphernalia of the coercive state: gleaming, impenetrable armour, gauntlets, a dark carriage. In all this metal, Veris sees the starlight reflected “so that [the guards] formed, more or less, attitudes rather than men” (p. 8). The ruler of this land has taken the agency from its people. Veris leaves with the guards immediately.

Mohamed has spoken of how this novella came to her in a dream, its central image the audience Veris now has with her ruler. It remains the central moment of the tale. That it comes so early in the telling does prove something of a problem structurally, but we can come to that later. For now, the reader stands with Veris before the conqueror, “the Tyrant, the man with a thousand names and a thousand cities under his bootheel” (p. 12).

The Tyrant is described at length and vividly, and Mohamed is able to encourage the reader to feel some of the dread that Veris feels. His eyes freeze Veris “in terror the way a ghost story will” (p. 13). She knows all too well the ruthlessness of this man, how in newly invaded lands he might merely confiscate his defeated opponents’ weapons—or instead kill everyone to be found and resettle the whole area with his own veterans. “You did not know which was which until the steel-shod … army showed up at your door” (p. 23). Unpredictability is part and parcel, of course, of the monster’s effect.

But the monster is not omnipotent. In this land he has conquered, there is a single space where his wrath cannot reach: the wood in its northernmost region, where everyone knows never to go. Encouraged by their father’s veneer of invulnerability, however, the Tyrant’s children have entered the forest—and even he will not follow to save them. Veris has been summoned because she is both expendable and experienced: everyone knows that her own child entered the forest … and that, uniquely among all the children ever lost within its bounds, hers came back. Because Veris went in and found her.

In other words, in this audience with the monster she has dreaded, Veris holds more power than he. There is something cold and hard within her that more than matches the spikes and talons he wears so ostentatiously. He will not enter the woods; she will, despite her “memory … of snouts drooling and painting in the darkness, of fangs and claws, things that moved in silence even on those loud, dry leaves” (p. 28). Indeed, her reputation is such that she reflects that “he must have been expecting some strapping adventurer” (p. 33). This push and pull between them—and between different types of power, and between their sources—comes to define the novella, which in its short course upends the initial dynamic derived from Mohamed’s dream: the supplicant before the throne of skulls becomes the warrior who offers its only hope.

Nevertheless, power the monster still has: the coercive force of his state means that Veris has no choice but to enter the forest immediately, in a probably fatal attempt to save the children within a twenty-four hour window that exists before its magic takes them forever. We read that “[e]verything in [Veris] screamed at her to run” (p. 41) … but she cannot. The monster, after all, is at her back.

What is so interesting about The Butcher of the Forest is that, compared with that throne room, the woods and its denizens seem so … manageable. “For the world of those others was … adjacent to the real one” (p. 31); entering it involved “no fanfare, no thunder, no shower of magical light” (p. 36). In other words, “nothing seemed very terrifying, but that was an illusion” (p. 50). It would be very easy to suggest that the forest does not live up to the opening audience with the Tyrant: certainly that scene is so vividly conjured that the reader makes their way through the novella anticipating the inevitable rematch when (and it must surely be when) Veris returns with the children. The novella is undoubtedly book-ended heavily: the Tyrant has … well, he has dark charisma, as tyrants tend to do. But the forest’s far quieter terror is also plainly deliberate: it, too, is monstrous … but how so?

As Veris proceeds through the forest, she begins to catch glimpses—only ever glimpses—of its inhabitants. “Smaller than her, skinny, dark-haired, like a cross between a man and a hare and a deer, antlers bone-white out of a wood-brown body, wearing only a loose cloak of leaves woven into some kind of net” (p. 45). In other words, she is led through this portaled world by a sort of mirror-universe Mr Tumnus. She picks through a field of zombie deer and bears, “horrifying hulks of exposed muscle and gut” (p. 51); she finds a house in a clearing that is only “imitating, with poor accuracy, a human house” (p. 59); and she must confront a keeper of the children which is “very tall, and in the darkness she could not see … its hands … [or] face either, only the eight small bright lights that shone in it” (p. 62). All of this is very eerie, very uneasy, very off-putting; but the threats are always somehow delayed, dwarfed in their impacts by the uncanniness of their presence. No one is killed by a monster. They are barely touched.

And here we return to the novella’s curious structure: it begins with its most considered scene, its most fully imagined setting; its exploration of the forest is attenuated and withheld; and its quest is complete by its halfway point—that is, the children are found, and they are released from the forest’s magic. Throughout her search for them, Veris has to remind herself that the children do not share the sins of their father, that “there was no taint of blood” (p. 19) and that life “is not as simple as black and white” (p. 42)—that “their father was the monster, his armies were the monsters … They must all get out of the woods and take their chances on later massacres” (p. 65). That is, for half of this novella, Veris and her charges are not really escaping the forest. They are fleeing both from and towards monsters, just ones of different stripes.

At one point, they crash through trees to escape the frustrated creature that had wished to claim the children once that ritual day had passed. “They could not outpace their pursuer,” we read, “and they did not dare turn and fight” (p. 77). The fatalism here feels central to the novella: the characters have no real hopes of true egress. They run, but they do so knowing it is pointless—even retrieval from the forest isn’t any sort of freedom. “They would both be tall one day,” Veris reflects on her wards. “Like their father: two big monsters” (p. 75). The horror of what chases them is rather less pressing than the terror of what they are running towards.

There is a routine sense in the novel that not seeing is terrifying (“Veris could not see it and she didn’t like that at all” [p. 84]): the monsters out of sight, the futures uncertain, the forest ineffable. Indeed, when we do see the monster that is chasing them, there’s something bathetically generic about the reveal: “it was great and terrible, and its head rose to nearly the canopy of the forest, and the single horn scythed from its forehead curved and gleaming as a sword” (p. 81). The novella isn’t really interested in the monster as creature, as corporeal; it is afraid of the monster as attitude, of “magic not as words and spells but as poison” (p. 53). Monstrosity is by this reading defined by its relative immateriality. “You do monstrous things,” Veris gasps at a talking fox who protests his people’s innocence. “Once or twice,” he shrugs. “Here or there. We do not make a habit of it” (p. 113). True monstrosity isn’t bloodily episodic; it is coldly relentless. It is systemic.

Mohamed holds close to her novella’s chest the answer to a question that we are encouraged to ask from early in the novella: what happened to Veris’s child, the one she rescued from the forest? Only late in the story do we understand; and, likewise, only in the novella’s final pages is Veris faced with a terrible, fateful choice—an impossible one, forced on her by an elder god without mercy. What the fox’s words suggest is that individual actions might be forgiven, might not in some circumstances earn us the moniker of monster; and perhaps this is one of the lessons Mohamed hopes Veris might learn. Certainly, for all her doubts over their heritage and their futures, Veris comes to believe that the Tyrant’s children “were heroes in there … they are brave and true” (p. 131). He lets her go, his monstrous taste for vengeance unsated, his wrath exhausted. He does a good deed.

Yet the novella ends not in a triumphant cadence but on a note of minor discord: “we will discuss,” Veris tells another character in its final line, “what may and may not be learned” (p. 135). Mohamed never makes clear whether the forest’s lessons are ones that Veris can internalise. Sometimes—monster or no, even with true evil as a yardstick—we judge our own actions, and harshly. “Innocence,” Veris was told by the elder god, “is no refuge” (p. 127). The monster, we should know, is in the eye of its beholder.

Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at
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