Five women led by a brilliant and single-minded academic, the modern-day characters of Fiona Barnett’s debut novel where space and time both slip, enter a mysterious wood in northern England to search for a company of Parliamentarian soldiers who disappeared there almost four hundred years ago, near the beginning of the British Civil Wars. Only one deserter survived to leave any clue of what happened to the men, and his already-dubious story was taken down by almost as unreliable a priest, who may have embellished the account with all manner of local folktales about witches and devilish beasts off his own bat.
In the other strand of this dual-timeline novel, the reader gains access from the beginning to the knowledge that Dr. Alice Christopher and her companions are risking their comfort and credibility to find: what happened to Captain Alexander Davies and the sixteen surviving men of his company after an ambush by unknown assailants at the Battle of Sibbert Hill drove the wounded Roundheads to take shelter in the ominous Moresby Wood.
Both in the 1640s and today, locals have shunned the wood, from which almost no wanderer has ever returned: only the Moresby family, who left nearby Tapford during the Black Death to live as charcoal burners and make the wood their home, are thought even to have ventured in for more than a night. The wood resists being mapped by either traditional or digital means, has its own marshy climate different from that of the territory around it, and notoriously sets compasses askew. The army might use it for training, though even that is a rumour, and officialdom has been unable to draw the wood any further into its purview than to ring it with a high wire fence and mark the land “keep out.”
Barnett’s first few paragraphs efficiently funnel the present-day women from the space of the everyday towards the wood, starting a journey from its edges to its centre which will occupy the rest of the story. BBC Radio 4 fades out after their last stop at a service station; the narrow, potholed asphalt roads turn into even narrower gravel tracks; a scrub of grass, dandelion and thistle sits at the base of the fence.
Pen portraits of the five women’s relative status and professional standing establish the relationships that will be tested as their time in the woods becomes more threatening and uncanny—a shift which begins before they have even finished their first picnic. Alice, the academic historian, has won the funding for this expedition after years of institutional ridicule and sits by agreed default in the Land Rover’s front passenger seat. Kim, the woman from the National Park Authority who has lived in the county all her life, possesses both the 4x4 and as much local knowledge as there is to be had. Nuria, Alice’s PhD student researching the area’s Civil War folktales, sits at the back with the luggage, her earphones in. Helly, a new secondee to the park authority, hasn’t even heard Tapford is still standing until they pull up at the fence. And Sue, from the Ordnance Survey (the UK government’s mapmaking service), trusts that, with digital cameras and her GPS device, technology will triumph over superstition. (As the conventions of wilderness fantasy and horror demand, the group will soon find out how fatally wrong Sue can be.)
Davies and his men are introduced much more in the middle of their action, in an initial chapter which takes them from the hillside ambush to the ancient oak inside the wood that will become the last known place where any of them were ever seen. (This setting is a historical specialism for Barnett, who is also the creator of a podcast on the British Civil Wars.) A shoulder wound clouds Davies’s perception for most of the chapter, until the men have finished making camp, and with a larger cast, it takes several chapters more for the most significant characters in this timeline to emerge. Among them are Davies’s two sergeants, Harper and Thatcher, the former a trusted comrade of Davies’s from their years soldiering in France and the Low Countries, and the latter a religious zealot who goads the surviving men to the brink of mutiny once they start being confounded by the secrets of the woods. Tagging along, and drawn into the woods much against their own will, are two local youths whom the company took on as guides as they marched up from further south on the way to join fighting in the English/Scottish borderlands. As is the way of military horror, quite some number of the company must be picked off to sharpen the stakes and characterisation for those who remain. Once the rattled survivors are marching in single file through trees that seem ever more different to the summertime oak and beech they would have seen from the hill, no one would want to be at the back of the line in a wood where the local legend of the ravenous Corrigal suddenly seems very real.
Talk of the Corrigal, indeed, has survived into the present day, where it forms another aspect of the folklore Nuria has been researching for her PhD under Alice’s supervision. Unfortunately for Nuria’s happiness in the department, her co-supervisor is Alice’s academic rival, who has been belittling Alice’s theories ever since they both held junior postdoctoral posts. With dreadful black eyes, freakish stature, and monstrous claws, the Corrigal is Tapford’s contribution to the pack of hellhounds and Black Shucks that roam the folklore of the British Isles. Thought to “nest” in a cave in the middle of the wood that no one has ever reached, or at least survived, it was naturally interpreted through the lens of seventeenth-century religion as the Devil.
The rational researchers in today’s timeline come equipped instead with the lens of contemporary folkloristics, which explains such tales as the efforts of ordinary people in past centuries to understand their own fear—and few times in this story’s lands would have been more fearful than the years of the Black Death, when the Moresbys took to the woods, or the Civil Wars, when apocalyptic rumours and bands of roaming soldiers would have been turning the villagers’ world upside down. When everyday seventeenth-century life was being torn apart by war, the novel’s folklorists suggest, would it be any less credible that war could come to a village like Tapford or that witches and devilish beasts would be abroad?
Throughout the novel, in fact, one theme that connects the past and present groups, beyond the fact that they are walking through the same terrain and witnessing the woodland environment behave in the same impossible ways is the inherent tension in wilderness fantasy and folk horror narratives between whether stories such as the Corrigal and the Witch of Moresby Wood are just ways of rationalising humans’ fear of the unknown, or whether they genuinely depict a supernatural presence in the wild. The seventeenth-century soldiers draw on religion to interpret the superstitions; the present-day women draw on contemporary historical-anthropological approaches to folklore. The Dark Between the Trees raises a third possibility: that another presence exists beneath the stories which is even older and even more to be feared.
Another theme connecting the two timelines, this one more of a contrast, is leadership. The infantry company comes with its own command structure, which can be and is challenged but is still mutually agreed to exist. No such consensus exists among the women once each character’s initial reasons for deference to Alice have worn off, and many of their timeline’s chapters consist of moments of individual introspection inspired by the landscape, punctuated with arguments about the staple source of conflict in lost-in-the-woods narratives: why the navigation has gone wrong and what to do. The question of what makes a good leader resonates through each timeline’s plot in its own ways. Davies is motivated by keeping his company together and alive; Alice leads her group further and further into peril as evidence mounts up that she is on the point of fulfilling her career-long intellectual ambition.
Until the climax of the novel, chapters alternate between the present and the past. This structure allows Barnett to create particularly unsettling transitions in the all-important first few chapters, where the reader’s expectations for what can happen in the woods need to be set: no sooner have the women fallen asleep under the boughs of the great oak at the end of one chapter, for instance, than the soldiers have woken at the start of the next chapter to find it gone.
As well as the obvious chronological contrast between the timelines, the groups’ composition sets up contrasts of gender and also contrasts between military and civilian worlds. Neither contrast seems to emerge as a major theme, beyond the interest that the site is rumoured to have for the military in the present day, the fact that characters in the past timeline are armed and so their conflicts can become more violent more quickly, and, most pointedly, the accusation levelled by one of the present-day characters that Alice’s leadership has made it a case of “every man for himself.”
Barnett avoids turning the juxtaposition of the British Civil Wars and the present day into a channel for allegories of social division in today’s Britain, which might have been a tempting authorial move. There is no sense that politics, Brexit, or other “culture wars” are influences on the present-day characters, nor indeed does the story identifiably take place either before or after Brexit or any other political rupture (it only needs to be far ahead enough in the twenty-first century for smartphones and handheld GPS to be common).
Apart from their relationships to place and to the professions of landscape conservation and research, indeed, none of the women seem to have any social ties or social positioning for much of the novel. None of them, until a very late stage, appear to have loved ones who will worry if they fail to return on time, or anyone who would need informing should they not return at all (one or two of the soldiers, in contrast, have sweethearts they ask to be remembered to). Only Alice and Nuria are even given this much detail for their backstory later on. Once the pair are on their own, Nuria’s wish to see family again does emerge as another motivation for her to want to leave the woods if she can only bring herself to stand up to Alice at last.
The theme of family, however, might say even more about Nuria’s relationship to place than the other women’s, given that she is the only character whose name denotes any connections to places beyond Britain (her first name suggests Catalan or Spanish heritage, and her surname, Martins, might be Portuguese). Within the story, the knowledge of the site Nuria has gained as a research student and Alice’s mentee brings her closer to its secrets than Helly, the geographical newcomer, or Sue, whose faith in digital technology shuts her out from deeper ways of knowing. Filling out the relatively sparse details of each character for themselves in order to imagine how they might react to the conditions ahead, however, the reader might want to know what further knowledges there are in Nuria’s lifeworld about place, folklore, and indeed civil war.
And yet, at a site where the stories of Moresby Wood are scarcely known outside a three-mile radius, there is no need to be interpretively nationalist and ask that question only of the character who might have the most connections to places beyond Britain; the territory is just as unknowable, if not more so, for Sergeant Harper and the other troopers in the company who come from Kent.
Besides the overlaying of narratives that occurs within the novel at the place where the past and present woods become overlaid, The Dark Between the Trees also participates in an overlaying of narratives beyond the text—by adding to the entanglements between myth, history, and place that have been created when English and British fantasy narratives send hubristic researchers off in pursuit of timeslips in ancient woods. In the first half of the novel, Alice is the vehicle for the sense that there is another wood to be seen beyond the wood at the surface level of reality, and increasingly separates herself from the rest of the group as her psychological experience of it differs from theirs. The overlays only manifest at the edges of the characters’ perception until Nuria, too, internalises Alice’s explanation for what they can see, and the novel rewards us with more than a page of extended description about how the overlaying is visibly taking place.
In Alice’s theory that the woods are in fact “several different woods, and that’s why all the stories half-match like they do,” Moresby Wood comes close to the place-myth of the primeval woods in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle. In Holdstock’s woods, as he writes in the first novel, the centre of the wildwood is:
a place of myth and mystery, from which few return, and none remain unchanged […] inside, it is a primeval, intricate labyrinth of trees, impossibly huge, unforgettable … and stronger than time itself.
Holdstock’s obsessional seekers after mythological and psychological truth are often scholars themselves, and an archetypal group of Roundheads, drawn from a collective English memory as they are, would hardly be the most unusual wanderers to encounter in his woods. The metaphysics of Moresby Wood do not go as psychoanalytically deep, but the characters who most open themselves up to the woods are still brought into contact with the original beings behind the folklore they are chasing—be they human or beast.
Yet the professed logic behind Moresby Wood is cosmological, rather than psychological. The final chapters, where timelines converge in a primeval tunnel beneath the Corrigal’s Nest, repeat the image of the wood’s centre as somewhere where the woods and history itself are folded in on themselves over and over until they can no longer be differentiated and time dissolves. The Corrigal’s Nest, as well as the territory around it, does to time what a black hole does to matter—and, indeed, two passing references to the cave in the early present-day timeline name it “the Black Hole” before the shadow of the Corrigal comes to dominate the characters’ path through the woods.
Once trees and narrative have conspired to drive both timelines’ chosen characters into the centre of the woods, the very end of the narrative is somewhat sudden—assuming this is the last book where they will appear. Certain characters’ stories conclude before they have had opportunities to act on how they have changed, if they have changed at all; another, who takes the most consequential decision of her life, has all its consequences happen off-page. The intangible key to escaping the woods, spoken by a source of ancient wisdom to the character who would develop most by following it, stays unused. A broken GPS device found in a woodland stream speaks to a possible fate for two supporting characters which also goes unresolved.
But enough story-stuff still surrounds Tapford and Moresby Wood for the mysteries to continue—after all, who can say who else and what else has been trapped in the woods as the history of rural northern England has unfolded around this fictional place?