by Richard Laymon
256 pages, Headline, Kindle edition
Review by Pat Black
Hmm. Tricky one.
I wouldn’t say Richard Laymon’s work is bad for you, but some of his books should carry a warning on the cover. Not just because of the subject matter, which is always horrible, but because they can be an addictive substance.
I last read some of the American author’s work in 2002. Like a smoker who’s given up for years, I was tempted back into it knowing full well that one hit can return you to a path you’ve avoided for years, and with good reason.
Laymon wrote the literary equivalent of slasher films. Before he died in 2001, aged just 54, he had penned dozens of novels mainly dealing with maniacs and their victims. He rode the crest of a crimson wave during the “horror boom”, and achieved popularity in the United Kingdom before he was well-known in the States. In the early 1990s his books dominated British shelves alongside the genre’s Big Three: King, Koontz and Herbert.
When I was younger I loved horror writing. I can remember my English teacher’s exasperation upon learning this. Try new stuff, he said. Read widely. Don’t restrict yourself.
He was right, and I did grow out of that brief, but intense ghoulish phase. But right in the middle of this splatterpunk obsession I read my first Laymon book. It was The Stake.
I loved it, and I read more of them over the course of about 18 months. The last one of his I read was Island, which I took on holiday as a departure lounge impulse buy a few years later. I cut through that book in record time, and its tropical setting was perfect, but when it was over I decided not to go back to Laymon. Island felt exploitative in its scenes of sexual obsession, cruelty and violence. Truth be told, I was a wee bit ashamed.
I shouldn’t be reading this stuff, I thought. It’s a Bit Much.
But here I am. And here we are.
Laymon’s predilection for writing about pervy sex and violence is apparent in The Woods Are Dark, one of his earliest novels. The set-up places some outsiders in a rural American town in the middle of thick woodland. After checking into a “dummy” hotel where the vehicles in the car park are simply stripped-out shells, guests are taken out into the forest and left handcuffed to The Killing Trees. Once there, a bunch of feral maniacs called the Krulls appear from the foliage to rape, mutilate and cannibalise them. The townsfolk’s offering is pseudo-religious, ritualistic; some of the inhabitants aren’t happy with the arrangement, but they know these sacrifices keep the Krulls away from the town and their otherwise normal lives.
You shouldn’t go into a book like The Woods Are Dark and be shocked to discover violence. You’d be naïve to think there won’t be blood. But that’s never been the big issue with Richard Laymon.
Laymon’s books often come from the focal point of randy teenagers (a sly nod, perhaps, towards his readership?). But aside from the usual teenage kicks he tends to depict pretty women being stalked by maniacs and imbeciles, and tested against overwhelming lusts and twisted appetites. The ultimate expression of this is rape, which does take place in this book. It is focalised from the point of view of the victim, but it is by far the most uncomfortable thing about Laymon’s writing. The Woods Are Dark is full of this stuff, although it does not truly erupt until the final third, when we get an insider view of Krull culture.
The story has three narrative strands. The first concerns Sherri and Neala, two women on a road trip who are passing through the hick town. Then there’s the holidaymaking Dills clan, who have the misfortune to stop off in the same phantom motel for a night. Finally we have Peg, a local resident, and her whip-smart daughter Jenny. They are being helped to escape the blighted town by her brother John, who swears off escorting newcomers to the Killing Trees after making a “delivery” which includes Sherri and Neala.
Their stories intertwine on one long night of bloodshed. Not everyone survives.
Laymon does write sexually provocative, morally dubious scenes. One priapic young town-dweller molests the women he has helped capture. This was nasty enough, but I have to tell you, it’s mild compared to what happens later.
Although some of the female characters do fight back and take revenge on their oppressors, there is an element of exploitation. Movies like I Spit On Your Grave featured similar retribution, but these are not remembered for their empowerment of women.
This is a shame. Because while I would not recommend The Woods Are Dark to you on these grounds, I am happy to say that its author’s command of prose is considerable.
Richard Laymon juggles seemingly simple elements of plot, character and dialogue into a mesmerising blur. Laymon reminds me of something Martin Amis once said to Elmore Leonard: “You make Chandler look clumsy.”
Shock follows shock; plot twist follows plot twist. Memorable characters drop into the narrative, make their mark, and drop out again - sometimes in several different pieces. The action is bloody and horrible. The suspense is first rate. The dialogue is realistic. The pace is terrific. You cannot stop reading.
So if you want a good page-turner to distract you on the bus, this does the trick. But only if you aren’t afraid of getting your Kindle cover a little grubby.
Be in no doubt – very, very dark things happen in this book. So dark, in fact, that after reading the last seventy or so pages, and even knowing full well what Laymon was like, I felt a familiar sense of shame.
Be curious if you like, but be warned, too. If my teenage son – aged fourteen or fifteen – was reading this stuff, I’d be a bit concerned.
And the twitchy vicar declared to his flock: “I was so shocked and disgusted, I read the whole thing!”