Continuing my horror novel reviews, I’m delighted to share my thoughts on J.P. Willie’s Blood in the Woods. Horror fiction comes in many forms and this is a novel with broad appeal far beyond horror fans.
“For Jody, growing up in the late eighties and early nineties in the small Louisiana town of Hammond with his best friend Jack was filled with wonderful childhood memories. Time spent playing in the woods, shooting pellet guns, blowing up mailboxes, fighting at school and upon the dawning of interest in the fairer sex, their carefree lives typical of children with few responsibilities and no worries beyond the next pop-quiz or getting to second base. As they grow older together and experience the joys and pains of life, love, family and friendship, they uncover a grim secret that their home town has kept, and through little more than an innocent, idle curiosity, Jody and Jack stumble upon something horrific in the woods and their lives quickly take a most sinister and dangerous turn as they find themselves hunted by an unspeakable evil…”
Blood in the Woods takes the reader into the back blocks of southern of America, God-abiding territory, and devil worship and dark rituals lie at the heart of the narrative, pulsing a backbeat. The prologue not only sets up the story to come, it demonstrates the longevity of the evil taking place in the woods around Hammond, secret practices that have been going on for decades.
The story opens with the narrator, a veteran recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan, coming to terms with his past. Through the lens of a man examining his childhood, Blood in the Woods is as much a meditation on boyhood and coming of age as it is a tale of terror. The narration is warm, conversational, the narrator self-effacing. Jody and his friend Jack love to run amok, inventing games and having adventures and always in trouble. Yet their escapades are innocent, and deep down they are both good kids, and the reader cannot help but be charmed by them. Willie’s storytelling reminds me of Tobias Wolff’s in This Boy’s Life, especially in the early parts of the novel, and to begin with the narration has the flavour of memoir. Little wonder, as Blood in the Woods is based on truth.
To Willie’s credit, his account of the sorts of evil practices going on in Hammond and its surrounds is measured and balanced. Through the eyes of both Jody’s grandfather, Jerry, and a fast-food cook come Satanist, the author is at pains to explain that not all cults and not all who worship Satan are evil and do bad things. Making this point early in the story, and reinforcing it later, serves to offset prejudice and ignorance, enlightening the reader without labouring the point.
Entertaining and chilling in equal measure, Blood in the Woods is an earthy and believable story, one laced with social realism. The story has soul, it lives and breathes. The horror simmers in the background, popping up now and then over the backyard fence with ever increasing intensity, until it breaks out in a gripping, breathtaking finale.
Without doubt, Blood in the Woods is a novel that deserves a wider audience. Sometimes genre labels shackle a book, especially when many readers are spooked by the very word ‘horror’. If that is you, don’t be put off! You’ll be missing out on a highly entertaining read!