“In the Heart of the Dark Wood,” by Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey

Reviewed by Katie DePoppe

This third installment to Coffey’s series (which can be read in any order) once again pulls the reader into the eerie, ethereal terrain of Mattingly, Virginia. A coming-of-age tale at its most simplistic and a dark-night-of-the-soul journey at its core, the novel, although only loosely grounded in Christian orthodoxy, is unapologetically faith-infused (published by Thomas Nelson) and wrestles with a number of religious themes, most notably “faith versus doubt.”

Set nearly two years after The Storm sweeps through the town on Carnival Day and only five days before Christmas, the story opens with 11-year-old Allie Granderson, her father, Marshall, and the town at large in various stages of mourning for those who perished the storm. Allie and Marshall are grief-stricken at the loss of Allie’s mother and Marshall’s wife, Mary, whose remains—found and later buried—consisted of only a pink tennis shoe. Five hundred and forty-two days after their life-altering tragedy, Allie is the woman of the house; Marshall is an alcoholic; and there is no hope for closure.

That is, until a great wind carries away the Virgin Mary in the Grandersons’ front-yard nativity, and the broken toy compass given to Allie by her mother on the day of her death begins to point Allie toward the wilderness. The young girl interprets these events as otherworldly, and she’s convinced they’re a message from her mother. By the night of December 20th, Allie, her dog, Samwise, and her friend Zach Barnett are sleeping on the forest floor. The young protagonist is plagued by the first of many dreams or visions that help set her course through the mountainous terrain surrounding Mattingly to find her mother once and for all.

The novel’s strong sense of place is central: a town flanked by mountains, rivers, and largely unexplored wooded terrain. As the narrative progresses, the veil between the natural and the supernatural becomes blurred, and the farther Allie, Zach, and Sam venture into the darkwood, it and its inhabitants become one menacing character: “She would see [shadows] dancing in the corners of her eyes and turn, only to see that what she was really looking at was an old limb or a rock. But they weren’t, or at least they hadn’t been. They had been something else. Something mean.”

Coffey’s subtlety is expert and meticulous here. Once a presence is revealed to live in (and is found to be separate from) the woods, the reader is left questioning until nearly the end whether it is an ominous feeling or spirit or something more, well, manifest. Is there an actual creature waiting to devour?

In the Heart of the Dark Wood’s imagery and subtle allegory are reminiscent of the works of Flannery O’Connor; they channel the elegant and poetic traditions of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and harness the suspense and sheer fright of Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness. Coffey’s literary influences and his choice in narrative style give the impression that much more happening than we ever see.

The use of the third-person omniscient narrator, while a risk, helps to accomplish several wins for Coffey: With tone and attention set on internality—there are very few details about how characters appear physically—Coffey taps into the metaphysical, his motif. The two main characters are 11 years old. Yet the book sets out to tackle a number of abstract ideas and philosophical themes. Conveying Allie’s or Zach’s interpretations of adult actions would not have guided us to the truth. For example, the confusion surrounding the monster—“the demon” as described by Zach, and “God” as described by Allie—which appears a number of times under the veil of darkness, is arguably more scary because Zach and Allie are children alone in the dark. Would an adult have recognized the creature from the beginning? Probably. But not preadolescents.

Because of this all-knowing narrator the reader makes fewer assumptions or inferences. We’re given an almost aerial perspective of action in the wooded terrain. We’re even briefly allowed a glimpse of what Samwise, a dog, thinks of the journey. There are, of course, still instances when the reader must see, accept, and discern the story through the children’s eyes, but that is as it should be.

Much is done well in The Heart of the Dark Wood, and while it could stand as strong without some scenes that don’t carry the story—the spiritual journey of Allie’s character in particular is sometimes confusing and does not appear linear—the last fifty pages of the book neatly clarify any doubts and answer any outstanding questions.

Coffey’s third installment in the Mattingly series is well-written and thought-provoking. It challenges us to examine our own belief system and find the reason for hope within ourselves.

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