There are two ways to write Lovecraftiana. The first is the pastiche route popularized by August Derleth, heavy on long apostrophe-spangled names of Elder Critters, the naming of nameless tomes, and fulsomely purple prose in order to disguise the fact that narrator is, in all probability, something of a wet fish.
Then there’s the approach taken by a select few, one that begins with an understanding of Lovecraft’s unmoral cosmicism and the recognition that the beasties that dwell in the dark places are not Evil, but Other. Thomas Ligotti understands this, as do a few others, and so does Ramsey Campbell.
The book revolves around the Price family and their interactions with the shadow-haunted Goodmanswood and each other. Father Lennox was a specialist on mass hysteria who came to investigate stories of hallucinogenic moss in the wood and was trapped by the power behind the green and leafy veil. Now he sits in a hospital just outside the wood, while his artist wife, deliberately unimaginative daughter Heather, and slacker grandson Sam orbit the wood and the town, never quite daring to dive into its depths. They’re part of the small-town fabric that’s woven around Goodmanswood, a fabric that starts to unravel when Heather’s sister, Sylvia, shows up unannounced and pregnant. Sylvia is a folklorist with a perhaps unhealthy interest in the legends and powers of Goodmanswood, and it is her presence that catalyzes whatever dwells within — or beyond — the forest to become suddenly, terrifyingly active.
The Darkest Part of the Woods is, at its best, as strong an evocation of the Lovecraftian ethos of our irrelevance in the face of the cosmic Other as has ever been written. The immense sense of dread that Campbell generates as the tendrils of darkness reach out from the rotten heart of the Goodmanswood positively crawls off the page. When The Darkest Part of the Woods gets going, it’s as uncanny a reading experience as there is out there, a real keep-the-lights-on-all-night spookfest. That it takes a while to get going, and that it leaves some of the plot elements behind once it reaches its climax, is more a function of how powerful the central conceit of the book is than anything else. The stuff that sloughs off — the small-town disapproval of the Price family’s involvement in the Goodmanswood mysteries, the strange entity local children see at their fence and so forth — is good as far as it’s taken, but it’s ultimately window dressing, mood and tone-setters that have no place in the ultimate resolution of the threat.
To give away more than that is to deprive the reader of much of the pleasure of discovery of the book. Campbell takes many of the familiar Lovecraftian signifiers — the wizard who dabbled with the Outside and isn’t quite ready to give up the fight, the occult journal, the horrible result of mingling with the Other — and re-invents them as uniquely English and uniquely his own. The result is a book that may, on the surface, look familiar, but which offers more and more as the reader goes along.