Review: The Ghost Woods - C.J. Cooke
Genre: Gothic Fiction, horror
Published: Harper Collins UK, October 2022
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“I have a ghost in my knee. There’s a small pocket just behind the kneecap and she’s hiding in there, all tucked up in the soft mattresses of cartilage. She is very small and terrified so I’m sitting with that leg straightened so I don’t disturb her. I’ve not set a word about this to anyone. They’d think I’m mad.”
I don’t think I’ve read a more perfect opening-line to a gothic horror novel in long time, and The Ghost Woods only got better from that point on. An overgrown house in the woods, whispered legends of ghosts and witchcraft, a child who isn’t quite a child, and a pregnant woman sent to give birth amidst it all. If you’re still looking for your perfect Halloween-read, look no further because this is my definitive recommendation for 2022.
Told in dual timelines, The Ghost Woods follows two young, pregnant women’s time at Lichen Hall; an remote gothic manor in the woods that serves as a safe haven for unwed women to give birth and potentially offer up their new-borns for adoption. In 1959, 17-year old Mabel is shocked and confounded by her condition; how could she be pregnant, while she knows she’s never had sex? It must be due to the ghosts that inhabit her body…
In 1965, 22-year old nurse Pearl lost everything after the “shame” of her pre-marital pregnancy got around town. Desperate, and knowing she won’t be able to take care of the baby, she turns to Lichen Hall for help.
Both women soon find Lichen Hall not as safe a haven as the had hoped. Mould festers within the walls, strange apparitions lurk in the surrounding woods and the caretakers and inhabitant of the manor all seem privy to bouts of strange behaviour. Whether that be Mrs Whitlock insistence of “no medical intervention” surrounding the pregnancies, her husband’s collapse into dementia, or the strange boy with a precocious interest in mycology and botany.
Both women’s stories eventually collide to unearth the secrets at the roots of Lichen Hall.
What I liked
I’ve been a C.J. Cooke fan ever since The Nesting and The Lighthouse Witches. Both are gothic thriller/horror novels that combine a taught mystery, interesting characters and strong themes of motherhood, and both showcase the authors pension for creating unsettling imagery and vivid atmosphere perfectly. The Ghost Woods follows perfectly as the third entry in this “spiritual trilogy”, and might be my favourite thus far. On a surface level, you have a creepy tale that plays with many of the familiar tropes in horror (witches, ghosts, haunted houses, Scottish folklore etc.) and takes inspiration from the classics (Hill House, The Fall of the House of Usher, Frankenstein…). On a deeper level, there’s a far more disturbing and emotional story of the price of motherhood, memory, trauma and the (medical) mistreatment of women in our not too distant history. It’s clear these themes are very intentional as the author even mentions the infamous Magdalene Laundries in her authors note.
It’s this subtle interweaving of “layers of horror” and emotion that sets a great horror novel apart from the bunch. I was not only on the edge of my seat, intrigued, excited and thrilled from beginning to end, but I also had plenty of food for thought left long after I’d closed the final chapter.
What I didn’t like
You could argue that the reveal at the end requires some suspension of disbelieve, that I can see might put some readers off. Throughout the story we’re constantly questioning whether the events at Lichen Hall are natural or supernatural in nature and the ending ultimately doesn’t quite fit neatly into either box. Because of the great set up, I was completely able to suspend my disbelieve towards the ending, but I can see it being point of contention for some.
Overall, I highly recommend The Ghost Woods , especially as a companion on a dark and gloomy autumnal night.
Many thanks to Harper Collins UK for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.