A humanly chilling tale for Halloween–A. S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest”

A. S. Byatt’s tale “The Thing in the Forest” from Little Black Book of Stories is a deceptively docile story about perspective, childhood, and nightmare (both the everyday and the fantastic kinds).  By and large, what produces the at least initially docile tone is the series of simple declarative sentences, often beginning with “the” or “there” as in any children’s well-told story with its fiats and “there once was.”  Defying the conventional writers’ wisdom about varying sentence structure, for a lot of the story these sentences march in order, simply telling what was the case without apology or intricacy, though there is intricacy in the implications attendant on the “simple” facts so posed.  This means of telling reinforces the factuality from a childlike perspective, at the same time as it heightens the mystery of “the thing in the forest.”  Just as the two little girls who are the main characters wonder if their WWII evacuation to the countryside is a punishment or a treat–and many children in England were sent into the country at the time to keep them safe–so a sense of uncertainty about the terror itself causes them to separate willingly after they “see” the thing in the forest attached to the countryhouse where they are staying.

The “thing” too is simply described, with only a gentle introduction and a slight variation from the previously repetitive sentence structure:  “Did they hear it first or smell it first?  Both sound and scent were at first infinitesimal and dispersed.  Both gave the impression of moving in–in waves–from the whole perimeter of the forest.  Both increased very slowly in volume, and both were mixed, a sound and a smell fabricated of many disparate sounds and smells.”  In the rest of the description, which tells what smells exactly and sounds precisely the thing is composed of, the fantastic is at war with the flowing pace of the language, not elevated or unusual, but causing a concatenation of images for the reader to be appalled by.  The “thing” is apparently not aware of or not after the two main characters, but at first seems simply to inhabit that time, place, and set of conditions.

When the characters become two grownup women, vacationing after the deaths of their mothers within a week of each other, they happen to meet up in the house again, in front of a “medieval-looking illustrated book” which is on display at the house in the room where they had previously eaten as children there, though there is in the present time no record of any of the children having visited.  Other war time events that took place in the great house are extensively commemorated, they find.  Thus, there is a reversal:  in the original encounter, they had no previous warning of “the thing in the forest,” though both of them were on record as being there, since they were later returned to their mothers, who unlike their fathers survived the war; now, there is no indication that the two main characters were there, whereas there is the illustrated book about family legends regarding the “thing.”  The “thing” can clearly take over places and people in at least this sense of memory.

In the book, the “thing” is spoken of as the “Loathly Worm,” not a dragon with wings but an “English worm,” and is described as having been killed several times by the “scions” of the house (it needs periodically to be “re-killed” because like the earthworm it is compared to, it can grow new heads).

One important feature of the story is that though Penny, the tall thin little girl, now a trained child psychologist, and Primrose, the short plump blonde child, a babysitting storyteller for children, are so different in other respects, the episode has clearly been a major force in both their lives in different ways, as their “vocations” attest, since both have wound up caring for children.

As the two women converse over tea, they finally agree that they both “saw” the Loathly Worm and that it has continued to affect them.  As Penny says, “….I think that there are things that are real–more real than we are–but mostly we don’t cross their paths or they don’t cross ours.  Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours.”  For the first time, they admit that maybe the monster disposed of a little girl named Alys whom they had refused to let play with them:  “There had been a mess, a disgusting mess, they remembered, but no particular sign of anything that might have been, or been part of, or belonged to, a persistent little girl called Alys.”  The two women agree to meet up again, but when the time comes, both of them sit alone in separate B & Bs, as if paralyzed by the fear they once felt.  Something peculiar affects them and keeps them apart.

Primrose decides the next day to go back to the forest, while Penny walks off in the opposite direction.  This is characteristic of their personalities as adults:  while Primrose the fairy tale teller is practical and down-to-earth, Penny, the “rationcinative” is impractical and given to avoidance.  Primrose takes a different path into the wood than they had taken the first time.  She enjoys the flowers at first, and the birds and small animals.  We see her as a child in retrospect, loved and protected by a mother who creatively made her some toy stuffed animals each Christmas.  Her view as a developing child is a touching one.  “She told herself stories at night about a girl-woman, an enchantress in a fairy wood, loved and protected by an army of wise and gentle creatures.  She slept banked in by stuffed creatures, as the house in the blitz was banked in by inadequate sandbags.”  She reasons to herself in the present that she should get to the center of the “forest” and Byatt uses a sentence in quotation marks to show that Primrose is the heroine of her own story, thinking of it as a different story she might tell to the children she tends:  “‘She came to the centre and sat on the mossy chair.'”  We are told that normally she does not frighten the children with this particular story of the Loathly Worm from her past.  “She frightened them with slimy things that came up the plughole, or swarmed out of the U-bend in the lavatory, or tapped on windows at night, and were despatched by bravery and magic.  There were waiting goblins in urban dumps beyond the streetlights.  But the woods in her tales were sources of glamour, of rich colours and unseen hidden life, flower fairies and more magical beings.  They were places where you used words like spangles and sequins for real dewdrops on real dock leaves.”  When Primrose has sat a while, she becomes prey to warring desires, the one to go home and the other to stay exactly where she is, questioning if she ever had a home.

Though Penny has taken an apparently opposite route, she too winds up on one side of the wood, so that (as in many a fairy tale) the wood becomes that magical place that all of the champions against it must face.  “She had wagered on freedom and walked away, and walking away had brought her here, as she had known it would.”  She begins to move “as if she were hunted or hunting.”  Since she is apparently looking for the monster, she quite logically begins to trail its scat:  “She found things she remembered, threadworms of knitting wool, unravelled dishcloth cotton, clinging newsprint.  She found odd sausage-shaped tubed of membrane, containing fragments of hair and bone and other inanimate stuffs.  They were like monstrous owl-pellets, or the gut-shaped hair-balls vomited by cats….It had been here, but how long ago?”  She comes out at a place she suddenly recognizes, and finds some “small bones” and a tortoiseshell hairslide, and suddenly the reader begins to speculate again about the child Alys.  Is this a fantasy tale, or a tale about a reality too horrible to relate?  Did the two girls perhaps do something to Alys to make her stop following them through the wood?  Is there a real monster?  In the past, are they seeing a bomb fall, or perhaps seeing the results on the ground of a bomb that has already fallen?   At this point present and past become one for a moment, because the traces of human death are still there.  Penny thinks for a moment of bringing the bones together and burying them, but does not do so.

Primrose enters the forest in the morning of this day in the present of the story; by the time Penny sees “the full moon” and is “released” by the forest, night has clearly come.  Now what do our two main characters do?  Whereas Primrose had previously made up a better type of forest to tell children about, and as Penny had specialized in dreams as a child psychologist, so they both take their own way out again.  They end up going back to town in the same train, but both remembering the expression of misery on the face of the monster, they avoid each other on the platform.  “They saw each other through that black imagined veil which grief, or pain, or despair hangs over the visible world.  They saw each other’s face and thought of the unforgettable misery of the face they had seen in the forest.  Each thought that the other was the witness, who made the thing certainly real, who prevented her from slipping into the comfort of believing she had imagined it or made it up.”

Penny is haunted, and after returning to town, goes back later to the original entrance they’d come in by, wanting to see the monster face to face.  Her story ends with her hearing and smelling its approach.  Primrose overcomes it by telling her children’s group at a mall about it in fairy tale form.  These are two characteristic choices again, but now it is Penny who is facing what she previously avoided and Primrose avoiding ever so delicately what she previously faced, trying to envelope the “Loathly Worm” in a net of fiction.  Byatt’s choice of her subject, however, is characteristic of both, for as readers we are encouraged not only to believe in the monster on a fantastic level, but also to look beyond it, to a harsh reality, the facts of war, death, decay.  And we see, as I believe Byatt wants us to see, that in our century, war is not about a man’s heroic contest with a Loathly Worm, nor perhaps was it ever so simple a thing, even symbolically.  It’s about the quotidian level of destruction which goes on daily through the deliquescence of all uncomplicated daily things which are eliminated in their simple nature during wars and which become so much detritus, trailing mournfully and sluggishly and stinking thorough a “forest,” which bears a mute resemblance to Dante’s “dark forest” also.  Unless we see the conglomeration of all the tiny emblems of our lives which war engulfs, we are unable to track it down; it is we ourselves who are gone and forgotten and left in pieces.

Yet, when this ghastly tale is done, the tale is not after all the worst there is:  for, forgetting would be the worst, and we remember in tales like this one, too.  Whether writing in deadly earnest factual prose or writing a supple and light prose of great poetic and fairy tale beauty, writers like A. S. Byatt don’t forget, nor do they allow us to do so.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

5 responses to “A humanly chilling tale for Halloween–A. S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest”

  1. Sounds fascinating, might have to get in on this, before I tackle The Children’s Book.


  2. This sounds appealing. It reminds me of Sara Maitland’s book Gossip from the Forest which I have pre-ordered last week. Forests in fairy tales fascinate me. You could argue that they date back to a time during which there were more forests. Will our imagination dwindle at the same pace as the forests do.
    Another book this reminded me of and which I read a few years ago is Amanda Craig’s In A Dark Wood. One of the rare boks I wil re-read.
    Wonderful post.


    • Thanks for the references to other “woodsy” stories. The forest as a place of confrontation with humankind’s darker self has been around at least since Dante, and so many other writers give him a nod without mentioning his name that it gets to be funny. I even caught Henry James doing it in “The Golden Bowl” when Prince Amerigo tells his wife the Princess that the heart of man is a dark jungle, or something of that nature (I’m paraphrasing). Dante, of course, got it somewhere, too. It’s probably been around since time began. I too (like you) ask myself what we will do if the forests disappear–will the city streets become our new “forest”? Have they already started to be so? I hope we can preserve our woods and forests, even at the cost of retaining our creepy-crawlies.


  3. Pingback: Confronting the re-publishing spectre in order to produce a Halloween shiver (my “old school” dilemma) | creativeshadows

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