Dale Bailey’s new novel In the Night Wood is assertive with its intertextuality. It begins with two epigraphical quotes, one from Mircea Eliade’s The Forbidden Forest and the other from the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel”. A prelude follows that “quotes” its fictitious novel-within-a-novel called In the Night Wood, attributed to the (also fictitious) obscure Victorian writer Caedmon Hollow. The Forbidden Forest is about a man who, after the death of his wife and child, searches for his estranged mistress in the forest where they had met years before, and the quote refers to “the existential necessity of listening to stories and fairy tales.” Those familiar with “Hansel and Gretel” will understand the context Gretel’s tearful lament “How are we to get out of the forest now?” and recognize its interrelation to the Eliade quote. Then, as though its thematic architecture still lacked sufficient clarity, the passage from the imaginary Caedmon Hollow novel is also about a frightened little girl lost in a forest, informed by an enchanted oak that her “Story is rich in coincidence” and “is not a happy Story” (the capital “S” in “Story” is the author’s). It is unsurprising that Bailey’s novel turns out to be a self-reflexive fairy tale involving the tragic death of a child, marital infidelity, little girls lost in enchanted forests, is full of coincidence, and is not a happy story.
That story, a dark fantasy flavored with historical metafiction, begins when young Charles Hayden steals a copy of the forgotten children’s novel “In the Night Wood” from his grandfather’s library. His pilfered copy disappears not long after he reads it, but Charles grows up obsessed with the book and its author. Years later, literary grad student Charles meets Erin, a direct descendant of Caedmon Hollow. They fall in love, get married, and have a daughter, before the novel jumps another decade into the future. Erin is the next living heir to Hollow House, Caedmon Hollow’s ancestral home, and the couple uproot their American lives to live there when the previous, childless heir passes on. A lot has happened in the intervening years. Their marriage is now in ruins: Charles had been having an affair with a colleague, and their daughter Lissa died in an accident as the affair came to light. A trickle of clues suggests there is a relationship between those two circumstances, the result being that Charles is now on sabbatical from his university position (it is clear he will not be welcome back) and Erin, addicted to prescription drugs, cocoons in her grief.
Charles hopes to write a biography of Caedmon Hollow to resuscitate the author’s reputation and his own. Living in Hollow House, with its proximity to Eorl Wood (the purported inspiration for Hollow’s novel) offers all the inspiration and incentive he needs. He may even find the biographical information he needs in the nearby village of Yarrow, whose unofficial historian, Silva, takes an interest in his project.
Charles discovers there might be more to Hollow’s infamous novel than its reputation as a simple allegorical fairy tale suggests. A local girl, around Lissa’s age at the time of her death, has gone missing. Erin, in her drug-induced haze, is sketching bizarre likenesses of the Horned King, the villain of her ancestor's novel. Charles keeps seeing vague, human-like figures near the wood that seem to blow away with the wind, and the more he digs into Hollow’s past, the more real-life correlations to its fantastical allegories surface.
This premise has all the makings of a solid, atmospheric dark fantasy. Bailey’s silvery prose, plush with descriptive embellishments and perceptual insights, evinces an appropriate Victorian-ness. These attributes also slow the story down. The narrative’s progress stalls sputters for two thirds of the book, stretching out or repeating the same dramatic beats. Erin grieves and regresses and grieves and regresses. Apparitions of the Horned King and Lissa appear and disappear. Charles’ will-he-or-won’t-he attraction to Silva goes nowhere, except that her daughter Lorna reminds him of Lissa so he wants to spend more time around her. Things pick up when the novel finally opens its box of secrets for the final act, but Bailey lets Erin out of the fridge too late for us to care, then stuffs Silva into it in her place.
Stories always work best when the plot, no matter how meticulously devised by the author, progresses from a believable set of choices made by the characters. In the Night Wood often feels as if the characters make choices pre-ordained by the needs of the plot. The opening epigraphs do more than just set the tone and lay out its themes, they direct its inclinations and formulate its path, striving to manufacture layers that only end up weighing it down.