The story behind The Woods Are Dark is a very interesting one. In 1981 Richard Laymon was new to the scene. He had written The Woods Are Dark for Warner Books and was eager to be published. Warner took Laymon’s chilling tale and gave it the ol’ strip job- cutting one very important subplot as well as a fair bit of the gore and sexuality. In short, Warner treated the pages of The Woods Are Dark much like the savages on those pages dealt with the unsuspecting travelers who found themselves in the woods. They completely destroyed them. In 2008, through the tireless work of the Laymon family, The Woods Are Dark was released in a new restored edition as the author originally intended. This is a review of that book.
Neala and her friend Sherri only wanted to do a little backpacking through the woods. Little did they know they would soon be shackled to a dead tree, waiting for Them to arrive. The Dills family thought the small motor lodge in the quiet town of Barlow seemed quaint and harmless enough. Until they, too, found themselves shackled to trees in the middle of the night, while They approached, hungry for human flesh…
Early Laymon novels always seem to get right to the action. These first works could never be considered a “slow burn”. The Woods Are Dark is no different. You open the book and BAM! – Laymon goes right for the jugular. It is blazing hot from the first page when a hairy, legless shape tosses a severed hand at a passing car. That is one hell of way to open a story. The amazing part is that Laymon never waivers from this excruciating intensity.
Even with the non-stop action, Laymon peppers in some truly interesting characters. After the encounter with the legless monster the story devotes the first few pages to greetings as we are pleasantly introduced to the fun-loving Neala and Sherri as well as the good-natured Dills clan. After the formalities are dispensed with, chaos ensues. Laymon assaults the readers with a barrage of grisly scenes involving unthinkable violence and graphic cannibalism. There is no reprieve from the horror. Everything is fair game.
As the novel unfolds, we learn that there is a seemingly ageless race of feral cannibals lurking in the woods of a small town. The townsfolk have agreed to supply the cannibals, known as Krulls, with an endless supply of victims in exchange for their own safety. Once these victims are handed over to The Krulls it is absolute carnage as The Krulls do what cannibals do best- run amuck and bust up the joint. Picture Cannibal Ferox mixed with The Burning. Pure woodland flesh chomping insanity.
Aside from the very complex Krulls there are plenty of well developed personalities with the most interesting being the patriarch of the Dills family, Lander. Dills is a self proclaimed pacifist who is forced to survive alone in the treacherous woods. Lander is separated from the rest of his family as he is stalked by The Krulls. Laymon allows Dills to slowly drift into insanity and he eventually begins to resemble one of the savages who are hunting him. The transformation of Lander Dills is masterfully executed with a frightening level of believability. After reading the Lander Dills story (easily the strongest subplot in the book) I was amazed that Warner chose to cut it. It really grounds the novel in reality and makes the goings-on all the more frightening.
No matter which version you read-The Woods Are Dark is a tough book. It is extremely mean spirited and completely unapologetic. It is also a classic that every genre fan needs to read. A word of warning though- please clear a few hours to reading The Woods Are Dar because you WILL NOT be able to put this one down.
I would like to recommend reading both the Warner version and the restored version. The Warner version is much less sexual and the Lander Dills plot is severely stripped down, but it does include some really interesting chapters dealing with the townsfolk. The other major discrepancy is the ending. The difference is night and day, my friends. Night and day.