I desperately love modern takes on traditional fairy tales, and Dale Bailey’s In The Night Wood is the best recent adaptation I’ve had the pleasure of reading ... it’s a smart, scary novel about stories and choices, deeply rooted in history ... a glorious puzzle box of a horror novel, featuring also two things that I, perhaps idiosyncratically, very much appreciated: a satisfying number of excerpts from Caedmus’ masterwork (I really, really dislike novels that hinge on fictional fairy tales but never include more than allusions to such) and a cipher that wasn’t eye-rollingly obvious. And it’s all written so beautifully, with literary allusions that made the bibliophile in me (quietly) squeal in delight ... In The Night Wood is a moving tale of the grip history has on us all, and of what it takes to move past tragedy without relinquishing love and memory. Full of mysteries and terror, it is the perfect literary horror.
This is the sort of novel in which characters’ fixation on a fictional narrative proves all too real: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs are two relevant examples, and Bailey’s novel falls somewhere in between the two, tonally speaking. He also neatly balances the quotidian and the uncanny; for that, among other reasons, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man would serve as two other worthy reference points ... Bailey’s novel is both a resonant tale of literary obsession and a story of old myths rising violently to the surface of an otherwise rational world. And it largely succeeds at both: its central characters are well-drawn, and its more uncanny aspects never overwhelm the emotional connections Bailey has established throughout the book. This isn’t to say that this book is without some frustrations, however. The handling of Erin’s depression is a particularly tricky aspect of In the Night Wood. It had the paradoxical effect of feeling emotionally correct but dramatically frustrating, leaving one of the novel’s most interesting characters on its margins rather than keeping her more central ... Overall, however, Bailey has created an immersive setting, a fantastic sense of building tension, and a group of memorably flawed characters. In the Night Wood’s blend of literary history and sinister secrets was largely gripping throughout; it also left me in the position of many of Bailey’s characters: eager to be enchanted by the mysteries of both versions of In the Night Wood all over again.
The novel is a beautifully crafted tale of love, loss, and redemption ... What truly makes In the Night Wood such an engaging story are the protagonists: Charles and Erin Hayden. From their points of view, they offer much introspection and reveal themselves to be emotionally broken, while still searching for some glimmer of hope ... Bailey has created a story that is both eerie and powerful. Well-developed characters and a compelling, intricate, and thought-provoking plot make In the Night Wood a cautionary tale: it reminds of who we are, who we want to be, and if we’re not careful, what we can become.