What the Forest Knows
New England is a favorite setting for horror and ghost fiction for a reason. It is an old place. Its woodlands are ancient and one can never feel truly alone in them, even if one walks alone. There is always a sense that something else is there, watching and perhaps waiting for the appropriate moment to appear, however fleetingly, just to let a solitary wanderer question his place in the world. Even the houses of New England, the many that date back to the early years of the colonies, seem to remind us that whoever lives within their walls is intruding on ancient forces that mere flesh and blood might sense but can never fully understand.
Scott Thomas understands New England and in Quill & Candle, Thomas’s seventh collection of short stories, he gives us all a hint of what causes each bump we hear at night and of the identities of those inexplicable presences that we sense late in the wee hours when all good people should be tucked safely away abed. Reading Quill & Candle, one cannot help but feel that Thomas has been privileged to walk among ancient things and suffered to record, if not to explain, all that he has seen.
Thomas has a clear love of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century villages and towns of New England that he populates in his stories. Their presence still lingers in the older streets in Massachusetts coastal towns, or the faded preserved historical sections of the town squares in New Hampshire villages. Each of the seventeen stories that Thomas shares in Quill & Candle demonstrates his dedication to old New England and his intimate knowledge of the ways of its people.
In one story, “A Curse at Breed’s Hill,” Noah Lock prepares to fight the British in what would become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, even though the battle actually took place on Breed’s Hill. While Thomas takes us through the preparation for battle and the battle itself, he is meticulous in his retelling of the events of that June day in 1775 when an untrained group of American militia men demonstrated that it would take more than a show of red-coated force to dislodge them from their principles. The story is flawless in its description of the three attacks staged by the British, of the falling of the first American (Asa Pollard who was decapitated by a canon ball) and of what might very easily have happened to Noah Lock that day, with one small twist that turned his day from reality to fantasy. Maybe.
Thomas must have been a child in New England because his stories all resonate of the things found on chiseled headstones, in forgotten cemeteries and midnight wandering—the things that children notice but that adults often miss. Thomas has the historian’s ability to look back, and the poet’s ability to perceive all of the might-have-beens, much as a child can look at a stone and know that once upon a time a pirate might have thrown it across a pond, or look at a brook and wonder what highwayman might have slaked his thirst there.
In “Sagadahoc,” Thomas tells of colonial expansion along the coast of central Maine in a richly wooded area around the Sagadahoc River. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Sagadahoc River area would have been among the more desolate and lonely parts of New England, one that had largely been untouched by any European presence. The settlers of Sagadahoc, as Thomas describes them, are not so much cursed, as they are unwelcome.
Dark woods, feral and far-spanning, ruled along the sides of the Sagadahoc. Woods of the deepest and darkest green, from the horizon to the sea. The river sang a rushing song in a world that married plant and stone and water. New names had been assigned to this land, names such as New England and District of Maine and Lambardton, even as the river sang a language that Englishmen could not interpret, there in the land of the Sagadahoc.
As Thomas describes what happens to the people who populate his story in “Sagadahoc,” readers cannot help but understand part of the impulse that drives humans to congregate in group populations. Our cities and towns emerged not because of economics or politics but because at a very basic level, it is scary beyond the boundaries that we call home. Our congregation gives us some protection from the intrusions of all the things that we might fear in the woods. Sometimes, those boundaries are of no protection either.
The stories in Quill & Candle are varied. Some tell of good fortune and others of foul deeds. Thomas writes of dead infants through whom the dead can speak and of unnamed demons that tear at the eyes to create zombie servants. There are tales of ghosts and vampires and horrors that have no name. In short, Thomas tells the tales which adults would pass off as mere fantasy, but in which every child can feel the weight of reality. We all know on some level there really are monsters under the bed, in the closet or hiding in the wood.
It may just be my New England roots, or perhaps the New England child that I used to be, but I found that with each story in Quill & Candle I felt increasingly soothed and ever more nostalgic for the woodland strolls of my childhood. Thomas understands that the real fantasy of childhood is not to be found in the impossible but in the possible. In each of his stories he shares a tale of old New England that we might not really believe but which we cannot altogether discount, either. Nor, for that matter, would we want to do so. In that sense, reading Quill & Candle transported me back to my woodland wandering and to those brief moments when I know that the woods were watching me but allowed me to pass unmolested.
The greatest power of Thomas’s craft is that in giving all of the things that go bump in the night a name, he gives us back the dark. That is a very good thing because upon starting Quill & Candle, you will find that it must be finished before the sun rises.
Books mentioned in this column:
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.