By Leslie Lindsay
Luminous tale of a grim journey about one woman in Colonial America whom is oozing evil but doesn’t realize it–a modern-day fairy tale in Laird Hunt’s new novel, IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS.
It’s that time of year when we cast our gazes to the eerie and dreadful. So when this little book (don’t let the size fool you), came to my attention I knew I had to read it. IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS (Little, Brown October 16, 2018) is a contemporary rendering of a historical literary horror; it reads like a classic but was written in 2018.
Hunt takes readers on a harrowing journey to Colonial America where one woman goes missing…or does she leave her homestead? Perhaps she has been *asked* to leave or maybe kidnapped? It’s never really stated one way or another and multiple interpretations can be shed. Alone, barefoot, and possibly lost, the woman meets another woman at a little stone house in the woods and all changes.
IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS is subtly disturbing about woodland magic, witches, hatred and redemption, the unknown. It reads like a dream–or more accurately–a nightmare with a dark surreal-ness.
Please join me in welcoming Laird Hunt to the author interview series.
Wow. I devoured this book. I always, always want to know: why this book? Why now? What question did you set out to explore—did you find your answer?
The world keeps coming up with ghastly answers to the question of “why this book/why now?” One need look no farther than the recent case of Jamal Khashoggi, the high-profile Saudi journalist who was possibly murdered then dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Some months before that story broke I read of a woman, Wa Tiba, in Indonesia, who went out one night to check on her cornfield and was subsequently found swallowed whole by a python. Then there are stories like those of the kidnapping and enslavement of young women and girls by Boko Haram and Isis. And of course there is plenty to feed a sense of dark fire on the domestic scene. In that context, the justice meted out on a man, the “handsome singer”, in the novel intersects usefully with the righteous fury of the long-overdue #MeToo movement. Books bubble up out of the cauldrons of their time. I set out to write something that was more firmly aligned with historical fiction but the novel kept wanting to take up the timeless and the terrifying that seemed (and seems) to be everywhere around us.
As I read, I got the sense the world is browning at the edges and closing in. Ominous. Perplexing. Dark. Grim. There’s a lot you do in terms of setting and evoking emotion. Can you talk about your process for a bit—did you start with a character, a setting, a situation, or something else?
The book started on a cold, wet late winter/early spring day in upstate New York when my wife and I went for a walk down gravel roads that run through deep woods outside Cherry Valley. We had passed an old, abandoned house that morning, one that had more than a touch of chilling fairy tale about it, and the woods and that house got fused in my mind. I had been writing novels with female protagonists for a good while so it didn’t surprise me at all when, still on that walk, I got a glimpse of a woman walking with a purpose I didn’t understand yet through the trees. I sat on the image and accompanying feeling of dread for some time before I wrote out a highly compressed version — approx. 35 pp — of what would then only slowly grow into the novel it is now.
All my recent novels have worked this way to some extent. An image and feeling glimpsed and felt, a subsequent burst of speedy first-drafting, months and even years of expansion and revision. In the case of this one, I have to give particular credit to my agent, Anna Stein, who read it in that highly compressed form and got very excited about its possibilities. In the context of its being short for a while I should note that the manuscript at one time was also almost twice as long as the final version. There too Anna was an important reader – in this case letting me know that she thought I had gotten completely carried away. I’m still interested in revisiting the direction I took the book in that version, but she was right that what I wrote about a little boy who goes to find his mother (his journey is pointed to in the published novel’s final short section) went off the rails.
I so felt compelled to look up metaphorical meanings of the elements and symbols that tend to repeat throughout the narrative: pigs, ships, the sea, cream, berries. Pigs are smart but often perceived as dirty. They root around for what they need and don’t give up easily. Of course, ships are associated with a journey and also tumultuous times. Can you give us more insight—or am I way off-base?
So there were a couple of things going on with those motifs. On the one hand, I was interested in the dogged persistence of key elements in and across traditional tales (tears, teeth, secret rooms, locked doors, strange sounds, woods, elusive treasure), which carry so much power and meaning; on the other hand, I wanted to link this book via key elements (wells, pigs, black bark, knives, necks) to the ones that had immediately preceded it: Kind One, Neverhome, The Evening Road. Another important early reader of this novel, the poet Anne Waldman, who knows those other books well, remarked after she had gone through a draft of this one, in reference to the scene in which two of the porcine individuals stand up on their back legs, turn toward each other and embrace: “It’s those damn pigs again!” As for what these things represent, what you describe about pigs is certainly part of it for me — as is the connection to the witch-goddess Circe and what she does to Odysseus’ men and what Yubaba does to Chihiro’s parents in Spirited Away — but what I mostly wanted was to make available a system of echoes (or moans) that would set off a series of uncanny associations for the reader and perhaps work against common expectation and understanding. Goody’s grandmother is always talking up the sea and ships and freedom to her but the boat Goody actually gets to go for a ride in is made of human bones and human skin and it doesn’t float it flies. The grandmother’s vision of boats would seem to be clearer and more pure, but it’s the awful one that carries Goody through the air and thrills and transports her.
“It’s tough to give a simple description of this book, except to say that it tackles witchcraft in colonial America, providing a mythology that’s sure to disturb.”
Speaking of journeys, is this woman [Goody] a hero? Is she mad? Does she even exist? Perhaps there are multiple interpretations? Can you talk about that, please?
I had an ancestor, Elizabeth Phelps of Andover, whose death of an incurable fever, brought about the death of another woman, Ann Alcock Foster, convicted at Salem after Phelps husband found “witnesses” to accuse Foster of witchcraft. Who is on the side of right in that paradigm? In the late 17th century in New England it was perilously clear whom the community and the law thought had right on their side, but of course we see things completely differently now. Will the commonly accepted idea that the vortex of practicing witchcraft and being bewitched and concomitant, deadly finger pointing are entirely symptoms of gross inequity and oppressive patriarchal systems continue to serve as the optic for these experiences over time? Who knows…? Goody feels the pulse of all the world’s awfulness banging so loudly in her chest that it must and does burst out of her, but I would like to hope that the gnarled intricacies of human rage and love are seen as just as important. It’s not all down to how much the world sucks. I feel her as very real. I would not like to meet her, and would keep my distance if I did, but I do like thinking about her. And about her new friends.
I love the part of IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS in which Eliza and Goody are in Eliza’s cellar and they are writing—or attempting to write. Goody indicates that she ‘likes it very much,’ and Eliza says she writes as though she were ‘in the middle of a dream that never ended, a painting that was never completed…’ What significance might this scene have on writing in general?
It was terribly important to me that Goody and Eliza and the others in the woods be the ones to tell their stories. This was a central component of their assumption of agency. The stories are snapped off and middle-started, shards in many cases, or just a few words (“I hate the world, I do not hate the world, I love the world, I do not love the world”), but they are theirs and we are reading them. The writing in the house in the dark of the woods gets done in the root cellar rather than up above ground; the ink that blackens their fingernails and fingertips is like dirt in that way. They are digging, exploring, questing in the caverns of their imaginations and memories. I’m of the opinion that what they find out with their quills about themselves and about the world is quite revealing.
One last question: What’s haunting you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.
I feel future-haunted. I’m haunted by the rising of the seas and by ever-growing storms and by microplastics in the ocean and the wars that will be fought over water (like the wars already being fought over natural resources of many varieties). I’m haunted by what my 13-year-old daughter and any children she might have will be forced to confront during her lifetime. Maybe she and her generation will be better stewards than we have been. You really have to hope so.
Thank you, Laird. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I think this is a pretty rich exchange already: thank you for the great questions!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laird Hunt is the author of several works of fiction and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, a two-time finalist for the PEN Center USA Award in Fiction, and the winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award. A former United Nations press officer currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s creative writing program, he and his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, live in Boulder, Colorado, with their daughter, Eva Grace.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Special thanks to Little, Brown. Author image retrieved from Wikipedia. Image of abandoned Cherry Valley, NY home retrieved from Zillow all on 10.15.18. Cover image from L. Lindsay’s personal archives and can be accessed via her Instagram account @LeslieLindsay1]