The Ghost Woods by CJ Cooke

Posted On 1 November 2022

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My Five Word TL:DR Review : Sad, creepy,gothic horror story

TheGhost

Without doubt CJ Cooke is a master of atmosphere and a deft hand at creating unsettling stories packed with myth and emotion and the Ghost Woods is a fine example of that and my favourite book of hers to date.

Here we have a remote setting, Lichen Hall is nestled deep in the woods, the woods are steeped in myth and avoided by the locals and the Hall is now a retreat (although I use that word begrudgingly) for young single women who have fallen pregnant and, at a time when this was deeply frowned upon, have taken the decision (or more often than not been forced) to have their babies adopted.

The Ghost Woods has a split timeline.  The year is 1959 and we learn of Mabel, only 17 years old and pregnant although she insists she hasn’t had sex.  She is sent to Lichen Hall and we follow her progress as she starts to make friends eventually and relax a little.  Jump to 1965 and meet Pearl who has also come to the Hall to have her baby.  Pearl was a nurse but lost her job and the love of her life when she revealed her condition.  Not to put too fine a point on things but Lichen Hall is a rather sad place.  Young, vulnerable girls come to have their babies and offer them for adoption.  There are tears and sadness.  The setting is lonely and added to that there are rumours about the encroaching woods and a number of girls have witnessed something scary out there.

I enjoyed this.  It’s very atmospheric, the Hall is a cold and unwelcoming place run by a seemingly cold hearted woman (Mrs Whitlock) hellbent on making a profit from the desperation of others.  The setting has evil vibes and it’s clear that something dangerous is beginning to grow in strength.  Strangely, and I found this a fascinating aspect to the growing horror but there seems to be an invasion of fungus, in fact part of the house has had to be closed due to the overwhelming spread.  Lichen Hall really played into the gothic vibe.  Here is a once glorious, but now fallen into disrepair manor house.  There are elements that still shine but more than that there are creepy cellars, creaky floors and doors and many secrets.

The characters.   Mrs Whitlock is almost a split personality.  She can be warm and endearing but only in very brief spurts.  Her husband has become bed bound and her grandson is an unusual boy, detached, prone to outbursts and often difficult.  Of the two main characters, Mabel is very vulnerable, she falls into the trap of becoming, effectively, a slave to the Whitlocks and simply does as she’s told.  Pearl is much more assertive and determined to find answers but likewise she has more or less been abandoned by her family.   There’s an awful feeling of being trapped.

There’s a real sense of horror here and that’s not just reliant on the myths attached to the area.  You feel so terrible for these young women, caught in a time and place that was so unkind to their plight.  Added to this are a number of elements that could feel disparate but thanks to the strong writing instead come together in a very cohesive way.  Not to give too much away there is a strong and vengeful spirit, the spread of the fungus is linked and helps to demonstrate the invasiveness of what’s going on it also brings with it a couple of twists that are both unexpected and scarily and awfully plausible.

In terms of criticisms.  Well, there was nothing here that spoiled the read for me.  There’s a slight slowness to the set up initially but probably about a third into the book things begin to hot up and the horror becomes more apparent.  There is also a kind of busyness going on but, whilst this definitely had the potential to become a little too much, surprisingly I didn’t find that to be the case.

As it happens I found this very easy to read in terms of pacing and desire to press on.  I liked the double aspect to it – not just a supernatural horror of sorts but also a real life horror and a look at the struggles of young women and the awful circumstances they were placed in.  I liked the twisted nature of the story and the shocking revelation of what’s actually taking place.  Very dark and foreboding, creepy and a great read for this time of year.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 4.5 of 5 stars.

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