Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: The Bone Forest

Book Review: 'The Bone Forest' by Robert Holdstock

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Bone Forest’ (247 pp) was published by Avon Books in September 1992. The cover art is by Tom Canty.

Other than the title novelette, the stories in this collection were first published in magazines and digests over the interval from 1976 – 1989.

All of the stories deal with Holdstock’s major literary theme, one in which the religious and sociocultural foundations of the Paleolithic tribes residing in prehistoric Britain are perceptible to those modern-day individuals blessed - if that's the right word - with the proper psychic temperament. Proximity to patches of primeval woodlands – such as Mythago Wood - assists in recovering these deeply submerged ancestral memories.

My summaries of the contents:

The Bone Forest: this is a prequel to Holdstock’s 1984 novel ‘Mythago Wood.’ It is set in 1935, at Oak Lodge, the house adjacent to Ryhope Wood (the ‘Mythago Wood’ of the novel). The lead character is George Huxley, head of the household and father to two sons: Steven Huxley (the protagonist of ‘Mythago Wood’) and Christian Huxley. George Huxley has been investigating Ryhope Wood and its strange character; in so doing, he compromises the power of a woodland entity, with disturbing consequences.

Holdstock’s work often suffers from over-writing, and this novelette is particularly afflicted – the plot simply gets muddier with each succeeding chapter, and the narrative’s resolution is contrived and unconvincing. But it does stay true to the sensibility of how life was lived in the forests of ancient Britain, and in so doing will call to mind the TV show ‘Naked and Afraid’ and its sweaty, grubby, dirty, thorn-punctured, bug-bitten channeling of Paleolithic-era survival.

Thorn: in a medieval-era Welsh village, a mason named Thomas Wyatt is recruited by an ancient forest spirit, and directed to desecrate a Christian church. This tale effectively mingles horror and fantasy.

The Shapechanger: in a village in Britain in 731 AD, a shaman must deal with ghosts inhabiting a nearby ruin; there is a psychic connection with a young boy in modern Britain.

The Boy Who Jumped the Rapids: in prehistoric Britain, a young boy befriends a stranger who carries an enigmatic totem.

Time of the Tree: abstract tale of a man who psychically recapitulates the Post-Ice Age natural history of Britain.

Magic Man: a ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ -style tale with an undertone of horror. One-Eye the painter discovers that the events he draws on the wall of his cave can take on a strange life of their own.

Scarrowfell: in a modern British village, preparations are underway for the yearly festival. Ginny, a young orphan, discovers some unsettling truths about the paganism that lies beneath the Christian veneer of the festival rites.

The Time Beyond Age: Martin and Yvonne are the subjects of an unusual experiment: they are to have their lifespans accelerated, and be raised in a sterile environment, to see how old humans actually can become when environmental hazards are eliminated. The premise is interesting, but the story is mainly an exploration of the psychological and emotional responses among the observing scientists, and suffers from an inconclusive ending.

Summing up, if you are a fan of Holdstock’s deliberately-paced writing style, and his focus on the exploration of ‘inner space’, then ‘The Bone Forest’ is worth getting. Those wanting less introspection and more action will probably find it unrewarding.

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