In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall. This place is shrouded in folklore – old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who is not quite a child. Now the woods are creeping closer, and something has been unleashed.
Pearl Gorham arrives in 1965, one of a string of young women sent to Lichen Hall to give birth. And she soon suspects the proprietors are hiding something. Then she meets the mysterious mother and young boy who live in the grounds – and together they begin to unpick the secrets of this place. As the truth comes to the surface and the darkness moves in, Pearl must rethink everything she knew – and risk what she holds most dear.
Thank you NetGalley and HarperCollins for the free copy in exchange for an honest review.
It’s the perfect time of year for a darker read, and last October I loved the atmospheric setting of The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke, so was very keen to pick up her next book. The Ghost Woods is set at Lichen Hall, a grand but crumbling home in a secluded part of Scotland, and it offers an alternative to the mother and baby homes that were prevalent in the 20th century. Single pregnant women could live out their pregnancies at Lichen Hall, and after the child’s birth Mrs Whitlock, the lady of the house, would arrange for them to be adopted. This is how both Mabel and Pearl, one in 1959 and one in 1965, find themselves at the imposing house, isolated from their families and friends.
The book follows the two, each chapter alternating between them in their different timelines, each slowly revealing the underlying darkness of Lichen Hall. Because, though it is beautiful and surrounded by forest, all is not quite what it seems… the forest itself is haunted by a creature of shadow, Mr and Mrs Whitfield have bursts of strangeness, and mushrooms sprout all around, some even invading the hall and breaking it down slowly. The tension is built slowly, helped by the fact that the setting is viewed from two different points in time as they gradually catch up with each other. However, I can’t say that I was ever properly pulled in or felt a chill at any point.
I’m not really a horror reader, but I do sometimes like when a book gives me goosebumps or keeps me up because I have to resolve the tension, and sadly this one didn’t hit that spot. I really liked the characters, Mabel most of all, and the writing was beautiful, but I mostly remained indifferent to the story and when I’d finished it was left quite unsatisfied. I was hoping more would come of the figure that stalks the narrative: the mythic witch Nicnevin. I think a bit point of the story was to highlight the horror of the situation unmarried mothers found themselves in during this time, which it did do very well, but that’s just not what it’s marketed as…
However, if you are looking for a tense, character-focused story with horror elements and a wonderful cast of female characters, I do recommend you pick this and other books by C.J. Cooke up. Just beware that it’s a bit of a slow build-up.
Published: 13th October 2022 by HarperCollins
Narration style: first person present tense, two narrators
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: rape, pregnancy, child loss, abuse, body horror