After reading In the Heart of the Dark Wood by Billy Coffey, I almost fell into the mistake of thinking it was just another great story by a favorite writer, a sequel to another great story, The Devil Walks in Mattingly. And it is both a great story and a sequel, but that’s not all it is.
It took several days of thinking about it before I realized what this novel actually is.
It’s been two years since the great tornado destroyed most of the town of Mattingly. All of dead have been accounted for, except one – Mary Granderson, mother to Allie. Her body has never been found; what lies in her grave is the only thing that could be found – her pink tennis shoe. Allie had turned inward, becoming almost a different person. Her father has turned to the bottle.
Allie believes her mother is still alive. She discovers one morning, a few days before Christmas, that the Mary of the nativity set in the front yard is missing. She believes her father has taken it. She has to find it, and she has to find her mother. The little toy compass that her mother had given her the day of the storm suddenly starts working again. And Allie believes it is pointing to her mother.
She enlists her friend Zach Barnett, the son of the sheriff (a main character in The Devil Walks in Mattingly), to help locate the missing Nativity figure. And off they go, biking toward where the compass is telling Allie to go, toward the great woods. She doesn’t tell Zach what the real object of their search actually is. They enter the woods, and they will not return for four days.
Coffey is a master at building and sustaining the tension of the story, knowing there has to be breaks (or else the reader might collapse). But the focus is Allie and Zach, accompanied by Allie’s dog, and the reader soon learns they are walking into a place of evil – and that they are being hunted, and herded.
It would be easy to consider In the Heart of the Dark Wood as a well-written, engaging suspense story. But the idea of the dark woods, and the evil that lurked within in, suggest this story is something else. Haunted by the images and descriptions of the woods, I spent time thinking about what they represented.
It was the characters of two children on the cusp of their teen years that finally led me to a conclusion. The woods, those dark and forbidding woods hiding evil and danger, are allegorical. One can read the story, in fact, as an allegory – an allegory of the dark places that exist within each of us, the battle that goes one between innocence and darkness, a battle that leads one to a kind of internal confrontation, the confrontation with self. For that’s what both Zach and Allie ultimately have to confront – the confrontation within themselves, the confession that they must make to themselves about who they are and what they are and aren’t capable of doing.
It’s more than recognizable. The story of Allie and Zach is the story of each of us, knowing that we have to come to grips with failure, with falling short, that we will not measure up by depending upon ourselves.
Coffey is moving his prodigious storytelling abilities to another level. Read In the Heart of the Dark Wood, and you’ll discover it.
Photograph by Tim Emerich via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.