Josie and Neena are best friends about to graduate high school and heading off in different directions — or Neena is, at least. Josie enrolled in a city college and will stay at home, while Neena is bound for glamorous California. Feeling a mix of melancholy and resentment the pair plan a getaway hiking through the local North Carolina mountains, in the hopes the adventure will create meaningful, unforgettable memories before they part ways.
Their plans are quickly unraveled, however, as both environment and emotions seem to be working against them. Neither of them have any worthwhile outdoors experience, and so they are soon overwhelmed by the elements. Adding to that is the pair’s pent up personal drama, which comes to a head on their very first night where bitter words are shared in the dark. Not wanting to abandon what could be their last ever exploit together, they continue their trek through the woods in stubborn, stony silence. On their last day they decide to follow a blaze path, informal trails created by amateur hikers that make guideposts out of trees through marks and other signs. A sudden downpour makes them lose their way, and then tragedy strikes when Josie falls through a sinkhole and suffers a particularly gruesome injury. Neena is reluctant to leave her friend alone, but with no phone service and night quickly falling, she decides to brave the forest in search of help. But the watchful woods seem to have other plans for the pair of friends….
Like most people (at least those who regularly watched Vlogbrothers circa 2009) I first learned of Stephanie Perkins due to Anna and the French Kiss, a gentle gem of a romance novel that kicked off a series of similarly sentimental stories. Romance became Perkin’s brand, and so — like most people — I was surprised when she suddenly dropped her slasher throwback of a novel There’s Someone Inside Your House (which just got the adaptation treatment over on Netflix) a couple of years ago. It seemed like such a turn. But I was already a fan of her writing, and it came out just around spooky season, so I gave it a shot. I dug it a great deal. I remember Perkins getting a lot of flak for that novel for being derivative and full of stereotypes. I could see where the criticism came from, but I didn’t really mind — there’s no genre that’s as cannibalistic as horror, after all, constantly feeding off of its own self. It’s part of the appeal. So I liked it enough that when The Woods Are Always Watching, a spiritual sequel of sorts, was announced, I awaited it with anticipation.
It didn’t disappoint, although I suspect it will get a lot of the same kind of criticism as its predecessor did. But once more, I did not mind. I enjoyed this ticking time bomb of a novel, which starts off slow, almost hesitantly, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels before finally releasing it in a cannonade of catastrophe and catharsis during the book’s final half.
I went into The Woods fairly cold, which turned out to both harm and help my reading experience. I knew only that it was a horror story set somewhere in the Appalachians, which is honestly enough description for me to be certain that I will be thoroughly freaked out, as that particular mountain system fascinates me as much as it fills me with dread — blame it on assumptions and stereotypes shaped by years of macabre media consumption. I did not know what form the antagonistic force was going to take: if it was going to be a supernatural specter, or a more realistic, grit-and-grime menace. For the first hundred pages the text made it seem like either one could have been likely.
So I admit to being initially disappointed when it turned out to be the latter. As the book went on, though, with Perkins packing on the terror and trepidation, I understood the kind of story she was aiming to tell: a heightened version of what far too many women suffer through at the hands of men, the sort of experiences that are the root of very real fears and anxieties they can experience while among us. Josie and Neena are stalked and threatened by men in the woods here, but it’s terrifyingly telling that their story could have been set literally anywhere else — with men in elevators or subway cars or quiet streets — and depressingly little would change in the way of details.
Two girls walk into the woods, Josie thought. But the story wasn’t a fairy tale. They hadn’t dropped a trail of bread crumbs, discovered a gingerbread cottage with sugar-paned windows, or shoved an old witch into a flaming stove. Nor was it a ghost story, traded in whispers around smoky campfires. It wasn’t even an urban legend. Their story was flesh and bone. Urgent and real.
Perkins offers up a tight, tense thriller of survival, with two protagonists who feel real: smart and resourceful but also obnoxious bordering on unlikeable — kids, in other words, a fact that makes their ordeal all the more harrowing, as you can’t help but hope they make it through the dark forest and into the light.