Forests are such deep, dark, mystical places – in every story with a forest setting it seems that the forest becomes a character in its own right. Author Kate Hamer shares the books that inspired her latest thriller, The Doll Funeral.
My own book, The Doll Funeral, is set in the Forest of Dean—an ancient woodland close to the border of Wales. It’s the story of Ruby, who on hearing on her thirteenth birthday that she is adopted, races out to the garden and sings for joy.
Because of the brutality of her early life she vows to find her true family, although what this leads to is the uncovering of family secrets, both in her own and others, and ultimately the discovery of a dead body.
I had the idea for this story for some while and tried writing it in various settings and something was always slightly awry. Then quite by chance on a day out we took a turn off the road, over a little stone bridge in Monmouth, and found ourselves in the Forest of Dean.
I knew straight away I’d found the setting for my story—it’s such a magical, haunting place yet is also a living, breathing contemporary community. It fascinated me from the first moment I stepped under the canopy.
Given the rich territory stories set in forests are rarer than one might think. The traditional haunt of fairy tales, forests span both danger and deep roots of hearth and home. Here are my favourites, including a couple of factual books that helped me in my research for The Doll Funeral.
1. Gossip from the Forest
by Sara Maitland
This is a really unusual book. Maitland journeys through Britain’s forests in different seasons and draws in everything about their forest settings: the wildlife, nature, myths, stories and history.
Because of The Doll Funeral’s setting I was of course drawn to the chapter on the Forest of Dean and learned such delightful things as the forest was so prized for its huge oaks they were considered worth transporting right across the country. These mighty timbers went both to York to build the cathedral roof and to London in the construction of the Tower.
2. Boyhood Island
by Karl Ove Knausgard
Six autobiographical titles make up one of Norway’s biggest publishing phenomenon and Knausgard’s My Struggle series has been compared to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in its depth of remembrance and detail.
In Book Three, Boyhood Island, the narrative jumps back in time to Knausgard’s childhood and the seven years spent during the 1970s on the small island of Tromora off Norway’s southern coast.
The sense of place—a brand new estate in the middle of a forest—is every bit as vivid as Proust’s Combray and the descriptions of the forest and the natural world seen through Knausgard’s childhood eyes are sublime.
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Is this my favourite Shakespeare play? A toss up between this and the dark brooding Macbeth. The forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the province of the fairies, humans that dare to stray there are bound to be subject to their interference and mischief. The very fact of the forest being a dark, wild and unpredictable place links it to the passions of the lovers in the play, it’s a place they escape to.
It’s not hard to see why Shakespeare chose the forest setting for this play, to the Elizabethans even more than us the forest must have seemed a very mysterious place, full of shadows and unexplained noises, and quite possibly enchanted!
4. Our Endless Numbered Days
by Claire Fuller
Set in the 1970s this is the story of eight-year-old Peggy who lives in London with her unconventional parents. Her father spends his time with his survivalist friends planning on how they will outlast a nuclear war. Finally, pushed by a crisis in his marriage, her father takes Peggy to a European forest and tells her that the rest of the world has disappeared.
What follows is the story of Peggy and her father attempting to make a life for themselves in the forest with all the beauty and hardships that entails.
by Oliver Rackham
This is a far reaching and wide ranging book written by one of Britain’s best-known naturalists. Like Sara Maitland’s book it concentrates on British forests and traces the woodland through the ages looking at wildwoods and how they were tamed, man’s interaction with the wild spaces leading right through to modern forestry and conservation.
Rackham knows his subject inside out, he seems to get right under the skin (or bark!) of woodlands, revealing their hidden secrets and covers subjects as diverse as how woodlands have been depicted in paintings to how roots actually work.
6. Little Red Riding Hood
by The Brothers Grimm
We all know the story of the little girl who sets off into the forest with a basket of goodies on her arm to visit her sick grandmother. Ah, no—don’t stray off the path, we collectively shout. But of course she does and there follows the whole story. Little Red Riding Hood was in part an inspiration for my first book The Girl in the Red Coat and I adored fairy tales as a child.
The figure of a red-coated girl in a dark forest is such a powerful one and resonates through films such as Schindler’s List and Don’t Look Now. In the fairy story the double nature of the forest is there—yes, it’s home to the wolf and dangerous but Riding Hood is ultimately saved by the woodcutter, who alongside the wolf makes the forest his home and the forest is turned back from malevolence to benevolence.
7. The Jungle Book
by Rudyard Kipling
Is the jungle a cheat? I’m not sure, but this collection of short stories, through the Disney film, has become part of most of our childhoods.
The original short stories were published in magazines in the late nineteenth century and touchingly it seems that they might have been written for Kipling’s daughter Josephine who died from pneumonia aged six (a first edition with a handwritten note by Kipling to his daughter was discovered in 2010).
The jungle setting is all at once beautiful, thrilling and a backdrop for these moral fables where Kipling put everything he ‘heard or dreamed about the Indian jungle’ that he experienced both growing up and later in life.
8. Baba Yaga
Slavic Folk Tale
When I was growing up we had a book of the story of Baba Yaga around the house. I’m not sure where it came from but this was an utterly terrifying version. In traditional folkore, Baba Yaga is an ambiguous figure—sometimes even maternal, with strong associations with the forest.
You can imagine the story deriving from grandmothers who chose to live alone in the woods and brew up potions and remedies for the community. In other versions she is a witch with iron teeth and a voracious appetite who is always hungry. The book we had definitely fell into the latter camp!
Baba Yaga lived in the depths of the forest in a house made of the skulls and bones of the children she’d killed. Chilling!
9. In a Dark, Dark Wood
by Ruth Ware
A real twisty thriller, what’s not to love about the premise? A group of women and a gay man gather for a hen party in a huge isolated house in the middle of winter in an isolated forest.
Add to the tensions in the group the fact there is no mobile signal and mysterious footprints appear in the snow around the house with a drug-fuelled game of truth or dare and the book (and the party) is soon in full swing.
Given that the narrative switches back from the party to Nora, one of the guests—now battered and bruised in hospital and with police guarding her door—you just know it can’t have gone well!
10. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
by Howard Pyle
In English folklore, Robin was said to have stolen from the rich to better the lives of the poor and lived in the British forest of Sherwood. Like many British forests Sherwood was a Royal hunting forest and still thrives today.
This is something I love about Britain, how the threads of folklore and history can be seen so clearly still in the fabric of the landscape, although this particular forest at the moment has become the latest battleground for the controversial process of fracking—which would take place within 200 metres of the Major Oak, a 1,000-year old tree that is said to have sheltered Robin and his band of ‘merry men’.
Robin himself was said to be a skilled archer, sided with women and was strictly anti-clerical and anti-establishment. What’s so fascinating is that these are all attributes associated with the forest—the forest is misrule, dark, enchanted and inhabited by creatures who do not abide by the accepted rules.
The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer is out now
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