Christopher Golden, Strangewood (Earthling Press, 2008)
The best horror is always about something else. Carrie is grounded firmly in the real horrors of adolescence. Scratch Lovecraft lightly and you find the fear of the other made manifest in a thousand different wriggling, tentacled forms. Dracula is about hairy-scary sex, and what happens when something from outside our tightly controlled world encourages us to lose control.
And then we have Strangewood, for my money the best thing Christopher Golden has written thus far. Of late, it’s been gaining momentum as a genre classic (even though Golden himself thinks of it more as fantasy, according to his Web site), and that process probably won’t be hurt by the gorgeous new hardbound edition Earthling Press has just unleashed.
Leatherbound and slipcased, the cover embossed with the simple image of a fedora (for reasons the reader will soon come to understand), the book is a handsome artifact. It also features endpapers and a dozen illustrations from Richard Kirk, whose work lends itself to the depiction of a fantasy realm that sees itself as abandoned by its creator. Add to that a foreword by Graham Joyce, an introduction by Bentley Little, and a humbling, confessional afterward from the author itself about where the book came from and what it means. This is, for lack of a better way of putting it, the definitive Strangewood, and that means something.
So, too, does the book. For while on the surface it’s about a writer named Thomas Randall who’s trying to deal with an intrusion of his fictional creations into his reasonably real-world life, it’s really about something else. Underneath the adventures and scares and scenes of real-life awkwardness where the machinations of the fantastic have disrupted the mundane, Strangewood is about the awful responsibilities of fatherhood, real and imaginary, and how the sins of one father can affect the generation that follows.
Thomas Randall has problems, you see. On one hand, he’s the hugely successful author of a hugely successful children’s book series called Strangewood. On the other hand, he’s still reeling from a recent divorce, trying to maintain his relationship with his son, and neglecting Strangewood as he does so. In its own way, though, Strangewood is real, and the residents of that enchanted place miss their Boy, Randall’s fictional avatar. They’re determined to get him back, or at least some of them are. Others have darker aspirations, and as Randall’s two worlds become increasingly intertwined, he’s shown first-hand what happens when the dreams of childhood are abandoned.
To say more is to rob the reader of the pleasure that is the journey through Strangewood. Let it suffice to say that Golden skillfully brings Randall to a conclusion that is at once appropriate and deeply resonant, though perhaps not the happy ending one would expect from a fairy tale or children’s book. I’m not ashamed to say that Strangewood is the book that turned me from a Christopher Golden reader into a Christopher Golden fan, and while this particular edition may be more targeted toward the already converted than the casual reader -- slipcases don’t come cheap, after all -- Strangewood itself is deserving of a wide and growing audience.