As an avid fan of horror movies, it’s taken me a long time to fully get into reading horror fiction. Along with the abundance of pulpy mystery, suspense, and thriller novels that are practically synthetically churned out nowadays, horror seems to flounder under genre specifics and tropes that tend to lower horror’s literary value. It’s unfortunate, but it also goes to show that we can’t fully discount the horror authors who really make an effort to create thought provoking pieces of writing. Do we blame the inherent shock value horror has succumbed to? Or do we just blame Stephen King? I’m more likely to blame King, because as much as I want to get into his leviathan bibliography, I could probably read two or three smaller indie horror authors in the same amount of time.
That all said, I try to get into horror novels without much preconception before jumping into one. After seeing the oddly atmospheric cover of Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood in a local used bookstore, I quickly lumped it with my other spooky season reads this year. It looked like a horror novel, so I naturally gravitated toward what eerie tension it might hold.
Much of horror involves a threadline of who or what you can trust, and for In a Dark, Dark Wood, it’s that some book covers are too good for the writing within. Ware, in other words, is an awful writer, with little understanding of craft. I’m interested in books like In a Dark, Dark Wood because they often ride solely on excessive dialogue doing all the heavy lifting while sacrificing so many other things in the process. So, so many things.
Revolving around the premise of a bachelorette party gone painfully melodramatic, Ware’s debut offers such juvenile, unrealistically drawn characters that it’s difficult not to think of them all as high schoolers in their late 20s or early 30s. Not only does the sea of aggravating teenage drama dialogue get in the way of the book’s pacing and plot, but it also causes Ware to repeat herself for nearly half of its 300-page duration. It’s unfathomable how this isn’t a young adult novel, really. In a Dark, Dark Wood is the equivalent of watching a movie so dull that if I skipped 45 minutes ahead, I wouldn’t have missed anything important.
Notwithstanding the novel’s unlikeable premise, there isn’t a single likeable character. Even the comic relief best friend character to the protagonist is completely dismissible. Since none of the characters feel in any way like actual adults, I worry for my psyche when I don’t care as bad things begin to happen to them. Developing empathy for a fictional human being shouldn’t be hard, but Ware makes it so easy to hate.
Is there a story here worth salvaging if Ware had chiseled away all the extraneous, useless elements of In a Dark, Dark Wood? Not in the slightest. Ware is a bestseller for that reason, though—she’s amazing at writing diluted plots that are padded out for over 200 pages longer than they need to be. My partner owns Ware’s sophomore novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, and I’m so tempted to read it just to see if Ware had learned anything (and also because the premise seems a bit less annoying, though that isn’t saying much). Like any other generic thriller author, Ware understands that she doesn’t need (nor want) to be unique in order to sell tons of books—she just wants to be an Agatha Christie wannabe, without any molecule of individuality to her name.
*If you want to read In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware (which you shouldn’t), find it on Goodreads.