There's no shortage of ambition in Darkwood, J. Landon Ferguson's new novel. It begins as a supernatural horror fantasy, in the roots of a giant, gloomy, frightening tree that grows – unlike any other – at the heart of the ancient sanctuary of Avebury in England.
The novel skips quickly through several thousand years: the tree is the site of Neolithic human sacrifice, of medieval execution, until late in the 16th century, an ambitious shipowner decides to fell it, to build a grand ship unlike any that came before.
But even as dead wood, the tree retains its evil powers, warping all with whom it comes in contact. Bankrupted by the difficulties of construction, the shipping firm adapts the ship, the Eclipse, for the lucrative slave trade, but it is soon consumed by a hurricane. The timbers, however, are used to build a house, and so the story continues, into the present day – more like a family saga than anything in the horror genre.
Ferguson dreams up an interesting tale, with real possibilities as a route through time and space, but sadly in the quality of writing and research, this book falls down badly. He has yet to absorb the basic novelist's mantra of "show don't tell", and in attempting to cover such a broad sweep of history this problem is only exacerbated. Adjectives and adverbs are overused, and lacking in variety and interest; a 16th-century shipowner speaks the language of 20th-century American business, and acts along the same lines.
Darkwood would also have greatly benefitted from the efforts of an editor – there are many grating typographical errors – "napsack" was one of the more entertaining ones, but there are lots of irritating "there" for "theirs" and similar.
If trees did indeed have consciousness, you can't but feel those felled for this book would be protesting their fate.