The Ghost Woods by CJ Cooke

In 1965, in the Scottish Borderlands, Pearl finds herself pregnant and unmarried, so her parents send her to Lichen Hall, a strange, crumbling mansion on the edge of a wood in the middle of nowhere. She is one of a string of mothers who have been sent there to give birth in secret and have their child adopted. Lichen Hall is said to be one of the better homes for pregnant women, where they will be treated better than in other homes, but there is something wrong about the house and the woman who runs it. There are secrets, strange lights in the night, and something living in the woods outside…

In my opinion, this book felt like mostly Pearls story, but there are two story threads that are woven together in this book. There is Pearl, in 1965, and then there are some chapters from Mabel, whose story starts in 1959, and we slowly find out how they fit together, as they converge later in the book.

The book is squarely in Gothic Fiction territory. In the opening chapters we are given: a car ride in the rain and dark to a huge isolated mansion, scary gossip about the house and the inhabitants, babies and motherhood (often a horror staple), tales of witches, a spooky lab filled with odd specimens, fungus and mushrooms growing inside the building, an empty wing of the house, and our heroine is asked to do some private tutoring work, aka, a governess. All things I am here for.

The book mostly delivers on its promise. It’s inspired by Scotland’s Mother and Baby homes, which were often pretty horrendous and where adoptions were forced. In this book, the women are drawn to Lichen Hall because it seems like a better place than the other homes available and they’re vulnerable because they have nowhere else to go. I founds this aspect of the book really well written and used to add something to the story that was very effective.

This book is really solid on characters and place. The atmosphere is wonderful, and because the characters all feel real and well realised, you will keep reading for them. However, about 100 pages in, we know exactly where this book is headed, and there are really no surprises from here on out. There were no revelations for me at all in this book. Also, without giving any spoilers, what is happening in this book is exactly the same as another recent, very popular Gothic Fiction novel that was widely read and talked about on social media… The cover of this ARC says “there’s something in the woods”, and it seems like this is to differentiate this story from that other one. I was surprised that this book would go there, but there’s enough that different to make it it’s own story and to read it anyway. I was entertained and engaged throughout, and do recommend it.

Also, points for diversity in this book, we have people of colour and lesbians.

Read It If: there seems to be a bit of a Gothic Fic renaissance happening lately, and I like it! Even though you may see where this book is going early on, it’s well worth a read for the characters and atmosphere.

Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for the ARC of this book for review.

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