Some chilling campfire tales ring too true to ignore. For one young woman, an urban legend calls her into the woods in a spine-tingling short story by the bestselling author of Bird Box.
The dense Michigan forest. Haunting wails. The clip-clop of demon hooves on a bridge to nowhere. It’s more than a tall tale to Brenda Jennings, whose sister disappeared in those woods one fateful night. Three years later, on a solo stakeout in the dark, Brenda goes in after her. She’s desperate for answers, and terrified to find what lies waiting on the other side of that bridge.
Josh Malerman’s It Waits in the Woods is part of Creature Feature, a collection of devilishly creepy stories that tingle the spine and twist the mind. They can be read or listened to in one petrifying sitting.
Startling a reader with words alone, a jump scare essentially is a special talent that Josh Malerman excels at delivering in his short story, “It Waits in the Woods.” The main focus is on Brenda, a teenager whose sister, Amanda, went missing in the Ucatanani National Forest years ago. Partially blamed by her family for this disappearance due to negligence, Brenda sets out into the woods alone to bring her home even in the face of an idea that no one is willing to entertain: the Opso, a creature who wanders these woods in search of a face to claim as its own.
Right off the bat, Malerman sets the tone of this story by giving us an overview of the disturbing legends of the UNF. A white bridge with yellow trim, old and fading, is rumored to exist somewhere in this particular wilderness. Some say the bridge goes nowhere while others report it’s actually buried beneath the earth, a relic of some forgotten time. This calls to mind the popular internet legends of the “stairs in the woods” and other creepy pastas (if you’ve spent any amount of time on Reddit, you’ll know what I’m talking about). Yet, the most terrifying aspect of this legend concerning the bridge has to do with who owns it: a “demon imp” with no face called the Opso. Of course, this is all just local lore, not a serious avenue of investigation that police traverse in the event someone goes missing in these woods. Just an urban legend, right?
While the first part of this short story is spent building this legend and laying the groundwork for Brenda’s last-ditch effort to bring her sister home, the last few pages genuinely frighten me and are full of suspense. Malerman shines here and gives us a truly heart-pounding conclusion to this tale of unrelenting hope. This is done, literally and figuratively, through the lens of Brenda.
Her decision to document all she does and sees on her journey feels like a unique commentary on the state of our world today and our fascination with documentation. This story taps into the same kind of found footage/recorded movie vibes that Host, The Blair Witch Project, and Deadstream deliver. In my mind, the scenes in which Brenda stages the angles of her videos play like an eerie recovered film, documenting the possibility of the unknown.
With an ending I truly did not expect, Josh Malerman’s “It Waits in the Woods,” is the perfect companion to late-night scary story tellings and calls to mind the eeriness of the found footage films we all know and love. A few scenes towards the end of the story left me genuinely frightened and rather jumpy (no thanks to my creaky floorboards that decided to pop at just the right time). This is another excellent entry in Amazon’s Creature Feature Collection that carries on the spirit of confronting those who go bump in the night. Or, more specifically, the forest.