Leslie Bruin is assigned to the backwoods township of Spar Creek by the Frontier Nursing Service, under its usual mandate: vaccinate the flock, birth babies, and weather the judgements of churchy locals who look at him and see a failed woman. Forged in the fires of the Western Front and reborn in the cafes of Paris, Leslie believes he can handle whatever is thrown at him—but Spar Creek holds a darkness beyond his nightmares.
Something ugly festers within the local congregation, and its malice has focused on a young person they insist is an unruly tomboy who must be brought to heel. Violence is bubbling when Leslie arrives, ready to spill over, and he’ll have to act fast if he intends to be of use. But the hills enfolding Spar Creek have a mind of their own, and the woods are haunted in ways Leslie does not understand.
Lee Mandelo’s The Woods All Black might be a bit of a slow burn as far as a horror novel goes, but as a historical novel with a fascinating setting and protagonist, it hits the ground running from the first page.
Leslie Bruin has come to Spar Creek as a nurse for the Frontier Nursing Service, a post-World War One program putting combat nurses into rural communities to provide inoculations and assist with childbirth.
Leslie is haunted by the things he both saw and did in the war, and he’s also carrying a secret. Leslie is a trans man, though he doesn’t quite have the language to describe it that way. So, arriving in the little Appalachian tobacco town of Spar Creek, with its insular ways and hellfire preacher, he’s immediately put on guard. It seems that between requesting a nurse and Leslies’s arrival, something has changed the temper of the town.
That something is Stevie Mattingly, a kindred spirit who refuses to play by the town’s–or God’s–rules. For much of the scant 130 pages of the novel, these two circle around each other, never quite willing to out themselves, as Leslie more and more comes to think of himself as Stevie’s protector.
As the preacher’s sermons gain in their vitriol, and as Stevie continues to act out, a whole series of events lead to what can only be a tragic climax for Leslie.
And that’s the historical fiction novel that might have been.
It’s only one part of The Woods All Black, though. Because there’s also something stalking the nearby woods, eviscerating deer and stalking Leslie through the trees. There’s also an old woman who may or may not be a witch, and a cave in the mountain where strange things happen in the night.
What’s remarkable about Mandelo’s handling of all of these elements is just how grounded the story remains. Even when the latter third of the novel takes off into the realm of horror fantasy, the action is still very much set within the world of Spar Creek.
This is no accident. For it is the human monsters who are the true source of horror here, and the monster that stalks the woods may just be something beautiful. And the injection of traditional horror elements actually offer an alternative to tragedy.
All in all, The Woods All Black serves up a tightly wound tale of oppression and revenge, with characters who are allowed to be as flawed and troubled as any of us. A remarkable book told with startling efficiency.
The Woods All Black will be available March, 2024.