Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Edward Lee has never shied away from graphic scenes of sex, particularly non-consensual intercourse. Rape often occurs in Lee’s work. There are few real world tragedies as horrific as rape. Lee clearly understands this, but often pushes well beyond the boundaries of good taste.
In The Backwoods, sexual misconduct takes center stage. Set in southern Virginia, a big time city lawyer returns to her country home to attend the funeral of her sister’s husband. The events surrounding his death are a mystery. It will be one of several deaths that take place during the lawyer’s visit. Unfolding like a crime drama, the lawyer must find out who lies behind the killings while coming to terms with her own rape in the community over 20 years ago.
Lee’s heavy-handed approach is ill-suited for the story he wishes to tell. As with all of Lee’s works, the characters presented in the tale represent simple character tropes: sleazy cop, strange religious zealot, loyal good-natured farm hand, overly trusting drunk sister, corrupt land developer, etc… Physically, each character is either repulsive or a super model and gender roles are clearly defined. Men are lecherous predators and women are their prey. None of these traits humanize or endear the characters or the storyline to the reader.
In a monster of the week feature, these lackluster character profiles would be celebrated as the reader journeys from one over the top kill scene to the next, but here the emphasis is on the emotional trauma of rape. The reader needs to empathize with the characters and that is almost impossible to do, especially when the focus is on describing the woman’s breasts. Two of the most elaborate rape sequences are perpetrated on a 16 year old version of the lawyer and a 60 year old hippie. The erotic treatment of the sequences are almost more horrific than the acts depicted.
While sex scenes and crime drama abound in this novel, there are also some minor fantastical elements. These are poorly delivered, but they have the effect of at least harkening back to Stephen King’s Thinner gypsy curses. Indeed, it would not at all be surprising if Thinner served as the inspiration for The Backwoods.
There is also some non-sexual violence. This is rather insubstantial when compared to Lee’s other works. Yet, these acts serve as a reminder of Lee’s true genius and why he is considered a master in the horror genre. The crab bait killing is brutally original and delivered in a straightforward manner that leaves shivers running up and down the reader’s spine.
Still, there is very little to recommend in The Backwoods. Flashes of brilliance are few and far between. As a horror story looking at the emotional devastation brought on by sexual violence, the story fails by making it difficult -if not impossible- to connect with the characters. As a mystery, it also fails. The bad guys are really the bad guys. While Lee tries to throw a few wrenches into the formula, they are forced and do not add anything to the overall story. Lastly, as erotica, the tale also fails. Many erotic writers have dealt with taboo fantasies involving non-consensual sex in much more eloquent terms than those elaborated on by Lee in The Backwoods.
As an author and consumer of horror literature, I admire Edward Lee for his contributions to the genre, but The Backwoods has to be one of his worst novels. Sometimes something can be so bad it is good. This is not one of those instances. Compared to The Bighead or Flesh Gothic, The Backwoods is really subpar.