Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Richard Laymon was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, writer of the splatterpunk genre. Over the course of about 20 years, he published more than 50 short stories and 30 novels. Like his contemporaries, such as Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee, Laymon pushed the boundaries of the horror genre by writing clear straight-forward passages of violence and sexual deviancy. These blood-laced narratives served to shock and disgust the reader.
During his life, Laymon became a mainstay in horror literature throughout Europe. Yet, he remained relatively unknown in his homeland, the United States. Laymon always maintained that this was due to the initial edited release of The Woods are Dark in 1981. The book, according to Laymon, was full typos and grammatical errors. It also removed a pivotal character, Lander Dills, featured in the initial draft.
Richard Laymon passed away in 2001. Later that year, he was posthumously awarded the Bram Stoker Award for The Traveling Vampire Show. Several unpublished novels were released in the years following his death, including the original manuscript for The Woods are Dark in 2008. This rerelease was done by his wife and daughter as a means to correct the mistake nearly three decades before and give fans of Laymon’s work a chance to read the story as he had intended.
The Woods are Dark is set in the forests of Eastern California, near Yosemite National Park. The narrative follows a group of college girls and the Dills family. Captured by the townsfolk of Barstow, they are brought into the woods and offered as sacrifices to cannibalistic savages, known as the “Krulls.”
With the help of a distraught local, the two groups manage to escape. The Krulls give chase. They are your stereotypical inbred hicks with a hankering for rape and human flesh. However, the Krulls are not the only thing lurking in the shadows and the woods are dark.
The initial 1981 release focused on the plight of the two college girls, Neala and Sherri. With the rerelease in 2008 much more of the book is given to the Dills Family, specifically a good father turned murdering rapist – Lander Dills. It is clear that Laymon saw each sacrificial group as a different lens with which to explore the same concept.
Neala and Sherri in many ways represent purity, or as close to pure as you can get in a Laymon novel. They choose the path of the righteous. Whereas, the Dills choose survival by whatever means necessary. They embrace the darkness which surrounds them. In the case of Lander Dills, his quest for vengeance ultimately turns him into the same evil that destroyed his family.
Lander Dills serves as a reminder to the reader. Violence is often cyclical. Moreover, human agency, or choice, is not something that can be necessarily predicted. With the focus on both, the college girls and the Dills Family, Laymon shows many different characters. They arrive at this shared event with unique upbringings and points of view. They act accordingly.
Unfortunately for most, regardless of how they act, death is inevitable. This is after all a Richard Laymon novel. Many die. The actions which lead to these deaths are varied and entertaining. Not all of the violence is directed towards the escapees either. Expect rape and slaughter on both sides.
Interestingly, the restored and unedited version of The Woods are Dark, released seven years after his death, may be Laymon’s greatest accomplishment. It is everything you want in splatterpunk. The narrative is unrestrained. Three decades later it still shocks and disgusts. The Woods are Dark serves a reminder of a life lost too soon. RIP Richard Laymon.
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