The Bone Forest by Robert Holdstock

UK cover, art by Geoff Taylor

First published in Interzone in March 1991, then in a collection of the same name in the same year, The Bone Forest is a prequel to Mythago Wood. (And, as it came before 1993’s The Hollowing, it means I’ve got out of sequence in my read-through of the mythago books. But time gets jumbled in these mythogenetic thickets…) Holdstock wrote this novella at the request of a screenwriter working on an adaptation of Mythago Wood (and how I’d love to see that), who asked for more background. I can’t help wondering, though, whether what Holdstock presented them with would have helped.

The Bone Forest is set in 1935, when Steven Huxley, the protagonist of Mythago Wood, is eight years old. But he — and even more so his older brother Christian — is a secondary character here. The focus is on the boys’ father, George Huxley. In his forties but feeling “stooped, sagging, [and] a fatigue that he had expected to encounter in his sixties, not for many many years”, Huxley is becoming increasingly aware that age is a factor in the ability to evoke mythagos from Ryhope Wood. His boys (unwittingly) seem much more capable of seeing them without even trying. One frozen winter night, for instance, they see a “Snow Woman” in the garden, which Huxley knows instantly to be a mythago. On his next expedition into the wood with his colleague Wynne-Jones, he meets this shamanic figure again, and in an attempt to open communications shows her some amulets he removed from the Horse Shrine (an early landmark in his — and, later, Steven’s — exploration of the wood’s depths). Her expression as he shows her these purloined sacred objects passes from horror to pity. She gives Huxley an amulet of her own, made from carefully-selected fragments of wood and bark. Soon after, he encounters a primal mythago-scene: four men driving massive wild horses ahead of them into the woods. A moment later, the men reappear, now clinging to the backs of the horses, but it’s evident Huxley is witnessing a particularly brutal sacrifice, as one of the horses has spears hanging from its flesh and is clearly being ridden to its death, while another’s rider is encased so tightly in straw his arms are forced into a cross-shape, and the straw is on fire. It’s just the sort of shocking image that shows Holdstock’s imagination at its strongest — a possible glimpse of our nearly incomprehensible savage past, or perhaps something from the deepest and most primal of dreams.

Illustration from Interzone. Art by SMS.

One of the horse-and-rider pairs collides with Huxley. Dazed, he recovers and returns home, but comes to realise a split occurred in that collision, when he seemed for a moment to be both himself and the doomed rider. Now there seems to be another Huxley in the world, one his son Steven describes as “grey-green” and whose movements are oddly sped-up. Huxley finds it writing, in his handwriting, in his hidden private journal, as well as sleeping with his wife, Jennifer — who glows with the attention she thinks she’s suddenly receiving from a previously neglectful husband. It’s as if, Huxley thinks, “a more primordial aspect of my behaviour had been let out, dusted off, and set loose…” And his fellow explorer of the woods, Wynne-Jones, hasn’t returned from their last expedition. Things have gone wrong, but can Huxley set them right?

I have to admit to being a bit perturbed, as a reader of the mythago series, by The Bone Forest. Holdstock is fleshing out a situation that was already established in the first book, but, being a writer who wants to push his ideas forward, he can’t help bringing in new elements. It risks compromising the dramatic power of that foundational situation, where George Huxley was the frustrated, closemouthed obsessive who neglects his wife and is ogreish towards his sons, all in an ultimately futile quest to understand the mythagos of Ryhope. Here, in The Bone Forest, Huxley gets to witness plenty of high-grade mythago activity, undermining that later feeling of frustration. He at one point in The Bone Forest pointedly makes Steven promise never to enter Ryhope Wood, something I don’t remember being mentioned in Mythago Wood, but which Steven would surely have recalled in that book. But the worst thing, for me, is the characterisation of Huxley’s wife Jennifer — or, rather, the lack of it. In Mythago Wood we’re aware of how much she was neglected, even erased, by Huxley’s obsessive focus on his researches. Her being shut out from his life was an essential part of that. But here, he at one point explains everything to her. And her lack of any real reaction when she’s told she has been sleeping with some sort of ghost is almost brushed past. The effect is to turn this neglected woman into something of a nonentity. (I actually think the best way Holdstock could have answered the screenwriter’s request for more backstory would have been to tell the story from Jennifer’s point of view, even if it would mean — perhaps because it would mean — minimising the fantastic element. But I don’t think Holdstock was interested in telling that tale.)

That’s the negative view of The Bone Forest. But I think there’s another way to appreciate this novella. George Huxley’s desire to evoke mythagos from Ryhope Wood feels so like a writer’s desire to bring imaginative treasures from his or her creative depths that it’s easy to read The Bone Forest as a laying bare of Holdstock’s creative process. In the same issue of Interzone as the novella first appeared, there’s an interview with Holdstock by Stan Nichols, in which he says:

“One of the ways I write is very much to set up a task, get an idea, and leave the unconscious — or underconscious — processes to come up with the explanations. My self-consciousness is producing words on the paper, but there’s a whole process going on behind.”

And this feels true to the three mythago novels I’ve looked at so far. They set up Ryhope Wood as a matrix of primal mythic images, then bring realistic, modern characters into the wood and start things simmering. Mythagos flicker at the corners of their vision, then pop up right before them, in all their vivid, rugged, and often pungent reality. And then, suddenly, we’ll have an image that seems to have come straight from the primal depths. With The Hollowing, for instance, I felt things meandered a bit till the re-imagined version of the mythic Jason as a brutal, world-weary plunderer of fantastic treasures appeared. That was the moment Holdstock’s “underconscious” delivered. It was only then the novel really came alive as the previous two had done, but it was necessary for all the preceding action to have been there, the simmering before the imaginative boiling-point was hit.

Czech cover

With The Bone Forest, Holdstock hits his seam of imaginative gold comparatively early, with that image of the blazing, straw-encased man on the back of a giant, madly-galloping horse. As the rider collides with Huxley, so this savage and archaic image collides with Holdstock the writer, and leaves both reeling. What is this thing, this galloping horse with its blazing rider? Both Huxley and Holdstock want — no, need — to know, and spend the rest of the novella trying to understand. (At one point, Huxley spends a few paragraphs just asking all the questions that he, and the reader, and perhaps Holdstock too, have of this mythogenetic mess he’s caught up in.)

And I think that, just as Holdstock recognised the importance of making his conscious mind confine itself to the craft while the unconscious worked on unearthing that primal imaginative material — a sort of self-sacrifice of the ego before the demands of creative work — so that striking image of the riders and horses is one of self-sacrifice to a wilder power. As Huxley muses:

“I am still shocked by the nature of the sacrifices and the awareness that the murdered men seemed willing participants in this early form of acknowledgement of the power of the horse.”

The horse — whose shrine stands at the threshold of the deeper, more magical areas of Ryhope Wood, and so at the threshold of Holdstock’s imagination — is an image of the creative impulse: wild, powerful, driven by a primal energy, yet nevertheless bearing a human burden (its rider, its writer), and capable of being harnessed, ridden, taken on a journey, told into a tale. At the moment it’s first encountered, that rider/writer is clearly being carried along, out of control, part of the sacrifice. Then it collides with George Huxley — and with the conscious Robert Holdstock — leaving him fragmented, reeling, and having to unpack all the mythic and imaginative meaning from that powerful image.

The mythago books are a number of things going on at once. There’s Holdstock exploring how a scientific-feeling approach can be brought to things of the deeper imagination; there’s the fascination of seeing a writer grapple with a powerful fantastic idea, on the page right in front of the reader’s eyes; and there’s also a human story, of the Huxley family, and the others touched by Ryhope Wood’s strange power.

The Bone Forest, I think, works in the first two ways, but doesn’t quite in the third. Its George Huxley doesn’t feel like the George Huxley that was so essential to the first book. But, that aside, this feels like one of the more raw offerings of Holdstock’s Ryhopian imagination, something a little more ragged than Mythago Wood or Lavondyss, but still a valuable part of the creative whole.

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