by Kathryn E. McGee
“A price paid in anything less than blood was not a price at all.”
Lisa Quigley’s debut novel, The Forest, is an enthralling horror story about the intensity of motherhood set in an isolated forest town with awful secrets. Expert pacing and sharp, spare prose make for a page-turner with much to say about the role of family and community in our lives.
Faye has grown up in an enchanted woodland where she and her fellow townspeople are protected from hardship though they must sacrifice objects of personal significance to secure their continuing health and safety. When we meet Faye, she is contemplating her annual offering while struggling with severe postpartum anxiety. Her mental state is exacerbated when she learns there is more to the exchange than she previously understood: a blood sacrifice is required. Her family informs her that she must offer up the life of her infant son, Jonas. Despite never having left her homeland, Faye flees into the woods with her child, embarking on a harrowing journey of survival.
The structure of the novel switches between past and present, with flashbacks revealing only as much as we need to know about the townspeople. We question along with Faye: How could her family expect her to give up her child? How could she not have known this was coming? Quigley’s narrative technique, teasing out answers through snapshots into the past, effectively keeps the focus on Faye’s internal process.
Much of her emotional struggle is in reconciling her newly negative perception of her family, especially that of her mother, who is most adamant about the necessity of the sacrifice. Faye’s devastating attempts to understand how a loved one could think so differently from her feel extremely poignant in a post-Trump, midpandemic America with families and social groups divided by profound ideological differences. Such conflicts also reflect on issues of class and privilege, as Faye realizes the security she has long enjoyed has been at a great cost—that of the innocent. Quigley grounds these big ideas in the focused conflict of Faye keeping her baby alive. This survival narrative therefore feels extremely relatable and thought-provoking.
Snippets of detail necessary for worldbuilding hint at the bigger picture, suggesting there may be worlds with traditions and understandings beyond our own. For example, a journey through a mysterious underground tunnel implies a larger, more complex magic system with ancient roots. That such elements are not fully explained contributes to a sense of wonder infusing much of the story and bolstering our ability to empathize with the townspeople.
Faye’s constant search for understanding and deep, inalienable empathy for her flawed family members suggests a raw, albeit sad, sort of hope. In this way, Quigley conveys Faye’s character with depth and nuance, revealing the challenges of postpartum anxiety in the most intense circumstance possible. The Forest is a masterful novel, entertaining with a unique setting and focus on motherhood while navigating big questions about our relationship to community, to family, and to ourselves.
Kathryn E. McGee’s book reviews and short stories have appeared in The Coachella Review, Scoundrel Time, Kelp Journal, on the Ladies of the Fright blog, and in horror anthologies such as Halldark Holidays, Dead Bait 4, and Horror Library Vol. 6. She is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association and hosts Skelton Hour, a horror literature webinar series of the HWA. She is also co-author of DTLA37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories and has an MFA in Creative Writing from University of California, Riverside at Palm Desert. For more information, visit www.kathrynemcgee.com.