Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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PTFC Challenge #2: The Women of the Wood

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 21, 2018

Continuing the Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge, I have a story by Abraham Merritt, an outstanding pulp-era fantasy writer whom I only discovered last year.  He was an inspiration to and contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft among others. He certainly gets pretty lush in his descriptions, much like Tolkien (and Lovecraft, and … quite a few pulp authors, really).

The story was originally published as “The Woman of the Wood” in Weird Tales in 1926, though since then it has been known as “The Women of the Wood.” I discovered it over the weekend searching for story I hadn’t read for this challenge. It’s what would be considered “Contemporary Fantasy” today, taking place not in the distant past or in alternate worlds, but in “modern” France of Merritt’s time, shortly after World War I.

The protagonist, McKay, was an aviator during the war, and is now recovering from what would be known as PTSD today. A lover of forests and trees, McKay takes solace in a French inn deep in the forested country, and attributes his recovery to the trees themselves. However, attuned as he is to nature, as the weeks go by he perceives an unrest in the woods, and signs of what seems like a war between the trees, and the landowner’s family.

Eventually, his investigations lead him to an encounter with the dryad-like elfin people of the trees, who enlist him to aid them in their war against the landlord. At the behest and probable enchantment of a dying dryad, he joins the cause. His resolve fades as he emerges into the sunlight, and begins doubting his sanity, until he encounters the landlord. The landlord and his sons are just as convinced of the sentience of the spirits of the trees as McKay, and are planning their own violent end to the conflict. Both sides are committed to the destruction of the other.

And… I’ll let you read the rest.

Merritt waxes even more poetic and playful in his use of language in this story than a couple of his other works that I have read. As I noted earlier, he has a strong similarity to Tolkien in his detailed descriptions of the land surrounding the inn. If you are looking for the feeling of an “enchanted forest,” this is the story to read. The spirits of the trees are not slow-to-anger Ents, though. Neither is the conflict here black-and-white. The humans have deep-seated reasons for continuing a feud that has gone on for hundreds of years, and the dryads are ruthless and uncompromising.

In spite of taking place in the (then) modern era, this story is probably a little closer in style to Tolkien’s books than Moore’s first Jirel story, although they all share florid descriptions of their landscapes. The stories of the pulp era were largely about transporting readers to new and unusual places, I think. In spite of being a war veteran, McKay’s disposition is far closer to that of Tolkien’s hobbits than Moore’s fiery protagonist. The supernatural in this story is not fundamentally evil as in Black God’s Kiss, but it is equally dangerous and helpful to mere mortals, as it is in Middle Earth.

But those are pretty surface comparisons. The Women of the Wood is really its own thing, and a reminder that the fantasy of the pulp era was pretty varied even before they had a name for the category. I’ve yet to be disappointed reading anything by Merritt.

You can read The Women of the Wood here

Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction - Comments: Read the First Comment