“Nightwoods” by Charles Frazier, Where the People are as Grim and Cruel as Nature

“Nightwoods” by Charles Frazier  (2011) – 259 pages

“A distressingly large portion of the world doesn’t do you any good whatsoever. In fact, it does you bad.”


The new novel by Charles Frazier is a grim Southern gothic tale set in the sparsely populated Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina during the early 1960s.  Much of the action occurs in places with names like Hog Pens Gap or Picken’s Nose.   

 “ …violence is best accomplished spur-of-the-moment. Let it happen out of nowhere… like there’s no past and no future, nothing but the red right now…”

 At the center of the story is Bud, the sorry scary villain.  Bud is a one-note character with no more depth than the slasher Jason in the movie ‘Friday the 13th’.  Bud is the bogeyman; whenever Bud pops up, brutality is sure to follow.  Frazier makes no attempt to explain him; Bud is just a selfish cruel natural force who is there.  Many novels attempt to explain the motivations of the villain, but Frazier apparently was more interested in creating a creepy crawly villain.

 “Nothing changes what already happened. It will always have happened. You either let it break you down or you don’t.”

 Certainly there is a long tradition of bleak gothic novels where even the cruelty of people is depicted as a force of nature, but the danger is that a drama without motivation will turn into a melodrama.  The story may be compelling but not all that interesting.  Frazier attempts to blame the fact that Bud is not locked up on legal technicalities, but it is more likely that it’s the Southern tradition to let good ole white boys run loose with their weapons and their cruelty.  Bud isn’t the only character in ‘Nightwoods’ beset by willful stupidity and cruelty.  Both parents, Link and Lola, of the main female character Luce have their share of problems.

 “…it wasn’t even as if love factored much. Luce didn’t expect to love the children, and she sure didn’t expect them to love her ever. That was a lot to ask in either direction. But there was something she was feeling toward them, and it had to do with their survival.”

 ‘Nightwoods’ contains lyrical elegiac descriptions of the mountains, the lakes, and the natural surroundings of this western area of North Carolina; many of these descriptions depict nature to be as squalid as the people who live there.   

“At dawn, cold mist, pale metal colors. Gray and yellow and blue. Then various degrees of early light as the sun burns through the fog. Each twig and fir needle in its own case of ice. …”

  Sure, there are natural-born killers running loose in a lot of different places.  You only need to glance at the newspapers from just about anywhere to know that.  It just does not make very involving fiction to watch people being terrorized by them, because we all would be terrorized.     “Nightwoods” is not a novel of literary depth.  It reads more like the script for a lovely Southern slasher film.

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