Don’t Go Into the Woods Today: 10 Wilderness Thrillers & Why They Scare Us
The great outdoors is both the subject matter and the backdrop of a lot of great fiction. What is it about nature that makes it such a powerful setting? Is it how small humankind feels amidst all that vastness? “The world has teeth and it can bite you with them any time it wants,” writes Stephen King in one of our selections below. For the most part, we’ve stripped away the creepy-crawlies and the beasties from our civilized daily lives, but the wilderness is still rife with them.
Below are five tales that have stood the test of time paired with five contemporary novels. Each duo illuminates one way in which the wilderness puts characters to the test, and why it may exert a similar grasp on the reader.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Conrad’s novella deals with issues of imperialism, racism, and dominance between men. But it is also a tale of wilderness adventure, of a trip up an unknown and mighty river. To Westerners, the then-unmapped Congo may seem more foreign even than other natural settings—the eerie white fog, weapons shot from hidden depths—and it is this sense of alienation that Conrad uses to force the reader to confront the walls we all erect between what we know and what we don’t.
The Ruins by Scott Smith
Smith also uses the foreignness of the jungle—in this case, a Mexican vacation spot—to make his outlandish premise seem all too real. In a setting more commonplace, it might be harder for the reader to suspend disbelief about a creeping vine willfully intent on consuming a group of travel companions. But Smith places the reader far outside the confines of everyday life, at which point a completely alien occurrence becomes utterly, chillingly possible. You won’t believe the lengths the friends go to in order to try and survive.
Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
Theroux anticipates issues that are pressing today, such as the dangers and limitations of a consumerist society. As seen through the eyes of his son, father Allie Fox becomes increasingly obsessed with the need to discard society and live off the land in isolated splendor. But Mother Nature has a lot to dish out, and as Allie’s survivalist mania grows, his children rebel.
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
Helena is the daughter of a man who abducted her mother more than two decades before. She’s living a mostly normal life now as an adult, but when her survivalist father escapes from prison and enters the dense and wild marsh of Helena’s youth, only she has the skills—and arguably, the psychological fortitude—to track him down.
To Build a Fire by Jack London
Winter in the Yukon is not to be taken lightly, explains the old-timer in Jack London’s short story. Few who venture up here have any idea what they are facing or how to cope with it. And when the temperature dips to 70 below, when one’s spit freezes in midair before it hits the ground, the slightest mishap can spell disaster. The journey on which the main character and his dog embark, resisting all warnings, is a powerful exemplar of how the hubris of ordinary life can trigger a slow and inevitable spiral. London does a masterful job of depicting the dog as at once wise and no more than the product of his ancestry and instincts.
Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets
Winter is looming in the mountains when a young mother of two goes elk hunting and gets separated from her party. A combination of luck and survival skills enable her to last far longer and with fewer resources than would be expected. Forest ranger Pru Hathaway—and her dog—pursue what comes to seem like a hopeless search, and the story demonstrates the duality of how people depend upon animals in the wilderness while also utilizing them for their own purpose.
Deliverance by James Dickey
The theme of poet James Dickey’s masterpiece is that man’s destruction of nature is nothing compared to how he destroys other men. The river Ed Gentry and his friends attempt to canoe is set to be dammed, giving the men’s expedition a sense of immediacy and urgency. And just as the assault on the landscape will permanently alter it, so will the men be forever changed by the violence they face when a pair of mountain men emerge from the woods.
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
It’s a troupe of female friends, versus male, who paddle downriver in Ferencik’s tale and the gender differences—how women versus men engage with the wild—are fascinating. When the first act of unexpected violence takes place, it is shockingly devoid of human involvement, though—nature unleashing faceless, featureless risk. Still, the resulting encounter with a mountain woman and her strange son shows that the worst dangers reside in people. Ferencik plays deftly with an especially consuming question for today: Which people? How do we know whom to fear?
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
It’s tough when your parents get divorced, especially when you’re too young not to get dragged along on compensatory activities like a hiking trip in the woods. To avoid the bickering between her mother and older brother, nine-year-old Trisha falls behind and then gets lost, ultimately making a wrong turn that will turn a day trip into an odyssey. Trisha is forced to encounter the dangers of the wilderness as well as the terrible and exhilarating realization that she can depend on herself.
Descent by Tim Johnston
Caitlin and her younger brother are exploring the mountains above their Colorado hotel when Caitlin suddenly goes missing. To say what happens to her, and what she does about it, would spoil a tale so permeated by dread that you almost fear you are living it. Caitlin’s exodus from the wilderness is in question on every page—and even scarier is the life she will be forced to lead if she doesn’t make it out.
Bonus—Five authors who return to the outdoors again and again:
- Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series
- C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series
- Christine Carbo’s Glacier Mystery series
- Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch series
- William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series
Jenny Milchman is the Mary Higgins Clark award-winning and USA Today bestselling author of four novels, including the forthcoming wilderness thriller, Wicked River (Sourcebooks – May 2018). Visit Thrillers That Give You Shivers and enter to win a $1,000 gift card and other items from your favorite Sourcebooks authors.