Last Updated on February 14, 2024
I fell in love with Lee Mandelo’s writing when I read his debut, Summer Sons. Now he’s back with queer, atmospheric The Woods All Black. This is a slim novella, but it doesn’t hold back any punches. Full disclaimer: I haven’t shut up about this book since I read it. Set in rural Appalachia in 1929, we encounter a clash between queerness and entrenched small communities – and it’s also in many ways a story still relevant in this day and age, where the hate faced by the trans community has never been bigger.
Les is part of the Frontier Nursing Service, an organisation providing medical services to rural communities. Sent to Spar Creek to provide vaccinations, he soon encounters a clash between the remote and isolated population and his own rather modern and queer ways. Family planning and traditional mindsets don’t mesh well, after all. As Les does his best to look after the women of the community – and Stevie, a young trans man trying to become himself – things go south very fast. And there is a monster in the woods adding fuel to the fire.
Les considers himself an “invert”, a concept that made the jump from medical research to the wider community in the 1920s. This means that he considers himself to have masculine traits, while being in a woman’s body. He is a brilliant leading character, complex and charming – and utterly stifled. Similarly, Stevie, the other lead character and Les’ love interest considers himself a man. Born female and in the early stages of pregnancy, he too struggles against the confines of the community he grew up in.
Their queerness is at the heart of The Woods All Black, and showcases how Spar Creek may be a remote community in the 1920s, but can also be read as an allegory for our allegedly modern society.
Mandelo’s academic background is clear throughout The Woods All Black is an expertly crafted novella and it is obvious how much care has gone into the writing and research for it. It is in conversation with early 20th century literature by women as well as queer ideas of the period. A careful reader will soon recognise references to classic texts and for all other readers, Mandelo has included a reading list in the author’s note.
Just like his previous work, The Woods All Black is steeped in atmosphere. The woods become a character of their own, taking part in the story as a source of the uncanny. This is a horror novel, but a very literary one. Don’t expect flashy gore, rather this story plays with the reader’s sense of impending doom. It also interrogates how complicity becomes villainy, how being present alone furthers hate – and hate crimes. In this, Mandelo joins a tradition of modern gothic, stories that pick up on the vibes of the traditional gothic novel, but convert it for today’s audiences. In terms of style, The Woods All Black reminds me both of classic feminist texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and modern literary horror like Caroline Hardaker’s MothTown.
My best description for The Woods All Black is literary monsterfucking. It is one of the queerest stories I have ever read – and confronts its reader with their own complicity in contemporary oppression. In that, this is a very timely novel despite its 1920s setting and mentality. I beg you, read this one. The Woods All Black blew my mind and cemented Lee Mandelo as a king of modern gothic.