The Clearing by Simon Toyne

3 Mins read
The Clearing by Simon Toyne front cover

Fans of international bestseller Simon Toyne will know that he deals heavily in mood and atmosphere – the Sanctus and Solomon Creed trilogies confirmed that. Now he’s back with a follow-up to 2022’s Dark Objects, which introduced Dr Laughton Rees. The Clearing sees the return of the National Crime Agency forensics expert, supported by her friend, Detective Inspector Tannahil Khan. 

Maddie and Adele Friar are sisters who escaped an abusive childhood. When they lost their mother they were put into care but their experience was traumatic. Then one night they escaped, but with nowhere to go they wound up in the Forest of Dean, near Cinderfield, where they survive alongside other forest dwellers.

Now with lives in the normal community, everything is starting to fit together for them until Maddie goes missing after a Midsummer’s eve party held in The Clearing near Cinderfield Abbey. During the clean up, Maddie bumps into a figure wearing a Cinderman costume. Nobody else is around and she vanishes. Maddie up wakes and all she can remember is that figure. Now she’s trapped in some kind of underground prison, the roots of trees are above her head – it seems she’s in a bunker buried in the forest.

Is Maddie the latest victim of the Cinderman of local legend who haunts the Forest of Dean? Similar to Green Man pagan folklore, the Cinderman is the ghost of a local charcoal burner who lived centuries ago. In a time of poverty, an unimaginable tragedy occurred within his family. Is he still seeking revenge? 

Adele searches for Maddie but the local police don’t seem very interested in following up her missing persons report. After all, young people do wander off, they reckon. We discover that the wood is a place to fear for Adele because of her past, but does it still represent danger?

When the missing persons report comes to the attention of Laughton Rees in London, instantly she sees that the statistics on missing women in the area are appalling. Some 60 women in 20 years is more than coincidence. So Rees gets herself assigned to Maddie’s case and heads to Cinderfield, Gloucestershire (a fictional approximation of the real town of Cinderford). When she arrives she finds that Adele has been arrested on some spurious charge and only reluctantly will Chief Constable Beech let her look into Maddie’s case.

Once again we are immersed in a clever, suspenseful story by Simon Toyne. The mood binds us into an opaque tale that sometimes has the feel of a dense, mystical fog. Just as we feel we are about to touch the truth it hovers away, just out of reach.

Essentially, this is a world of characters who exist in the shadows, off the grid, be it in a wood or the nearby exclusive family estate. This is a community on the margins of society, almost tangential to the world we know, a twilight existence steeped in folklore, legend and myth. Yet while reading this darkly magical tale with a strong emotional pull we are all too aware of a gritty real world brutality that underlies the strangeness.

The narrative has a shape-shifting quality, it will give up its secrets but there are layers of mystery to be peeled back before some all-too-human frailties and wickedness are fully exposed. Everything has this gothic, ghostly feel and a sense of malevolence pervades it all. Are the answers supernatural or of this world – a manifestation of evil or human malfeasance. The tension is palpable and it’s reminiscent of the Wicker Man.

The cast comprise a local band of wood dwelling outlaws led by the scary abrasive Grizz; a lethargic police force; and a reclusive aristocrat. Everyone seems to have their own agenda. From the moment they meet, Rees and Adele are being watched. Someone is waiting for orders, a kidnapper is being protected, a serial killer may be active again.

The Clearing is for readers prepared to go with the author into the wilds of his imagination, for those who love to read through narrowed eyes, absorbing the suspenseful atmosphere most common in horror fiction. Readers who want to know they are on firm ground, who want a proper investigation, may not be so happy. This took us outside our usual comfort zone but the pay off made it worth the excursion.

Also see Old Religion by Simon Waites.

Harper Collins 

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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