Epeolatry Book Review: The Woods all Black by Lee Mandelo


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Title: The Woods all Black
Author: Lee Mandelo
Genre: historical fantasy, dark fantasy, romantic fantasy
Publisher: Tordotcom
Release Date: 19th March, 2024

Synopsis: The Woods All Black is equal parts historical horror, trans romance, and blood-soaked revenge, all set in 1920s Appalachia

Leslie Bruin is assigned to the backwoods township of Spar Creek by the Frontier Nursing Service, under its usual mandate: vaccinate the flock, birth babies, and weather the judgements of churchy locals who look at him and see a failed woman. Forged in the fires of the Western Front and reborn in the cafes of Paris, Leslie believes he can handle whatever is thrown at him―but Spar Creek holds a darkness beyond his nightmares.

Something ugly festers within the local congregation, and its malice has focused on a young person they insist is an unruly tomboy who must be brought to heel. Violence is bubbling when Leslie arrives, ready to spill over, and he’ll have to act fast if he intends to be of use. But the hills enfolding Spar Creek have a mind of their own, and the woods are haunted in ways Leslie does not understand.

The Woods All Black is a story of passion, prejudice, and power ― an Appalachian period piece that explores reproductive justice and bodily autonomy, the terrors of small-town religiosity, and the necessity of fighting tooth and claw to live as who you truly are.

Greetings, Reader. By the time you read this, we might be on the other side of the holiday season, taking a break from the hustle and bustle. I hope you came out in one piece, or, at best, only missing a small piece or two. I trust that everyone and every place you visited welcomed you with warmth, because no one wants to feel unwelcome. You came to spread seasonal cheer, not to be harassed about your outfit, or to be side eyed over your new boyfriend or girlfriend. Remember, Reader, treat others as you’d like to be treated, because resentment sometimes comes with claws and fangs.

Introducing The Woods All Black by Lee Mandelo. Set in Appalachian Kentucky in 1929, the reader is introduced to Leslie “Les” Bruin. As a member of the Frontier Nursing Service, Leslie is assigned to the small, isolated town of Spar Creek where he will take census of the local population and perform medical related needs. Once in town, Leslie is received with a cold reception which speaks to more than just Leslie’s appearance.

Leslie meets a kindred spirit in Stephanie “Stevie” Mattingly, a young woman who refuses to conform to the overly religious views of the town pastor. Ames Holladay holds an iron fist over the whole town from his pulpit and his influence will cause Leslie’s job to be that much harder to accomplish. If fighting with the local townsfolk wasn’t enough, the religious tension has awoken something ancient in the surrounding Appalachian woods.

Staying true to the era in which the story is written, Mandelo writes Leslie Bruin true to life using historical events and records to develop the character’s past. Time spent in Europe during World War I, and social development in post-war France and major US cities help round out Leslie’s sense of self. In the back of the novella, Mandelo goes as far as to cite all works used to develop his leading character.  

Leslie is a woman who identifies as male. In an explanation to Stevie, he uses the terms “invert” and “mirror-sex: the soul of a man in the body of a woman”. In keeping with this identity, Leslie’s pronouns throughout are “he/him”. There are times when this causes a small bit of confusion, mostly where the scene includes a large number of male characters. These scenes are few and the reader can catch their bearings.

While Leslie’s identity and appearance shape his interaction with the world, this is not the reason for the opposition he faces throughout the story. It is likely that any outsider would face the same problems if they didn’t conform to Pastor Holladay’s definition of a man or woman. And Leslie saves a life, as he is able to relate to Stevie at the critical hour. 

Coming in at about 150 pages, this novella is a powerful reminder that transpeople have been a part of culture and society for as long as history has been written. The Woods All Black is a premium example of trans focused literature. Mandelo took great care to represent real people in this story’s lead and supporting characters. If you have never read trans-forward literature, I can’t recommend this novella enough. For the rest, if you’re fans of historical horror, small town horror, or just great stories, consider picking up The Woods All Black


Available from Amazon.

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