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French author Grégoire Courtois’s first novel to be translated into English is The Laws of the Skies, a brilliant, malicious and perverse horror novel in which numerous six-year-olds die mercilessly in the woods.

The story begins simply, with a group of first graders and a handful of supervising adults heading into the woods on a camping trip. “They would never return,” concludes the first page, in the clearest and most crushing moment of foreshadowing a novel ever had to offer.

Courtois’s tale begins like a fairy tale, with the children entering the woods, but we know from fairy tales that children should not enter the woods. The story then develops with a slasher film’s logic, as one-by-one the characters succumb to the environment or to slaughter.

Through it all, the author meditates on what this story might mean, concluding in the end that it means nothing.

Less than nothing, in a way, because in many respects this story is an anti-story. Late in the novel, Courtois writes that “no story is ever told that fails to have a lesson, because telling a story without a point destroys civilization a little,” while at the same time admitting that his own story “would serve as a lesson for no one.”

The Laws of the Skies features a series of these anti-story stories, that the adults tell the children or the children tell themselves, miniature tales of terror whose only moral, if they can be said to have one, is that the world is a cruel, nightmarish place that cares nothing for its inhabitants, just like these woods the children have foolishly entered.

In their telling, these stories fall apart, as their tellers are murdered. The novel’s narration is unstable and keeps shifting perspective between characters, often breaking into poetic asides that comment on the unfolding horror. The author also comments on how characters understand or fail to understand this horror as it happens, and on our own position as readers and how we might comprehend or fail to comprehend this horror that’s been presented to us. How we might still have hope, because we have been taught to hope, even though the first page told us the ending, even though hope is the first thing that dies.

“The cries of the children calling for their mothers had filled the space and made everything tremble, tremors that reached the most obtuse of sensibilities, moving anyone who could detect the vibration, that is, anyone other than you, dear reader, who have the privilege and the curse of grasping the unbearable bird’s-eye view of a forest, plunged into the darkness of one inconsequential night, from which rise the cries for help of children left to their own devices, and children who have died, or who will die, and whose salvation you can do nothing for. That is your lot, and that is theirs, tragic roles that each will have to play as best they can, until the last page.”

The Laws of the Skies is a beautiful, amoral masterpiece. It achieves the dream of the horror story, the dream so few stories achieve: to hurt its readers. To threaten their ideas about the world, themselves, and the goodness of stories.

What’s the most disturbing horror story you’ve ever read? Let me know below in the comments!

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    Author of stranger fiction. Advocate of writing the wrong way. Poet laureate of Hell.

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