Book Talk

The Power of Juxtaposition: Beauty and Revulsion in A.S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest”

Considering that I’m a writer who is heavily inspired by fairy tales, magic, and anything fantastical, it’s kind of amazing that I’d never read anything by A.S. Byatt before beginning my MFA program. That first year, my mentor introduced me to so many great authors (who, though popular and well-established, were new to me), most of which I fell absolutely in love with. And no one merges literary fiction with the dangerously magical tone of fairy tales quite like A.S. Byatt.

It’s hard to put into words the lyrical, poetic style of my favorite Byatt story. But if you want someplace to start with this author, then I recommend finding Little Black Book of Stories and flipping to “The Thing in the Forest.” There’s a lot to be learned here.

This is Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt. It is lovely. (ɔ◔‿◔)ɔ ♥

Not to dig too deeply too quickly, but the title alone is exciting. For such a simple title, there’s an ominous quality to it, creating an element of, if not suspense, then danger, right off the bat. The mysterious quality of “thing” (and not knowing what this “thing” could be) is immediately unsettling. 

(As a quick aside, what could be more magical than a forest in the context of fairy tales stories? Already, Byatt prepares to take the reader on a journey into some fantastical place. The forest, while beautiful, could also hide many dangers. Just by the existence of the forest, this juxtaposition of beauty and danger is shown right away before the story even begins. I realize I’m putting myself at the risk of looking too deeply into things, but I like to find parallels wherever I can.)

“The Thing in the Forest” follows two girls named Penny and Primrose. They start off as best friends, but after sharing a haunting moment together, their lives are forever changed in different ways. After purposefully losing a tag-along in the forest, Penny and Primrose share a horrifyingly surreal moment together, when the Thing passes through.

As Penny and Primrose explore the forest, the prose includes sharp contrasts between the beauty and the danger of what they come across, each object switching between beautiful and ominous. For instance, on page 12, they 

begin to hear the small sounds that were there. The chatter and repeated lilt and alarm of invisible birds, high up, further in. The hum and buzz of insects. Rustling in dry leaves, rushes of movement in thickets. Slitherings, dry coughs, sharp cracks…creepers draped with glistening berries, crimson, black and emerald, little crops of toadstools, some scarlet, some ghostly-pale, some a dead-flesh purple, some like tiny parasols…

A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories (p. 12)

Let’s get technical! There’s a lot to unpack in just these few sentences. 

“Lilt” has a willowy sound to it, and to me, it comes with a positive connotation. However, the softness of the word is paired with “alarm,” which immediately alerts us that something is out of the ordinary, or wrong. Why else would birds be sounding an alarm? 

Similarly, the words “hum” and “buzz” are paired together. “Hum” comes with a kinder implication (reminiscent of lullabies or positive attitudes), while “buzz” produces an incessant, almost unsettling, sound. Both are similar in meaning, but when paired together, they create an interesting contrast that is both comforting and uncomfortable. 

“Rustling dry leaves” bring to mind a peaceful fall day, while “rushes of movement in thickets” hints that there might be a creature or creatures lurking nearby. The paragraph gets even more alarming with the mention of “slitherings,” “dry coughs,” and “cracks,” before returning to the beauty of the forest with “glistening berries.” 

Lastly, Byatt tosses in back-and-forth the descriptions of the toadstools: first a strikingly beautiful “scarlet,” then an alarming “ghostly-pale,” rising to even a “dead-flesh purple” (a borderline morbid word choice) before ending with a cutesy “some like tiny parasols.” After the cycle of beautiful-morbid-beautiful-morbid that came before, this little bit of description adds a bit of much-needed rest.

Here's a highlighted breakdown of the passage on page 12 of A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories (from "The Thing in the Forest") showing juxtaposition between beauty and revulsion.

This passage is already stuffed full of juxtaposition between beauty and revulsion – and that’s before we even get to the Thing!

I struggle to find a word that matches the feeling of looking at something so morbid that you can’t look away. The closest I can name is “morbid fascination,” but to me, the Thing brings out more of an admiration of the repulsive. 

On pages 13 and 14, Byatt uses a list of sounds, visuals, and smells that cause disgust to describe the presence of the Thing:

A crunching, a crackling, a crushing, a heavy thumping, combined with threshing and thrashing, and added to that a gulping, heaving, boiling, bursting steaming sounds, full of bubbles and farts, piffs and explosions, swallowings and wallowings.

A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories (p. 13-14)

This just might be my favorite paragraph in the entire collection of short stories. Like the earlier example, Byatt uses a combination of pleasing and unpleasant words, pairing “bubbles” with “farts,” and “piffs” with “explosions.” This creates a similar back-and-forth to the previous passage we looked at.

But what really makes this description work is the rhythm of the sentence. This, along with the sound repetition (crunching, crackling, crushing; threshing, thrashing) and the persistent use of “ing” creates a momentum that keeps the sentence chugging forward without any place for a reader to stop. 

Here's a highlighted passage from pages 13 and 14 of A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories (from "The Thing in the Forest") showing more juxtaposition. What a master!

The gross descriptions make them want to look away, but the momentum and rhythm is too irresistible. I just love the slant rhyme in the first part of the sentence that makes the prose read like poetry:

“A crunching, a crackling, a crunching,

“a heavy thumping.”

All in all, A.S. Byatt’s work turned out to be just as engrossing as I thought it would be, albeit for different reasons (and with an emphasis on “gross”). There’s so much rhythm and delightful wordplay that both repulses the reader and invites them closer. You might not like what you see, but one thing is for sure: you’ll be forever changed by seeing it, just like Penny and Primrose.

Byatt’s prose in this story is so lyrical that it’s such a strange feeling to be faced with such intensely disgusting description, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. “The Thing in the Forest” is the perfect story to read if you want to break down language to see how juxtaposition works.