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Book Review: The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Title: The Red Tree

Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date: September 7, 2010

Genres: Horror

Shelves: Female-author, female-fronted

While there are few answers and even fewer conclusions to be drawn from The Red Tree, it is still a damned fine read, one distinguished as much by the voices as the embedded narratives. What Caitlín R. Kiernan has crafted here is a story of stories within stories, each of which adds to the overall mystery and the sense of creeping dread, all without ever leading us any closer to a climax.

The first of those embedded narratives is the preface from Sarah Crowe’s editor, really sets the stage here – and, if you’re paying attention, should establish expectations as well. Sharon teases a bit of the urban legend mystery of the Wright Farm, but then tells us she saw no evidence of vandals or curiosity seekers and felt no sense of the supernatural. She also teases us with the mystery of the basement, which “seems, to me, to lie very much at the heart of the matter,” and which she “very much wanted” to explore but forgot to bring a flashlight . . . except she also tells us she is “not the least bit ashamed to admit you couldn’t have paid me enough to make that descent alone.” The more we read of Sarah’s story, and the more we come to know (and wonder) about that basement, the more perplexing Sharon’s apparent contradictions become.

Sharon then goes on to describe the Red Tree itself in almost whimsical fashion, describing dozens of tiny ceramic figures (which Sarah never mentions) that give it a “shrine or reliquary” feel. Again, the more we read of both Sarah’s story and Harvey’s manuscript, the more bewildering the very nature of the tree becomes. It is a preface that raises so many questions, and which almost seems to have been deliberately written to cast doubt on Sarah’s story, rather than properly introduce it.

The next narrative layer is the manuscript left behind by Charles L. Harvey, with the discovery of a single page in an old typewriter leading Sarah to a basement search for the rest of it. It’s basically research notes, a collection of the urban legends surrounding the Red Tree and the Wright Farm, and it is absolutely fascinating in its depth and breadth of information. There are murders and suicides, monsters and hauntings, and more than enough information to make for a fascinating tale all on its own. What’s weird about it, however, is how clinical and factual is all reads, compared to what we’ve been told of his fate and what Sarah tells us of the feelings it evokes.

A much shorter but absolutely pivotal embedded narrative is Sarah’s autobiographical story, Pony, which she does not remember writing. The circumstances of its introduction are almost as exciting as the story itself, connecting both to Sarah’s grief over her lost girlfriend and to her increasingly erratic and unreliable behavior. It is a fascinating piece of fiction, erotic and melancholy at the same time, with a weird twist that seems to push fetish into fear.

That leaves us with the most important embedded narrative, of course, Sarah’s journal – written on the same onionskin paper on the same old fashioned typewriter as Harvey’s manuscript. It is here where the real magic of the story is found, with Sarah’s voice – self-aware, argumentative, and frustrated – drawing us deep into her experiences. What could otherwise have been an exasperating tale is elevated to something hypnotic and unsettling by both her candor and her seeming unreliability. Despite the introduction of Constance halfway through, a woman who seems to share in the bizarre experiences of the Wright Farm and who is perhaps even more haunted and unsettled by the Red Tree, all we know is what Sarah writes, and she herself admits to not always being honest or straightforward about her feelings.

As a story, it is entirely fascinating, constantly hooking us with the creepier details of becoming lost in time and space, of feeling haunted, and of being driven to the brink of madness. The Red Tree itself becomes something of mythic proportions, and the short journey of a few hundred yards between it and the Wright House grows into an epic trial. The mystery of the basement, hand-hewn and larger than the house, is legitimately terrifying, and the mystery of the attic (particularly at the end) is perhaps even more perplexing. There are so many questions raised, so many mysteries teased, that we should be angry and frustrated by the lack of answers . . . and, yet, it seems entirely appropriate that the book should end without them.

In many ways, this is a character study more than anything else, an exploration of Sarah Crowe’s journey through the stages of grief, with a focus on the shock and denial, pain and grief, anger and bargaining, and depression. The more we learn of her past and her relationship with Amanda, about her seizures and her writer’s block, the more we want to know. We want to understand this woman and find some way to wrap our head around her emotions as much as we want to rationalize her experiences.

I thought I had a grasp on The Red Tree when I turned the final page, but the more I thought about it, the less certain I felt. Similarly, I thought for sure I’d found my way to those answers in going back over it and writing my review, but the more I tried connecting the dots, the more I realized there are too many spiraling circles and not nearly enough straight lines. This was not the book I expected. In fact, it was the kind of book I would have said I have no patience for. So why did I enjoy it so much? Why have I come away from it with such deep appreciation for Kiernan and her craft? I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I know I’ll be reading more.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

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