Upon beginning Caitlín Kiernan’s The Red Tree, a psychological dark fantasy novel published in 2009, I was struck by its structural and thematic similarities to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Except that I became emotionally invested in these characters. And I didn’t just actually finish The Red Tree (I tried twice to make it past the 150-page mark of House of Leaves to no avail, because zzz), but raced wildly to the novel’s eerie and unforgettable end. This book manages to be surreal and gritty all at once, and fascinated me to such an extent that… You know when a book is so good that you read it at completely inappropriate times? My e-reader is now smeared with cheeseburger grease.
Protagonist Sarah Crowe is self-deprecating and has a bad attitude. (Note – I like her. A lot.) A failing writer facing (or really, avoiding) personal tragedies, she’s jettisoned her former life in Atlanta and moves into a cottage in rural Rhode Island, where she discovers the unfinished manuscript of the house’s previous, deceased tenant. The text concerns the macabre history of the towering and ageless oak tree a few dozen yards from the house.
As Sarah explores the left-behind book (missing all of its appendices, naturally) and the oak tree and its environs, she experiences vicissitudes of horror that will ultimately end with her death. While we are made aware that her demise is imminent within the novel’s first few pages, the surprise is of course in the getting there, and this book manages to be a page-turner.
One that’s literary or at least quasi-literary. If you like your fiction tied in neat bows, if you prefer a singular and unambiguous interpretation of a novel, this isn’t the book for you. The protagonist doubts her own sanity, her own sense of reality. Kiernan even managed to make me doubt what I knew I had read. This is not the heart-racing sort of horror usual to the genre, but rather seeps in slowly, almost invisibly — the monster that one only sees out of the corner of their eyes, or in the corner of their mind.
The Red Tree is a story about haunting — the haunting of arboreal unreality, of an inescapable tragic past, and of the yawning chasm of madness.