Book Review: The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Somewhere in the vastness of her internet musings, or perhaps in an preface to short story collection (I cannot now find the find passage, though I have tried), Caitlin Kiernan remonstrates with a reader who complained that he “could not find the story” in her stories. In a way, I see this unnamed critic’s point. Kiernan’s writing is notoriously short of both incident and resolution. For example, her story “Standing Water” consists entirely of two bookstore employees getting freaked out by an especially deep, water filled pothole in the alley behind the shop and deciding, wisely no doubt, not to fuck with it. It’s a far cry from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and a bit of a shock if you don’t know what you’re getting into. Throughout her career, Kiernan has consistently refused to stay within the lanes of genre boundaries, explain the origin or “rules” of supernatural manifestations, or to banish evil with a shotgun and a cross in the final chapter. (The aborted showdown at the climax of Threshold is a marvelous example.) It is these carefully fostered ambiguities which draw me to Caitlin Kiernan’s writing, though I see how they might drive more conventional readers crazy. Such people would not enjoy Kiernan’s latest novel.
The Red Tree purports to be the journal of one Sarah Crowe, an Atlanta novelist who has fled to rural Rhode Island after the suicide of her lover, whom she refers to as “Amanda.” (Suicide and its aftermath are recurring topics in Kiernan’s work. Chance Matthews of Threshold has lost both her best friend and the Grandmother who raised her.) Plagued by guilt and unable to write her next novel, Crowe finds a manuscript left behind by the previous tenant of the aged farmhouse she rents. The manuscript, written by Charles L. Harvey, a sociologist from the local university, details the grisly folklore surrounding a massive red oak on the farm property. As Sarah learns, Harvey took his own life by hanging himself from the oak five years previously. Sarah is soon joined by Constance Hopkins, a local painter recently returned from Los Angeles. Together, they descend into madness and mutual suspicion as they experience or imagine various spooky goings-on.
Compared to the grandiose shootouts and choreographed mutilations of modern horror films, the major incidents of the book seem small. Sarah and Constance get lost on their way to visit the red oak, less than a hundred yards from their back door. Later, Constance explores the cavernous farmhouse basement, only to emerge naked, covered in mud, and speaking in tongues. (Her first coherent words in English are, to me at least, the most frightening in the book.) Sarah reaches the oak on her own, only to find a sacrificed rabbit. Woven in and around these events are Sarah’s guilty dreams of Amanda, tales of mass murder, cannibalism, and lycanthropy from Harvey’s manuscript, and the growing distrust between the two women. The handling of this last is one of the novel’s great strengths. Kiernan portrays Hopkins as sympathetic, though increasingly wary. Nonetheless, there are hints that the artist is not what she seems to be. Perhaps she is a werewolf, or a suicide’s ghost. Or maybe just a figment of Crowe’s imagination.
In the end, what the reader gets is not so much a narrative as a bouquet of dark hints, strange moods, and suggestions of the intolerable. The Red Tree leaves a lingering aftertaste of fear, but that fear has no object, no single definite cause. We learn in a prologue by her supposed editor that Sarah Crowe dies, that she takes her own life shortly after the book’s final lines. Not only is the evil in The Red Tree not vanquished, it is never clearly defined. We are left with more questions than answers. We are not allowed, as at the end of most horror stories, to shake off the taint of evil and live again.