Published by Roc
Telling stories about writers is a relatively common storytelling technique utilized by many writers. Often, this can erode some of the clarity about the protagonist and how much the author has put of herself into the protagonist. This blur between the lines of what is fictional about the protagonist and what is the author’s voice in the protagonist becomes even stronger when the author constructs an epistolary novel. In Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, she takes the path of a novel told through a writer’s journal as she begins to lose her foothold in reality. The bulk of the story in the novel is told through diary entries, bookended by notes from the protagonist’s fictional editor.
The protagonist is a writer escaping her past into a Rhode Island rental house in the hopes of completing her next contracted book. Unfortunately for Sarah Crowe, the boarding house has a dark past of its own. Rather than craft her novel, Crowe is compelled to keep a diary of the events and dreams she experiences in her seclusion. On a trip into town, she is given a hint of what occurred in her boarding house and she soon learns of death and murder that surround the place. In an extended excavation into the basement, Sarah finds an old manuscript chronicling a previous tenant’s delving into the lore and history of the surrounding area, particularly a red oak tree that seems to have a great deal of influence.
One of the things Kiernan points out through her protagonist early on is how unreliable narrators can be. With only a few pages per day of a diary by which we can know Sarah, it is difficult to get a complete handle on her. We don’t see how other characters react to her, only how they interact with her, and these interactions themselves are from Sarah’s recollections of the events. One of these events in particular, is a black cloud over Sarah’s entire presence in Rhode Island – the death of her former lover Amanda. While Sarah recounts how the two met in her diary, she does not fully or explicitly disclose the manner in which Amanda died until later in the novel.
The death of Sarah’s former lover becomes a bone of contention between Sarah and the unexpected boarder in the attic, Constance who happens to be an artist … just like Amanda was. A tension that vacillates between expected sexual tension, resentment, trust, and anger exist at multiple times, and often at the same time, between Sarah and Constance. One of the other major bones of contention between Sarah and Constance is the manuscript Sarah finds in the basement and Constance’s continual desire to read it firsthand.
The supernatural elements are not in your face but subtle and all the more powerful and believable for it. At one point, Sarah recounts a ghostly encounter from when she was a young girl and Constance later recounts an equally eerie meeting with an apparition. Many further ghostly elements are in the form of dreams where Sarah is haunted by the ghost of Amanda, and dreams where Constance and Amanda become one and the same.
Part of what Kiernan points out early in the book comes back to the fore as the novel progresses. During a planned picnic to the Red Tree, Constance and Sarah become lost. Even later, Constance delves into the dank basement herself and somehow disappears despite Sarah’s traversing the basement until she eventually reaches the roots of the Red Tree. I found myself trying to determine how real Sarah’s interactions with Constance were or how much they were just a construct of Sarah’s mind as it spiraled away from sanity.
As for the Red Tree itself, it is a haunting thing that seems to have a life of itself. One warning that may be considered a bit of a spoiler is that Kiernan doesn’t fully explain the nature of the tree. All too often the true nature of a horrific thing in books, and in film it is even worse, is explained in too great detail. Here, Kiernan leaves much of it a mystery, only to be guessed at by Crowe and the author of the manuscript she finds in the basement. Ultimately, this made the novel and the darkness contained within even more convincing.
With the opening bookend chapter by Crowe’s editor hinting at the demise of Crowe, what happens to her by the end isn’t entirely in doubt. Again, like the Red Tree, the only evidence is the how Crowe’s character chronicles her days the longer she stays in the house and close to the Tree.
With a novel chock full of literary references and written in a convincing manner, Kiernan has crafted what could be a classic horror tale. My only real complaint about the novel is the typeface used for the manuscript Crowe finds, the thinness of the courier font is difficult to read. I would highly recommend this haunting, engaging, and thoughtful novel that is more powerful in its small moves and the ghosts of one’s past.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford