The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan (Book Review)

The Red TreeThe Red Tree is the story of Sarah Crowe, a writer who rents a rural Rhode Island house. Sarah is running from a lot of things: her career, her agent, the book she can’t seem to write, and her girlfriend Amanda’s suicide. There, in the cellar of the stifling old house, she finds typewriter and an old manuscript. Titled The Red Tree, the manuscript is the historical work of the house’s former tenant, an academic who hung himself with an extension cord before completing his work. His subject is the ancient red oak near the house, and the tragedies that seem to surround it. Sarah becomes obsessed with the manuscript, as well as with Constance, the young artist who rents the attic.

Kiernan writes a line in this book talking about the old horror versus the new horror. The old horror, specifically Algernon Blackwood, whom she mentions by name, was largely atmospheric, defined almost as much by what you weren’t shown. The new horror, blatantly influenced by horror cinema, often shows you everything. Blood splatters as monsters crawl, saliva dripping from their teeth. As a result, a lot of horror writers are torn between two worlds of the Gothic, the new and the old.

The Red Tree does a good job of keeping a balance between the old and the new. The horrors in this story are largely unseen and unknown, although hints of their evil deeds lie everywhere. However, Kiernan lays her character out raw, with all of their faults to be seen. In so many of the Victorian works, you knew very little about the characters’ deepest personal thoughts. Kiernan hides nothing about Sarah Crowe. Good or bad, all her traits left exposed for your judgement. Some reviewers have described her as an unsympathetic character, leading me to counter with, if you really get down to it, aren’t we all a little unsympathetic? How many of us would really hold up to such scrutiny?

You will see allusions to several works within the book. The journal structure could be seen as an homage to the Victorian writers, such as Stoker, Stevenson, or Marsh, who used that technique so well. Meanwhile, fans of contemporary horror will likely see obvious parallels with books like House of Leaves and The Haunting of Hill House. All of this, of course, only caters my literary horror geekiness, and probably preconditioned me to like the book. But hey, at least I am admitting it. Kiernan makes no attempt to hide her inspirations, mentioning them by name in the text and listening them as referenced works in the back of the book.

Despite the cover art that screams “paranormal romance,” The Red Tree falls directly into the horror genre and is a good read for fans of the old school cerebral tension and the new school refusal to apologize for a character’s actions. Like most of Kiernan’s work, it is intriguing and well-written. I am glad to have read it, and I look forward to reading more of Kiernan’s novels in the future.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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