Thursday 4 February 2010

Book Review: The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

"Sarah Crowe left Atlanta, and the remnants of a tumultuous relationship, to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript writter by the house's previous tenant - a parapsychologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on a desolate corner of the property.

"Tied to local legends of supernatural magic, as well as documented accidents and murders, the gnarled tree takes rook in Sarah's imagination, prompting her to write her own account of its unsavoury history. As the oak continues to possess her dreams and almost all her waking thoughts, Sarah risks her health and her sanity to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago."


More than a decade ago, after an arc on The Dreaming - DC Comics' hypnotic spin-off from the pages of The Sandman - Caitlin R. Kiernan came to the attention of many a dark fantasy fan with her stunning debut novel Silk, an endlessly lyrical fable of spiders, dreams and darkness which bewitched, besides a legion of readers, the likes of Clive Barker, Peter Straub and Poppy Brite. Three years on, the "poet and bard of the wasted and lost" (as Neil Gaiman so aptly describes her) conjured up a second story at least the equal of the first: for all the wonders of Silk, and there were many, it was, at times, perhaps a little self-indulgent. The nightmarishly twisted Threshold, by comparison, pared down the navel-gazing and marked a vital stage in the continuing evolution of Kiernan's mesmeric prose.

There have been sequels to each tale since, with the author juggling two memorable casts of characters in two fantastic universes through Low Red Moon, Daughter of Hounds and Murder of Angels. Like a good fan, I've followed them loyally - and enjoyed every one, I should say - but I'll be the first to admit: I'd begun to long for another original narrative from the inimitable Kiernan's pen.

Thankfully, The Red Tree is exactly that, and short of a few foibles, it's every bit the equal of the most startling works in this reclusive writer's back-catalogue. The unforgettable story of Sarah Crowe serves to wipe clean the slate upon which Kiernan has been scribbling addendums since her last truly innovative work; gone are the tiresome black-clad twentysomethings who have populated the majority of her pages to date; there's no need, this time out, to be familiar with the ins and outs of the characters of Silk and Threshold; and while the impressionistic leanings of those novels and the like are certainly present in The Red Tree, they're not so central to its narrative that readers who were dissuaded by the hallucinatory realities of Kiernan's previous fiction need fear.

The Red Tree is a departure, then - certainly it represents the greatest leap forward this criminally underappreciated author has made since her striking second novel - but not such a one that those of us who have enjoyed Kiernan's work in the past should approach it trepidatiously. The mindfuck of motifs and themes she has mined so successfully before are in full force throughout The Red Tree. There are dreams and drugs within its pages; there's sex, suicide, tunnels and trilobites.

There are problems, too, regrettable moments where Kiernan indulges her narrator too much - foremost among them a transparent rant about bad reviews on Amazon that the author has herself eschewed. If I could level only a single complaint at The Red Tree, however, Kiernan wouldn't be on the receiving end of it, but rather the brainless marketing executive who in one fell swoop spoils what would otherwise have been a lovely cover by slapping a mean-looking brunette over Gene Mollica's evocative artwork. Truly, if any of Kiernan's novels has deserved a lavishly illustrated edition from the geniuses at Subterranean Press... but I digress.

>> EDIT TO REFLECT THAT: The author seems to be as disgusted by the pandering cover art as anyone else; Kiernan has even gone so far as to offer an alternative illustration for anyone brave enough to glue it over their copy of The Red Tree. A high-res version of the image seen directly to the right can be downloaded here.

Kiernan acknowledges a great deal of film and fiction as inspiration for The Red Tree in her afterword: a touch of The Blair Witch Project in her evocative choice of setting and an increasingly foreboding atmosphere sure to put you in mind of Edgar Allen Poe is the least of it. Lovecraftian monstrosities are glimpsed but never seen, Lewis Carroll is quoted repeatedly in the last act as the refreshingly middle-aged protagonist tumbles ever further down her own rabbit hole, but the tale of Sarah Crowe - an increasingly unreliable narrator as time and terror wears on the waning writer - resembles nothing so closely as Mark Z. Danielewski's incredible House of Leaves.

The Red Tree is metafiction at its finest: purportedly composed of a journal found by Crowe's long-suffering editor after the author's inexplicable disappearance, a onionskin of intertwining, even contradictory narratives soon unravel from the core of Crowe's troubled diary entries. To begin with, an introduction from her editor sets the scene for the literary equivalent of found footage in the vein of Paranormal Activity, but within the journal Crowe relates, amongst other things, a short story she may or may not have written, passages from works of fiction and fact alike, even the transcription of selected sections of a manuscript she finds in the basement of the Rhode Island cabin she has resigned herself to.

Crowe, unlike Kiernan, is an author searching desperately for an identity. She has rented a room with a view of the titular tree about which so many horror stories are told in large part as inspiration; she comes to the great red oak in search of the voice she fears she has lost, but finds much more beneath its boughs than her muse. Kiernan, meanwhile, has rarely seemed so confident, so self-possessed, as she does wending from what amounts to a creepy tree this remarkable, bone-chilling dark fantasy.

The Red Tree
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
August 2009, ROC: New York

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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  1. This one has been on my reading pile for far too long now and it looks like I'm going to have to do something about that now...

    Thanks for the review!

  2. Thanks for the review. There has been a lot of positivity directed at this book and I have been thinking of picking it up, but I am not so sure I will now. It sounds very good... until the part about it being composed of a journal crops up. Unfortunately, that sort of novel just never works for me.

    It would be nice if I could read an excerpt or something to see how I like it, but apparently nothing of the sort is available online. Eh, might give it a go anyway.

  3. @James - Please don't let the meta-narrative put you off! The Red Tree is a very fine read indeed, The Blair Witch made literary, and though there's a good deal of ambiguity left over by the end, it's the good kind - the sort that leaves you thinking rather than scratching your head, disappointed.

    If you don't mind me asking, James, what have you read in the past that's put you off the whole found manuscript thing?

  4. The found manuscript thing does not put me off. Personally, I loved Shriek: An Afterword by VanderMeer, which was pretty much a manuscript found twice. It is the journal thing that puts me off. The latest book was The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell and though it had a nice enough story, I had a hell of a time reading it. I know there was one before that, but am vaguely aware that it was before I started recording what I read and therefore lost to memory.

    And actually, I did not enjoy The Blair Witch when I watched it either...