I fell hard for Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl so it’s a bit of a surprise that I waited so long to try one of her other stories. I fully expected to be blown away again. It wasn’t as good as The Drowning Girl but it did haunt me for a few nights.
Published by: Roc, 2009
Ebook: 400 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: I have visited the old Wight Farm and its “red tree”, there where the house squats ancient and neglected below the bogs that lie at the southern edge of Ramswool Pond.
Sarah Crowe left Atlanta to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house’s former tenant-an anthropologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on the property. And as the gnarled tree takes root in her imagination, Sarah risks everything to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago…
Unreliable narrators are one thing but CaitlÍn R. Kiernan really takes it up to eleven in The Red Tree. Sarah Crowe moves to a remote house to finally write that book she owes her publisher. Instead of actually writing said book, she begins a journal that chronicles the events during her stay in the house. And some of those events are so batshit insane that, while I read, I frequently checked that my boyfriend was around because I did not want to be alone in the house with that book. It’s the stuff of nightmares and what makes it worse is that you can never be sure what’s real and what isn’t.
This isn’t a haunted house story. I don’t even know if it’s a haunted person story. As Sarah becomes more intrigued by and obsessed with the red oak growing outside her kitchen window, things begin happening. Another woman moves into the attic of the house and while they get along well enough, something just isn’t right. That’s pretty much the tenor of the entire book – something’s definitely not right but you can’t put your finger on it.
The narration (and its reliability) depends on Sarah’s mental health, on her memory, on the way she interprets things, so it is naturally flawed. Sarah takes medication for her epillepsy but as readers, we don’t know if she takes her pills regularly, if she takes too many, if she is slowly going insane. A few visits to the famous Red Tree make you suspect the latter – except Sarah doesn’t go there alone. The cellar of the house is yet another mystery, and one you shouldn’t read about when you’re home alone at night. These scenes sent chills down my spine and made the book impossible to put down. Fridge noises, creaky floorboards, and noisy heaters should be avoided – in fact, I suggest reading this in broad daylight, surrounded by people you trust. It’s that scary.
It seems to be a Kiernan thing that there never is a right place to pause, to put the book away and make lunch, for instance. These books demand to be read in one sitting, without coming up for air. The Red Tree drew me into its descent (whether it’s mental or paranormal) and part of the thrill was wanting to find out whether Sarah truly is insane or whether the tree is actually a force of evil, causing brutal murders and bloody rites over centuries. In the manuscript Sarah digs up from the cellar, the former tenant of the Wight Farm, put down his research about the red tree and some of these chapters are as bone-chilling as the events that happen to Sarah.
In the two books by Kiernan I’ve read so far, the themes are clear and recurring. Women who can’t trust their own minds, who don’t know if or how stable their mental health is, if the things they see are real or a figment of their imagination. It’s not exactly a pick-me-up when you’re feeling down, but these books are just so damn good. The writing just flows from one chapter into the next and even when there are breaks in the text, you don’t want to stop. Just like in The Drowning Girl, Sarah’s journal entries include a short story she wrote (without remebering writing it, I might add), excerpts from the manuscript about the red oak, and descriptions of Sarah’s dreams and nightmares.
As a mystery, the ending was a bit disappointing. It’s true that the (fictional) preface tells us right away that Sarah Crowe will die, but I had hoped for at least some resolution, some glimpse of what the hell is going on around that tree. In that respect, I felt let down, but considering that the book was engrossing and thrilling and scary as fuck throughout, the open ending is really not that big of a deal. I still don’t know what went on in that house (concerning any of the mysterious events that happened in or around it) but that doesn’t change that The Red Tree sucked me into its strange world for a few hours and happily scared the living crap out of me. Nicely done, Ms. Kiernan!
RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good