Caitlín R. Kiernan's latest novel, The Red Tree (August 2009) is in turns a pseudo-autographical novel, a psychological portrait of a first-person narrator on the verge of madness, and a sometimes terrifying mystery that surrounds a particular red oak tree in Rhode Island. The Red Tree contains several layers of framing stories, from the introductory and concluding passages that set up the tale of the main narrator, Sarah Crowe (who has several attributes of Kiernan herself, as well as several fictitious ones lest people begin to think that the author inserted herself into this story), to the epistolary-like journal entries that Sarah writes about her experiences in Rhode Island and her discovery of a decades-old journal (which serves as a third level for this rich, multilayered story). In reading The Red Tree, I was reminded at times of two other books released this decade, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss, as there are elements of each (Danielewski's adroit use of nesting framing stories to hide in plain view what was transcurring; Hand's use of the pseudo-autographical novel to blur the lines between the real and the unreal) in Kiernan's tale. Thankfully, Kiernan takes these possible influences and crafts a story that feels original and "real."
I suffered through the better part of my childhood and my teenage years in a stunted little town about fifteen miles east of Birmingham, Alabama. Back in the seventies, that place was still clinging rather resolutely to the forties and fifties, I suspect. Hanging on for dear fucking life as the world rushed forward without it. I've given interviews where I made jokes about The Andy Griffith Show and such, calling my "hometown" things like Hooterville or Dogpatch or Mayberry on crack. Not so very far off the mark, no matter how snarky it might sound. I'm told that the town's public library removed my books from its shelves after i said something to that effect in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Whatever. Fuck them if they can't take a joke...or face the truth. But, I digress. Always, I digress. It's my superpower. Some asshole at the New York Times Book Review once said that my novels would benefit tremendously from "an editor willing to rein in my unfortunate propensity for digression." Or something along those lines. I suppose I shouldn't use quotation marks when paraphrasing from an unreliable memory. (pp. 21-22)
The red oak mentioned in the title has a mysterious, possibly supernatural dark past that stretches back to the colonial period. Over the centuries, farmers have been killed by wolves there, not to mention it being associated with a serial killer from the early 20th century. It is this sense of mystery that envelops Sarah, a writer who has recently fled Atlanta and a failed relationship with a lover who has recently committed suicide. Recently relocated to Rhode Island, she now occupies an old house that she shares with a mysterious painter named Constance. When going through an old chifforobe (the inclusion of such a subtle nod to Southern writers such as Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, as stories of theirs revolved around such a hybrid piece of furniture), Sarah discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house's former tenant, a parapsychologist who appeared to be obsessed with the red oak tree and its past.
The strength of The Red Tree is not establishing the horror elements, as one could argue that what might constitute "horror" largely takes place off-stage. Rather, it is with Kiernan's portrayal of Sarah and how her past haunts her. Kiernan's use of an epistolary narrative technique enables the reader to get a fractured, haunting look into the past of Sarah and how her past relationship with her former lover "Amanda" has come to haunt her. Take for example the aftermath of a portentous dream that Sarah has with a few days of arriving in Rhode Island and her relating it to Constance:
And I turned to her, then, and she was standing naked, only a foot or so behind me, her clothing ripped away by the hurricane (if it was a hurricane). Jesus, I need to get laid, because - despite the horrors of the dream - I woke horny from this vision of her, and writing it down, I'm getting horny again. Amanda always said I was easy.From this point nearly halfway into the novel, The Red Tree begins to become more intense. The lines between what was transpiring with the red oak blur with what is going on with the interactions Sarah is having with the dead journalist's notes, her odd association with Constance, and her constant memories of the traumatic end to her relationship with Amanda. In places, it is hard to tell what Sarah is dreaming and what is "real" to her, which serves to add depth to the story and how the reader may interpret what is happening both "on screen" and off.
And in that moment, all my lust was transmuted to mere anger by the alchemy of human emotion. She was not Amanda, and I had never told her my Grecian sea turtle lie. This was a far greater intrusion than her arrival at the farm or her showing up uninvited in my dreams. This was some manner of mnemonic rape, I think, or so it seemed to me then. (pp. 143-144)
Kiernan is an outstanding stylist and she masterfully weaves the various framing stories mentioned above into a compelling, gripping tale that will haunt my thoughts for some time to come. The Red Tree is one of the better psychological/horror novels that I have read in quite some time and despite the fierce competition, I suspect it'll earn a spot on my Best of 2009 lists come December. Highly recommended.