Date read: 10.31.09 (unintentional, but awesome)
Read from: Personal collection
It’s raining, my socks are wet, and for these reasons I think I’d rather finish up my long-overdue review of Caitlín R. Kiernan‘s The Red Tree than do anything else. And as there’s a red oak outside my window, I took a picture of it looking appropriately old, red, and potentially carnivorous at about the same time that I finished the book:
The review is spoiler-free, by the way.
The Red Tree is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I’ve already been itching to go back to it and let it screw with my head some more. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started it (probably something more lushly Gothic, like Alabaster), but what I read wasn’t what I was expecting, and then it was better than what I expected. It’s a jagged, rattling, hurtful book, and incredibly atmospheric. The horror is creeping and primal, almost inarticulable. People and paintings and animal bones appear and disappear; proportions and distances are warped; the brittle, chain-smoking protagonists labor under constant, sapping heat and suffer from surreal nightmares. At the same time, the emotions underlying it are so real: reading the book feels like holding an artifact of life, a snarled-up package of fury and self-hatred and despair. Yeah, it’s not the happiest book to read, but its painful authenticity is a large part of what makes it so compelling. There are no pretensions to darkness or the Gothic here, just a lifetime’s worth of the real thing.
After all, protagonist Sarah Crowe is a clear analogue of Kiernan herself: she’s a snarly, black-tempered writer of commercially unsuccessful dark fantasy who lives in Rhode Island, and she struggles with writer’s block and a seizure disorder. In Sarah’s case, she leaves the South to escape the memories of her failed relationship with an artist named Amanda, who committed suicide. Once in New England, she settles into an ancient farm house whose property is marked by a red oak of incredible age and size. Unsurprisingly, she develops a morbid fascination with the mythology surrounding the tree – in particular a half-finished manuscript left by the house’s last tenant in the basement – at the same time that a painter named Constance moves in upstairs. Cue much petty sniping, frustrated desire, and poorly concealed, creeping obsession.
The narrative is bookended by notes from Sarah Crowe’s editor, and the main text comprises Sarah’s irregular journal entries and her transcripts of historical accounts of the tree – as well as an older short story of Kiernan’s, which here becomes a short story of Sarah’s, except that she can’t remember ever having written it. Metatextual mindfuckery ahoy! The entire set-up, this intricate weaving of text upon text upon text, is rife with possibilities for slips of the tongue (or typewriter), errors, confabulations, convenient or inadvertent omissions. What is scarier, anyway – at least to those of us who don’t live on properties with possibly haunted vegetation – the idea that a demonic oak tree is making you forget things, or the idea that you yourself are simply incapable of remembering everything, of apprehending the whole of your experience? What are we missing when we blink, when we fall asleep, when we wake up and can only remember half of a dream that seemed painfully urgent, when we walk into the kitchen and can’t remember what we went there for? Sarah’s seizures also play into the underlying anxiety about these little oblivions: they’re uncontrollable blips in her consciousness and in her experience of the narrative.
Sarah herself constantly dares the reader to take her words at face value, reminding us that she can’t possibly have remembered this dream or that conversation word-for-word or scene-by-scene, and that half of the substance she reports is necessarily invented by her after the fact. After all, she is a writer. Her evasions – most crucially, her refusal to say anything about Amanda, or to look back on their relationship except through the media of dreams and fiction – say more about her than anything else she chooses to reveal. This pervasive theme of subjective truth, truth reconstructed through a particular artistic viewpoint, is emphasized by the recurrence of writer-artist couples throughout the book: Sarah and Amanda, Sarah and Constance, and a historical couple whose relationship parallels both of these. Kiernan has furthermore commented in her blog that the relationship of painter Francis Bacon and poet George Dyer was an important influence on the book, while Kiernan’s own partner is a sculptor and photographer.
Kiernan also commented in one interview (I can’t remember which at the moment, unfortunately) that one of the key ideas behind the book is that of “truth” versus “fact.” Here we have a story in which the facts are anything but clear, and really, pretty much irrelevant. In the end, all we know is that whatever Sarah sees in her life, whatever she sees in the red tree, is enough to kill her, probably by suicide – and no, that’s not a spoiler, because Sarah Crowe’s editor informs us of such on the first page. And that’s only “probably” by suicide – we have no idea how she really died. Like Sarah digging up the unfinished manuscript in the basement, this is all we have to go by: a messy, unsatisfying, and frightening bundle of typescript, make what truth of it we will.
All in all, The Red Tree is frustrating, challenging, and rewarding, both as unnerving, suspenseful entertainment and as conceptually rich art. I highly recommend it for those who like fantasy with bite and depth, and a side of “wtf.”