Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Review: The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

This has been a good year for me and books. I have just had the great pleasure of finishing a wonderful book which I will gush superlatives over anon.
Of all living fiction authors, Caitlin R. Kiernan must be in my top five. If I were a wealthy man, I would buy one case each of her novels Murder of Angels, Low Red Moon and The Red Tree and pass them out to everyone I know. Formerly I would have said that Murder of Angels might well be one of the best novels by a living author in print. And while I stand by that statement now, she may have in The Red Tree produced a serious contender.
Philip K Dick said that good science fiction (The Red Tree is not science fiction but I think we can safely apply the principle to dark fantasy and horror) ought to explore the themes "What is reality" and "What does it mean to be human?" even it's about vegetation on the dark side of Venus. Kiernan's book takes place in our reality or thereabouts, but succeeds in exploring those themes beautifully without giving pat answers. Which is not to say that the book is dissatisfying, although if you're looking for your art to be satisfying why are you reading my blog? Art should make you uncomfortable. It should change your life. Having finished the book about four hours ago, I think I can say that this is probably one of those books; and I'm a little nervous as to what that means for my future. Which is good.
If anything, The Red Tree is overwhelming. Which is also good. You ought to be overwhelmed. You'll ruin your transmission if your paradigm doesn't shift every once in a while.
I would argue that this is not genre fiction either. Yes, there are some gruesome passages, but really they exist in the periphery much like an old film where we see a strangulation in silhouette which actually serves to make it all the more gruesome as we fill in the blanks. I should not downplay any of that, although I am reluctant to reveal too much. You will find some grisly scenes in this book and you will find sexuality although both are essential to where the author goes and what the author says. It's a very tight book. While the author says several times that she is prone to digression, I would say that there isn't a wasted word in this book. The digressions pull the narrative as taut as fishing wire.
Sure, I like a good spooky story as much as the next fellow, but what I find so compelling and important is her explorations of flawed people struggling through hellish circumstances. She does this so well and I find so often turns a starkly clear mirror onto myself in spotlight. The emotional intimacy and vulnerability of Caitlin R. Kiernan's work is, in all frankness, about as artistically brave as anything I've seen.
Coupled with her abilities of communicating the dread and uncertainty of traditional "weird fiction" always leaves me dazed with the hyper-awareness of the invisible demons stomping the terra around us and the demons within us that we try to keep covered. Her characters drink to disfunction; they make really poor relationship choices; they smoke too much; they have chemical imbalances; people die (sometimes extremely major characters at inconvenient times just like, you know, life); people have tragedy thrust upon them; people live in squalor, lose limbs, witness horrible violence and sometimes survive it themselves. In short, they are us. You have no guarantee of a happy ending nor, she (and I) would probably argue, should you. As Sarah Crowe says in one of my favorite lines in the book, "My forty-four years have yet to reveal any consistent, compelling evidence of justice woven into the fabric of this world." You also have to deal with the fact that these characters are human, flawed, and that what they tell you may or may not be reliable.

This novel is a bit of a departure from Kiernan's others. The characters are older (closer to me and the age group I'm mainly around) and it's in first person. The setting is at once more set and claustrophobic (a great deal taking place in a small house) and agoraphobic (the rest and some of the most unsettling taking place in vast natural areas) and includes a disorienting blending of the two which leads to a general sense of existential dread.

One of my least favorite things about book reviews is going over the plot because I think it is terrible to reveal anything. Go read it!

Anyway, the book's protagonist is Sarah Crowe, an author who moves from Georgia to rent a small Rhode Island house in the aftermath of one of the high tragic watermarks of her life. She discovers a manuscript by the previous tenant dealing with the strange and horrible legends surrounding a tree about a hundred yards away from the house. Then, with little warning, the landlord lets an artist rent out the attic space above Sarah. Then, to say that reality starts shifting and the tree becomes an obsession would be... close, but not doing justice (which I guess isn't woven into the fabric here either. See why I don't like plot summaries?)
Anyway, I don't think I need to write an "if you like author A, then you'll like author B" sort of thing because I think everyone should read this. It really is a fine and honest piece of art. I think you should read it because we do horrible things in the name of love. We sometimes see the object of our affection as infernal and sometimes (often those same times) our own thoughts smell of sulfur. You should read it because there are things in the world that defy description and so often we are destroyed because so often we don't talk about the most important things and sometimes we attribute total importance to things which have no importance, taken on their own from an outsider's view. You should read it because we die alone.

If I had one critique it would be shared with the one other review I've read on this book and it has nothing to do with the text. It has to do with the cover. If memory serves I think the youngest character in the whole book is about my age and the girl on the cover of the book looks about half my age. I don't think the tone or image of the cover does anything to communicate the book that is inside. So it goes.

Much like House of Leaves, I found myself taking part of the story. In House of Leaves I remember a moment looking up the list of hundreds of photographers on Google image search where I realized I was getting a bit maniacal about it, much like the list itself. In The Red Tree, I finished it, stared out the window for a few minutes, and opened back up to the beginning to re-read the "Editor's" preface (don't skip it, it's part of the story) and soon found myself at Chapter Two willing to continue the strange loop of reading.

In short, it is a harrowing book. I think everyone should read it, even, nay, especially those whose reality tunnel is distinctly different than Kiernan's with an open mind and an honest look at how we are not all that different from any flawed character. You should read it because we are all going to die and that should make us love one another but it doesn't. Sometimes your insides need to be pulled out to remember that.

It was one of those experiences like crying all night and feeling the clarity and calm afterward even if the situation is still unresolved. You carry those moments with you like talismans. Some part of you never forgets that it is still out there somewhere, that when you are partying someone somewhere on the earth is having the worst moment of their life. It is good that you have that. Feed that tree.


  1. Thank you for writing such a poignant and in-depth review for such a powerful and important book.

  2. As I mentioned on Twitter your review is one of the things that got me reading The Red Tree. Good review, and in general your blog seems well balanced and interesting. I'll definitely be spending some more time reading it over.

    I haven't blogged much in some time -- my old blog is here: -- religion, literature, miscelaneous whatever. New rather abortive blog is -- not much of interest there, unfortunately.

    Look forward to reading more of your blog,
    Christopher, a.k.a. Tuirgin, @tuirgin, etc.

  3. Hey, good to meet you. Thanks for stopping by.