Another attempt at polishing the review I’ve written. I usually adjust a few things after I post one but in this case I was less satisfied than usual because I gave too much importance to certain aspects and almost ignored others that I think are more important. The biggest problem was that I wrote my comments just an hour after finishing the book and I started to understand the book better while writing those comments, which caused them to be even more rambling than usual. So I’ll do some cut & paste and restructuring.
The framework first. “The Red Tree” is a supernatural, horror, psychological journey that borrows heavily from the long and solid tradition in the respective genres and whose best parallel in themes, atmosphere and development is Lovecraft. It is not conceived or delivered as an homage or imitation, it’s not a book existing in a “shadow” of something else, nor it is one that uses conventions to break out of their prison and open on a new, “modern” world. What it achieves is about recovering the deeper and most powerful elements of that tradition and reveal that they are not dusty, opaque and antique, but still alive today, relatively uncompromised. The book is structured in a way similar to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, with nested texts, stories within stories, and dreams that leak into reality. So it’s up to the reader to take an active role and second-guess and interpret/rebuild what is going on. The basic form is the diary so everything comes through an unreliable narrator and a fragmented narrative that can leave gaps of days and then only re-interpret and fictionalize what happened. Without another authoritative point of view the reader can only cling to the voice of the diary, trust it, and go through the most unnerving parts as in a first-person narration, making it quite effective. All this is at the same time simplified and complicated by a strong meta-narrative. If one gives a look online (and yes, you’re supposed to, I’ll explain why) would discover that Caitlín R. Kiernan has more than a few analogies with Sarah Crowe, the fictional writer of the book. Both are lesbian writers who had to deal with the death of their partner, both suffer from epileptic attacks that add another dimension of precariousness to the story. I don’t want to delve further because I feel like invading a personal space and the boundary between reality and fiction is best left blurred. Yet I think a reader should be aware of this layer as it offers a way to better understand the implications and the origin of the book. No book prescinds from its writer, and here this fact is particularly important.
The semi-autobiographical story is about this alter-ego fictional writer, Sarah Crowe, who is fleeing from her former life in Atlanta to rent an house in the countryside of Rhode Island. Without the motivation or the focus to start writing a long postponed novel, she begins instead keeping a diary mostly to describe some weird, unpleasant dreams that are haunting her. After exploring the basement of the house she discovers an incomplete manuscript next to an old typewriter. The manuscript is written by “Dr. Charles Harvey”, a name she’s never heard, so she “googles” it and finds out it belongs to a professor who “was on an extended sabbatical from the university, supposedly writing a book on the evolution and propagation of fakelore”. A professor with “an interest in urban legends and occultism” who lived in that house for three years, and died in the property by hanging himself. The title of his manuscript and research is the same that is shared between these three layers, “THE RED TREE”. Title respectively of Kiernan’s book, of Sarah Crowe fictional diary, and of Harvey’s unfinished manuscript. Soon the bits of legends Sarah reads seep into her reality and slowly build an estrangement from the “real” world. This red tree being a huge oak tree not too far from the house, becoming Harvey’s former and Sarah’s current obsession. One doesn’t even have to speculate the woman will likely share the previous tenant’s fatal destiny as that is already spoiled right in the introduction of the book. It’s a descent into madness when the solid reality under one’s feet starts to crack and give way. The “abscess” that opens and swallows, and that one’s too frightened to look into.
The ideal spook story would then end with a plausible rationalization that explains everything but with the supernatural element still very possible and not completely fended off. The reader left wondering if it was all true or not, and so the resulting haunting ambiguity. All this stays true to this book. While I was reading I kept waiting for some reversal of canons that would bring novelty and would justify the great praises the book received, but that didn’t come. Or it didn’t come from the direction I was expecting it. The story stays well within the canons, it’s not a “modern” interpretation in its structure. It doesn’t drop some classic conceits: it appropriates the canons. And that is where it hits. It’s about looking straight into the darkness and understanding it. The horrors of the book are always perceived and off the page, just out of the corner of the eye, never completely undeniable. The idea of movement, of sounds, of impossible perspectives. As a teenager I fed so much on the horror genre that nowadays it hardly has anything to offer. The “psychological” horror is a concept that I know quite well but it is how it is used to determine its power. Whether or not the “roots” feed on something true or just a weak conceit. The strength of this book is about knowing those roots and, instead of obfuscating, reveal the original darkness that can’t be defeated by modernity. That it’s still not even notched today. Whether it’s written by Lovecraft of Kiernan, the source is the same and ageless.
I try to avoid spoilers and I’ll say that by the end of the book I was busy trying to put together the pieces of the puzzles. Turning the last page doesn’t mean closing the lid. The book won’t be done with you and will continue to haunt. You’ll have to deal with contrasting interpretations and contradictions, with pieces that don’t fit or that you can’t place. Maybe, if you like me have a necessity to strictly define a space, feel frustration because the story defies control and because rationalization is here antidote to comprehension, as it would be in a dream. The book requires and forces a certain readjustment to be understood. But it is important to say that these details of the plot are just a surface. The desire to pin down even the smallest thing. The overall purpose, I think, would be clear. The real explanation is one that contains the different ones within, because at the core there’s the human soul, and the darkness within. What one does or doesn’t make of it. What you can’t push down and deny or forget.
Sarah’s isn’t alone in this journey, and of this I was thankful since it would have risked of making the story too oppressive and hostile. The wonderful strength of the writing is to be appreciated the most in the description of human relationships, and all the meaningful complexities that come out of them. Constance, a character sharing certain sensibilities with Sarah while also being almost her opposite, will soon join her in the house and the relationship building between them is maybe the best aspect of the book. A relationship devoid of idealization as Sarah’s character is cynic and caustic, often her attempts to reach Constance leading to both of them getting hurt and further apart in spite of necessity. Sarah and Constance won me before everything else and I was wondering how the book would proceed if I continued to be so weirdly biased toward the mundane while having very little interest for the supernatural aspect. I think that this effect was intended because it’s from those relationships that the meaningfulness of the story is entirely derived. Consequences. On the foreground stay these characters, their relationship, their truth. There’s some sex, written well for once, not too graphic and yet not embellished or mystified as it always happens. It should be better to say that there’s honesty, and that sex is part of that honesty, and, being that, it becomes extremely important. The language is modern and tight, the voice surprisingly authentic. There’s no use of classical language or rhetoric or fancy flourishes. It doesn’t read like a dusty old tome. This even affects the plot, while Sarah can be seen as the typical solitary character stranded in a mysterious house, she still has internet, looks up things she needs, goes back to the town and library various times, receives calls from her editor who asks if she’s well and is progressing with her book, travels on a car for a couple of days with Constance. There are no artificial boundaries to contain Sarah’s story, if not those entirely made by herself. I even interpreted this “freedom” of breaking through certain rules as a hint to the reader: explore, look things up online if you feel like missing something. The book can be as well enhanced by what’s outside. Do not worry to step out of the page. The darkness will be kind enough to follow you.
The supernatural aspect comes up with more strength toward the end of the book, obviously, but it does so in an unexpected way. It’s the mundane to become horror, and it’s one own feelings to open on the pit no one dares look into. The darkness is the human being. Or, to quote Bakker, the darkness comes AFTER:
It’s only after that we understand what has come before, then we understand nothing. Thus we shall define the soul as follows: that which precedes everything.
Superstition. Everywhere and in everything, Leweth had confused that which came after with that which came before, confused the effect for the cause. Men came after, so he placed them before and called them “gods” or “demons.” Words came after, so he placed them before and called them “scriptures” or “incantations.” Confined to the aftermath of events and blind to the causes that preceded him, he merely fastened upon the ruin itself, men and the acts of men, as the model of what came before.
But there’s obviously some ambiguity, embraced by alternative interpretations and whatever you decide it to be. The darkness comes “after”, produced and shaped by men. Belonging to them. As well its opposite, the darkness comes “before”, something inhuman, eternal, absolute. Universal. Ageless. Meaning that Sarah’s hallucinations were real and used her as a vehicle. But at this point the journey has already become so personal for the reader that even the last answer becomes entirely personal. The descent into madness is proportional to clarity and self-awareness. That’s another unconventional and unexpected aspect of the book. The “unreliable narrator” is a device presented in a self-aware way, used to give the text that ambiguity that keeps the disparate interpretations plausible at the same time. But toward the end this unreliable narrator becomes the only authoritative guide. One assumes that madness corresponds to a loss of contact with truth, but here the whole meta-narrative becomes clear in the mind of the character and she even seems to mock herself for it, and maybe it’s this to provide a way to escape madness by sacrificing an envelope to it.
It’s quite an awesome book that should be read even outside its genre. I enjoyed the characters and the style of writing so much that I would have loved it with or without the supernatural aspects. I love how painfully truthfully it is written. A kind of desperation that destroys any attempt for embellishment or rhetoric. Even WITHIN fiction:
I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me. And having lied, it doesn’t mean that I was necessarily dishonest.
A book whose stronger aspect is, paradoxically, the demystification. And, maybe, literature as a form of therapy. One of the most emotionally involving and authentic novels I’ve read.