The Red Tree – Caitlín R. Kiernan

(the cover shown here IS NOT representative of content. Buy the book with your eyes closed, if you have to)

I don’t know what to write here. I was hoping the last 120 pages of the book would offer me a better direction for my comments but I’m even more troubled now that I finished the book. I also read a few things online about some suspects I had and, finding them true, I blame myself for having doubted of their relevance. So I have this whole new point of view and interpretation that should have been there from the beginning.

Let’s put down the framework first. “The Red Tree” is a kind of supernatural, horror, psychological journey that borrows heavily from the long and solid tradition and that recovers and updates what made Lovecraft “work”. Not an homage or imitation, but the revelation that what built those genres is still well alive and relatively uncompromised. It’s the first book I read of Caitlín R. Kiernan but I soon discovered I had also read some comics written by her so many years ago that I don’t remember anymore anything specific about them (The Dreaming). The book is structured in a way somewhat similar to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, probably far less convoluted and pretentious, but the aspect I think is more relevant is the game of mirrors. Trivializing a lot: a lesbian writer writes about a lesbian writer who writes a diary about herself. (and I should mention that I have a particular love for meta-narratives) Then at some point the mirror shatters and we have her discovering a short story about herself that she doesn’t remember to have written at all. As well more mirrors of herself and her dead lover coming from the past, and maybe the future.

But that’s misleading as the story is the one of this alter-ego fictional writer, Sarah Crowe, who flees from her former life and rents an house in the countryside. She begins to write her diary when she discovers in the basement of the big house the incomplete draft of a research written by the previous tenant (now dead), about a nearby oak on which converged a number of legends. The framework and execution, at this level, is made of the solid tradition I mentioned above. Soon the bits of legends Sarah reads seep into her reality and slowly build an estrangement from the “real” world. The researcher’s obsession becomes the Sarah’s own, and one doesn’t even have to speculate the woman will share the previous tenant’s fatal destiny as that is already spoiled right in the introduction. 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, and 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. It didn’t come from the way I was expecting it. The story stays well within the canons, it’s not a “modern” interpretation. It doesn’t drop some classic conceits: it appropriates the canons. And that is where it hits, but also the part that gave me some problems and so I’m not too confident to wrap up and be done with it. The problem being that I’m not sure I have interpreted it in the right way, or in a way that can be reasonably considered complete or accurate. Too many aspects that I can’t place correctly in the frame, and also the feeling I don’t have any hope to eventually figure it out. A bit frustrating.

The whole context is of the kind that puts me off balance. I prefer much more to have things stated bluntly, so that I can get to the nuanced aspects once I get the perimeter well defined. While I have a really hard time to start from the nuances and relate to a perimeter in-the-making that is never quite set and solid. You know, punching holes into certainty. Rationalization as the antidote to comprehension. These habits and mindsets of mine don’t really help here. Now excuse me the following utterly sexist and horrid sweeping generalization. It’s like I’m gaping into the mind of a woman, feeling slightly intrigued, slightly amused, then set the thing down and walk away shaking my head, thinking: “What a fucking mess”. But then I don’t think I’m a sexist and so I come away just feeling I’m missing a whole lot and don’t have what it takes to figure it out.

I should say that these “problems” are entirely my own and that I do not recognize in the novel itself. I just have to deal with writing an incomplete “review” and the feeling I can’t leave the thing behind in a satisfying way. Yet do not worry, because even if you share my own shortcomings there’s still plenty to appreciate. The book is really well written and gripping, a personal journey you will remember, and I think that even if I wasn’t able to formulate a final explanation (or one that isn’t so simplistic that I dismissed it right away), I was still able to grasp a core of meaning. The same core of meaning that builds the “worth” of this book.

The only beacon I had is self-fashioned and about the whole argument of “truthfulness” in literature that i discussed in the past. For most of the book I was trying to “get” it, but already from the first pages I noticed and appreciated the style of writing. I said the book stays well within the canons, but this doesn’t apply to the writing style. There’s no use of classical language or rhetoric or fancy flourishes. It doesn’t read like a dusty old tome. The language is modern and tight, the voice surprisingly authentic. It’s the writing to surface and shine instead of the story, and I was captured by the mundane long before I started developing interest in the supernatural aspects. Sarah’s character 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. I thought it was my own problem since as a teenager I fed so much on the horror genre that nowadays it hardly has anything to offer, but now I think that this effect was somewhat intended. 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 before, and 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.

I still clearly haven’t reconciled with this, as I am sure that the book reinforces this idea that the darkness comes after (so a man or woman create and shape it), as well its opposite, that the darkness comes before and that what was discovered was indeed out of time and true. Inhuman, absolute. That those hallucinations were real. And I’m even more fucked if I think my whole interpretation (the darkness that comes after) is only due to me reading Bakker, and so completely uprooted from what “The Red Tree” wanted to show. What a mess, indeed. A few hours ago on twitter I sent a comment to Caitlín Kiernan since she tweeted she didn’t want her works to be classified as “urban fantasy” so I suggested Mark Charan Newton fancy definition of “Rural Fantasy”. She replied directly and seriously to what was intended as just a transitory joke, but after finishing the book this offered, and confirmed, the different perspective. She wants it called “dark fantasy”. And that darkness is maybe entirely within, and not outside.

In any case, there are elements of the plot I can’t place at all (like the seven paintings and corresponding messages, I couldn’t make anything out of them) and so the proof that even if I may have gotten something framed correctly the whole picture is still far away…

I should also mention that the descent into madness is also proportional to clarity and self-awareness. That’s maybe the most 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.

I consider it quite an awesome book. In spite of these themes surfacing, I still personally enjoyed the characters so much that I would have loved it even if it removed all the supernatural parts and layers. I mean, I was loving that character with or without the darker side exposed. I was loving the unforgiving way Sarah saw herself, the nihilistic aspects. Her relationship and 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.

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