Caitlin R. Kiernan – The Red Tree (2009)
Sarah Crowe, mid-list author of fantasy novels and short stories, has left Atlanta after a bitter breakup (culminating in the suicide of her ex-girlfriend) and decamped to the middle of nowhere in Rhode Island. Unfortunately for her (but fortunately for Kiernan’s reader), the house she’s rented has a troubling history that centers on an enormous red tree set nearby, linked to centuries of sacrifice, hauntings, werewolves, and death. Much of this history is relayed through – what else? – a manuscript found in the house. Things get even more complicated when Constance Hopkins, an artist, arrives and unexpectedly takes up residence in the attic of the house, and provides a catalyst for Crowe/Kiernan’s musings on the trauma of human relationships.
There’s a tinge of metafiction at work here – Sarah Crowe isn’t exactly Caitlin Kiernan, but she isn’t exactly not Caitlin Kiernan either – both authors/paleontologists who grew up gay in the Deep South, now transplanted to New England – and a story “by Crowe” (published previously by Kiernan) takes up the middle of the novel (and also the nadir of the novel), and Crowe mentions having authored at least one other story written and published by Kiernan in real life. As this is a descent-into-madness narrative in the Lovecraftian confessional mode (culminating in Crowe’s suicide), this sense of authenticity is effectively unsettling. Alienation and misery are constant themes throughout Kiernan’s work (and, therefore, Crowe’s life), and are constantly reflected here in Crowe’s physical isolation, with nothing but ghosts and her own imagination to keep her company much of the time. This is a brutally downtrodden story.
An epistolary work, The Red Tree opens with an introduction by Crowe’s editor, is mostly taken up by Crowe’s journal, has said short story interjected in the middle, and closes with an excerpt from one of Crowe’s novels. Crowe’s journal also quotes liberally from the manuscript written by the house’s previous occupant, an academic working on a history of the house and tree. The voice of the journal was my chief complaint with the novel – I suppose it’s possible that authors keep journals like this, but the prose vacillated a little too wildly between Kiernan’s usual lyricism and an overly prosaic/conversational tone (“And why the hell am I writing all this crap down? Oh yeah, boredom.”) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rock-bottom intersection of those tendencies: an attack on critics and Amazon reviewers who complain about dream sequences in her fiction. Of course, it wouldn’t be an epistolary novel of weird horror if there wasn’t some degree of unreliability, so: how much of what Crowe is telling us is real? What’s supernatural, and what’s only in her head? Who really wrote that manuscript she found? How big is the basement of the house, really? Who wrote that short story? and etc. While I freely admit that I am a sucker for an unreliable narrator, I’m not entirely convinced that this sort of madness-versus-supernatural is ever entirely convincing – who reads things like this and thinks “oh, poor thing, it was all in her head” and opts for the mundane, less-interesting reading? This book, existing down in the gloom and the murk of Crowe’s depression and misery, walks the line more convincingly than most, though.
That short story (which turns up in the house, although Crowe has no memory of writing it) is reproduced in its entirety as part of Crowe’s manuscript, and it is the definite low point of the novel – it combines Kiernan’s (good) tendency toward works that circle a never-clearly-delineated weirdness and her (bad) tendency toward the self-consciously outre and endlessly-squabbling couples. Kiernan’s characters, both here and elsewhere, tend not to have conversations so much as arguments of varying heat (and varying pettiness). It wears thin.
Complaints aside, this is a book that has really stuck with me. The protagonist of “Pony” at one points reflects on a ghost story “[m]ore like something an Arthur Machen might have written, or an Algernon Blackwood, something more mood and suggestion than anything else,” and The Red Tree is a worthy addition to this lineage. Its most obvious antecedent, though, is Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One,” with its miserable, possibly-unhinged author protagonist and creepy house. Kiernan is one of the modern masters of this branch of weird fiction that largely avoids an explicit explosion of horror in favor of uncanny, inexplicable wrongnesses just beyond the narrator/reader’s perception/understanding (see, perhaps especially, her “The Long Hall on the Top Floor” (1999) and “Houses Under the Sea” (2006), which remains her greatest achievement).
I think I say this every time I comment on a piece of her fiction, but I find Kiernan to be incredibly frustrating. I think her interests in writing and my interests in reading are sometimes wholly compatible (ie unreliable narrators, descents into madness, everything in the above paragraph) and sometimes wholly incompatible (ie horror erotica, outsiderdom verging on solipsism), but rarely anything in between those two extremes. When she’s writing the sort of thing that I like, though, it is the sort of thing I really like.
PS – how about that cover?