I’ve been planning The Suicidal Book Club for a while, but I have a problem. I am the slowest reader in the history of mankind. It’s not that I can’t read or don’t like to. I quite enjoy it, but the written page has the same effect on me as a handful of percocets. I’m not sure why that is. I’ve also never written a book review, so this is a first for me. Pray it doesn’t go horribly wrong. Gauging a writer’s ability is something that I dread for the very same reason that I’d hate for someone to pass judgement on me. It happens every day in my comments so you’d think that I’d be used to it by now, but I mostly don’t pay attention to the mouth breathing dicks who I think I suck on some personal level because we disagree on the qualities of movie x. But I digress.
I should probably get the book review faux pas right out of the way now so we can move on to a more important critique. I hate the cover art on these recent Roc Trade paperback editions of Kiernan’s novels. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, as the old cliche goes, but bearing this in mind, I probably wouldn’t even look at the synopsis of the novel on the back if it first meant being drawn to it by these covers. Each has the same sort of treatment and the publisher seems to employ the same artist for most of their paperbacks. They also recycle the same moldy old blurb from Neil Gaiman on each one. Follow Neil or Caitlin’s twitter feeds and you’ll realize that they’re both quite friendly and have much more to say than the usual bard and poet line from the covers. So with all this shallow bitching aside, allow me outline a few reasons why you should be reading The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan.
Author Sarah Crowe is under a lot of pressure to turn in a new novel. Recent tragedy in the form of her girlfriend’s death by suicide has not only put a tremendous strain on her, it has also cursed her with writer’s block as grief seems to be the only item in her mental inventory. To clear her head, begin the healing process and actually have a novel to turn in to her publisher, she retreats to a New England farmhouse where she should find the peace and quiet that she needs, instead her mental state only weakens as generations of horror on the property are revealed to her.
Kiernan, a resident of Providence, Rhode Island has fully embraced the New England horror aesthetic. Evident in much of her work, short stories and novels, is a heavy dose of H.P. Lovecraft, an element that exists in just about every good horror author at work since the emergence of Lovecraft’s own fiction. But there’s a new element at work here or maybe I’m just noticing it for the first time. It often seems in the pages of The Red Tree as though Stephen King comes into play, as much of the main plot device revolves around the same mechanics that power The Shining. This is not to say that she saturates every passage in borrowed prose and phrases, quite the contrary. Kiernan’s writing is her own and very original, something hard to find in contemporary horror fiction. King and Lovecraft’s contributions to the overall narrative come in the form of thematic elements, as though she’s cherrypicking their finest qualities and wrapping them up in her own sometimes excessively purple prose.
The Red Tree operates efficiently, wasting no time, as a good novel should and among this lean piece of horror fiction is her greatest weapon. Kiernan puts to use one of Lovecraft’s best moves, a device that some of the finest horror filmmakers remember to fall back on. She allows your mind’s eye to fill in the gaps, giving you just enough description to get the wheels turning but baiting your imagination with the right fuel to scare the crap out of yourself with. What’s more, Kiernan is getting very good at it.
Protagonist, Sarah Crowe, often comes off as slightly autobiographical as much as Stephen King’s Jack Torrance of The Shining oftens rings sharply with King’s own career anxieties and since it’s Kiernan’s style to pack her pages to the rafters with damaged goods, so too is The Red Tree cast with a gallery of fatally flawed individuals. We come dangerously close to Poppy Z. Brite territory with some of these people, but where Poppy’s heroes are often so haunted it hurts, Kiernan designs the people who live in her pages with an uncommon sophistication and dimension. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they often feel like real people.
Though, it’s not my favorite Kiernan novel, an honor belonging to Daughter of Hounds, The Red Tree is quite an achievement and carries on Kiernan’s grand tradition of compelling narrative and the sort of eldritch horror found in the pages of Arkham House publlications. Though I often feel out of touch with the horror lit community, Kiernan still seems to live in the shadow of relative obscurity, evangelized endlessly by those fortunate enough to set their eyes upon her written page. The Red Tree takes Kiernan to the next level, familiar to those well-acquainted with her writing, but an altogether new approach. She smooths the corners and constructs a tighter novel than she has written thus far, deftly combining the best ingredients of modern horror to create a well-rounded package of psychological thrills that will hang out on the edges of your own consciousness begging to question, “Is Sarah Crowe the ultimate unreliable narrator?”
Existing outside of her magnum opus Chance Matthews series, The Red Tree is as good a starting point as any to introduce yourself to the dynamic work of Caitlin R. Kiernan.