An Appreciation of Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree
By Lynda E. Rucker
I love horror (obviously), but I don't like horror novels very much. I want to like horror novels, but it's difficult to maintain that sort of atmosphere and tension for the length of a novel. The short story or novella forms are, I believe, better suited to the demands of the genre.
There are two main dangers inherent in the novel-length horror tale. One is that over that many pages the horror novel becomes something else-a thriller, a kind of hybrid SF novel, a dark fantasy. The second is that it succumbs to predictability. How many variations on creeping dread and on the doomed protagonist (is it really a horror novel if it has a happy ending?) can we dream up? Occasionally a writer like Ramsey Campbell proves that an entire career can be successfully made trawling those dark waters again and again (and here I speak of artistic, not commercial, success - there are commercially successful writers in the field whose quality I find lacking). Or a novel does manage to sustain that darkness from the opening sentence to the last page, like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies, Fred Chappell's Dagon, and Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness. Or Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree.
"I have visited the old Wight Farm and its 'red tree,' there where the house squats ancient and neglected below the bogs that lie at the southern edge of Ramswool Pond."
So begins Kiernan's tale, a sentence with incantatory rhythm, seducing and summoning me into a place that is all at once dark and haunted and awestruck. The Red Tree reminds me of an interview I once read with T.E.D. Klein in Douglas Winter's 1985 book of conversations with horror writers, Faces of Fear. Klein, discussing his struggles writing The Ceremonies, said his editor asked him what he was trying to do in the book. And he replied that he was trying to give you that feeling you get when you hear the words the dark woods. You know that feeling? he asked her. And she said, no, it's just three words to me.
Well, not to me. I know exactly the feeling he meant. And The Red Tree is all about the dark woods, even if there's only a single tree in the novel in question.
The bald facts of the plot are almost beside the point. The novel is a document, framed by editor's notes, composed by the late writer Sarah Crowe as she descended into a sort of madness that ended with her suicide out at the old Wight Farm in rural Rhode Island. (This is all in the opening pages; I am not spoiling anything here.) Sarah appears to have become obsessed with both the manuscript of a previous tenant - a professor investigating local legends and folk tales - and the red tree which was the particular focus of his investigations, a tree at the center of an unwholesome history that includes cannibalism, lycanthropy, and serial murder.
That tells you almost nothing about what this book is like. For one thing, Sarah Crowe is a fiendishly unreliable narrator, even admitting herself at certain points in the account that she's embellished or even made things up whole cloth. Which is the lie - the original story, or her claims of embellishment? The story is filled with unreliable accounts, from Crowe and others. Can we even trust the editor who has put this tale together? Can we trust anyone at all? Aren't we all just weaving stories?
This is, in fact, a book in love with stories, those we tell ourselves, those we tell one another, the stories we tell to entertain and the stories we tell to mask or diminish pain. Even the protagonist's name, Sarah Crowe, brings to mind one of my favorite childhood heroines, the brave and resourceful Sarah Crewe of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. I've no idea if Kiernan had Sarah Crewe in mind at all, but throughout the book, Sarah Crowe as narrator alludes to a number of my favorite authors and stories and books, from Arthur Machen to Picnic at Hanging Rock, from 'The Midnight Sun' episode of The Twilight Zone to the same Annotated Alice I've had since I was ten, and then to the types of local myths and legends and ghost stories those of us with a certain inclination toward the dark side of things grow up reading and hearing and repeating. New England is at least as rich in such tales as the South, of which Kiernan and the fictional Crowe and I all are natives, and I think of such stories as forming parts of my horror DNA, the sense of wonder and terror that if one just goes to the right place in the dark woods one might encounter the numinous. Maybe I am in love with this book, in part, because it touches on so many of my own preoccupations.
I began this post by splitting hairs about genre, setting very specific parameters for what I consider a "horror novel." This sort of hairsplitting is normally anathema to me; ordinarily conversations about setting specific genre boundaries finds me looking for the nearest exit. But at the same time, I must admit I do have a very specific, narrow idea of what a horror novel should be - much narrower than what makes a horror short story, I realize. Worse, I don't want to put words into Caitlin Kiernan's mouth, but it's my understanding that she prefers not to be called a horror writer, not due to any antipathy toward the genre, but more from a feeling that her works fits into a broader canvas of the fantastic, and that horror readers will often complain about works they feel aren't "scary" enough to merit the label. (I've been on the receiving end of this complaint myself.) And so I apologize to Ms. Kiernan for affixing the "horror" label, but for me, this book fits more perfectly than most into the tradition I love so deeply of weird, atmospheric, off-kilter, disorienting, and ultimately transcendent horror.
I feel the same ambivalence about sticking things into genre categories as I do about sticking people into categories, and some of the concerns Carole Johnstone raised in her post on this blog earlier this month resonated with me as well. This time last year, I was surprised to learn of the need for a Women in Horror Recognition Month. I honestly thought we'd moved on from attitudes that suggested women aren't fans or creators of horror. I was troubled to find out that this wasn't necessarily the case, and furthermore that some of the same old assumptions were still being made about women who do write horror - that we are somehow softer, more domestic, more polite about what we do. And I admit I feel a little bit odd about being labeled a "woman writer" of horror fiction. I know there are women who would disagree with me, whose experience is different, but for me, "woman" is not the first or even second or third prism through which I view and engage with the world. Perhaps I'm deep in some sort of denial but I do know my own brain and my own experience. Should I feel bad that so many of the writers I think of as deeply influential or at least beloved are not only men, but appear to dislike or write women out of their stories entirely? Is my love of Machen and Lovecraft and Moby Dick (and while I'm at it, my indifference to Virginia Woolf) somehow traitorous to my gender?
The Red Tree features a protagonist who is certainly not domestic and is not especially likeable (this is a concept I have a hard time with though - I liked the spiky, sardonic Sarah, but I needn't have in order to have enjoyed the book). It isn't about children or husbands or families or abuse or any of the other topics I've seen peculiarly assigned to the realm of women's themes and concerns, in and out of the horror genre. It also isn't the sort of explicitly violent horror fiction which I've sometimes seen male horror writers and fans approve of by women on the grounds that it isn't going to give them the usual girl cooties (no, this is not a straw man, yes, I have argued with male horror fans who don't read women writers because they aren't "dark enough"). The Red Tree is a novel shot through with anger and pain and despair, and a darkness from which no one emerges whole from the other side - and that experience is simply human. It is for my money one of the finest horror novels I've ever read, and it just so happens it's written by a woman.
Lynda E. Rucker's fiction has appeared in such places as Black Static, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and Supernatural Tales, and she has a story forthcoming in Postscripts later this year.
Section items by date: