“… The truth, of course, is that all first-person narrations are, by definition, unreliable, as all memories are unreliable.”
The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan, is a terrifying horror story with the masterful use of an unreliable narrator. Kiernan’s language and structure build a tale that draws the reader into a world darker and stranger than first imagined, then leaves us questioning everything we thought we understood.
Kiernan also pulls an authorial stunt that left me irked; yanking aside the fictional curtain a third of the way through the book and grinning out at the reader. This is showing up in more and more work; apparently it’s the spawn of post-modernism. Whatever it is, I don’t like it.
In The Red Tree, Kiernan is successful at two levels of unraveling. Sarah Crowe, the first-person narrator, is a writer, despondent over the suicide of her lover Amanda, facing a publisher’s deadline and a condition she describes as writer’s block. She hasn’t even begun the novel that is due in six weeks’ time. She moves from Atlanta to a remote part of Rhode Island, where she knows no one, and rents a ramshackle farmhouse in the middle of a forest. Shortly after moving in, Sarah discovers that the previous tenant, a professor of parapsychology, committed suicide while he was staying at the house. We find these things out through the ad hoc journal Sarah starts when she finds a steno pad and a dull #2 pencil in the house. Later she finds the cumbersome antique Royal typewriter the professor used, and an incomplete manuscript. Apparently, the professor was obsessed with a tree on the property, a large red oak. Sarah is surprised to learn that the tree is visible from the kitchen and, in fact, she has been staring at it every morning for the past two weeks.
The tree has a lurid and blood-soaked past, according to the professor’s unfinished book. Although the tree is quite close to the house, the uneven terrain means that a direct approach is not possible, but when Sarah walks out to it, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. She even takes a nap under its branches. The tree becomes terrifying later, however, when Sarah and a companion decide to walk to it and have a picnic. In short order, Sarah and Constance are lost. Despite the fact that they are less than 75 yards from the house, and they can see the tree, they cannot reach it. Anyone who has ever been lost in the woods, however briefly, will appreciate Kiernan’s proficiency in this sequence. If you never have, then trust me that this section is breath-catchingly accurate. Exasperated, Sarah and Constance decide to return to the house, only to find that they can’t do that either. It takes sheer panic for them to finally find their way home, and discover that they are completely turned around, facing the back of the house when they should be coming into the front yard. This literal disorientation cannot be explained. It is a portent of what is to come.
The incident with the failed picnic is disturbing enough, but it is only the beginning. Sarah is plagued with vivid dreams that grow more elaborate and detailed. There is a frightening, baffling scene in the cellar. Sarah finds some four-leaf clovers that Amanda pressed into a book for her. Shortly afterward, she finds the same number of oak leaves in the house. At the same time, Constance, who at first seemed like the voice of reason, is becoming stranger and more mystifying, and the professor’s manuscript takes a darker and darker turn. Under this pressure, Sarah begins to unravel.
I’m a seasoned horror reader, and for a while I thought I knew what was happening. Then I realized it wasn’t what had I thought, but I was sure I knew what was happening this time. Then I realized that I didn’t know at all. Like Sarah, I had less knowledge with each turned page of what was real and what was not; what was a dream and what was not; what was evil and what was madness. Seemingly random incidents at the beginning of the book, that I thought I had understood, suddenly took on a new significance. Objects, like the steno pad and the pencil, or a roll of bright green fishing line, went from benign to threatening. Reality began to slide away from me, dissolving underfoot, making me question everything Sarah was telling me, and telling herself, not only about the tree, but about the house, Amanda, and her own life. This is the second level of unraveling, and Kiernan directs the release of information perfectly, letting the reader peel back the layers. There is even a complex pun in the book, since the professor’s manuscript is typed on onionskin paper.
Clearly, I was very impressed with The Red Tree, so I was all the more irritated when Kiernan inserted herself into it. Early in the book, Sarah goes to the small-town library, mainly because it has air conditioning. The librarian brings her the collection of her short stories and asks her to autograph it. Sarah does, noting that the first story, “The Ammonite Violin” is one of her better efforts. Of course The Ammonite Violin and Others is a story collection written not by the fictional Sarah Crowe, but by Caitlin R. Kiernan. What does this prove? Is this some meta-fictional in-joke, a subtle hint that the writer “Caitlin Kiernan” is as much a fictional construct as “Sarah Crowe”? Perhaps it has some deep connection to the story, and I am just too insensitive and stupid to figure it out. Whatever it is, it’s annoying. (And furthermore, you kids, get off my lawn!)
Despite my curmudgeonly irritation with this literary trick, I highly recommend The Red Tree to anyone who likes psychological horror. Fans of Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe should add this book to their libraries.