The Ghost Tree: A well-rendered 1980s slasher that could have gone farther

The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Ghost Tree by Christina Henry science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

After I read Christina Henry’s 2020 horror novel The Ghost Tree, I did a bit of research on the writer. It seems like she is well-known for retelling fairy tales, usually with a dark (or darker) twist than the original. The Ghost Tree is not a fairy tale, as far as I can tell, although it has some fairy-tale elements. It’s a 1980s-style slasher horror novel. By the way, that’s what I thought I was getting when I bought it, so there is no mislabeling going on here.

Lauren DeMucci, nearly fifteen, has weighty problems on her shoulders. The year before, her father was murdered in the woods near their house, his heart torn out. The town police haven’t made any progress on solving the murder. Lauren’s best friend since the second grade, Miranda, is growing away from her — she bosses Lauren around, mocks her bookishness and tomboy figure, and is only interested in boys, preferably ones with hot cars. (If you think something bad will happen to Miranda after this description, you know exactly what kind of book this is.)

Smiths Hollow is a virtually perfect small Illinois town, a forty-minute train ride from Chicago, and so far, it has evaded the rustbelt effects similar towns have faced. It has a thriving Main Street and a chili canning factory that employs nearly everyone in town. It sounds too good to be true. That’s because it is.

The opening chapters introduce a number of small-town characters: Lauren’s magical baby brother David, her troubled mother Karen, and Alex Lopez, new to the town and the local police force. Soon, though, Alex is called to a horrifying scene in the backyard of the town bigot; the heads and entrails of two girls are festooned around the lawn. Despite the shock and horror of the scene, Alex’s partner Miller seems to have trouble paying attention, and by the next day he has even more trouble remembering there were two disembodied heads. And he’s not the only one Alex himself has trouble remembering, except for one thing. One of the heads spoke to him. It told him to find their bodies — and find the other girls.

Christina Henry

Christina Henry

This is a great setup, and the multiple points of view are true to the subgenre. They work well here to show us a town built on a terrible cost. Descriptions within The Ghost Tree are excellent, most particularly the ghost tree itself, a spar in the woods that Lauren always feels drawn to, even though her father’s body was found there.

While the description of the aftermath of killings is graphically rendered, there is little on-page violence until the end of the book. Some of the book’s “mundania” is perfect, like the constant bickering between Lauren and her mother Karen. I liked that part of it, and Lauren’s slowly growing friendship with local boy Jake, very much. Other characters, such as Mrs. Schneider, were less developed — one-note “types;” the bigot, the boorish teenaged boy, the corrupt mayor. Miranda is the biggest example of “type;” I can’t even say I was disappointed, since she was destined to be this character since we first met her.

The story broke down for me when the magic was introduced as the source of the killings. I didn’t mind the killer being a supernatural monster — I didn’t feel like the story of the town’s curse worked well. The town is “cursed” to lose girls to a monster, but in return the town gets a guarantee of prosperity. That’s not a curse. It’s a bargain. If it is a bargain, that doesn’t fit the motivations for the people who imposed the curse. In other, smaller ways, the magic is unexplained. I could accept David and Lauren’s abilities, but things like a ring appearing at the town fair (yes, of course there’s a town fair!) made little sense, even magically. And the townsfolk turning into mindless zombies near the end was unconvincing, as if thrown in to increase the danger level, without any internal reason.

Henry reminds us of the time period throughout the story with music, movie references, and fashion clues. That part of the story worked well for me. The Ghost Tree is not a failure, just a book that could have gone a bit deeper and a little farther with its storytelling. The ideas here, and the prose, make me want to read some of her fairy tale retellings.

When the bodies of two girls are found torn apart in the town of Smiths Hollow, Lauren is surprised, but she also expects that the police won’t find the killer. After all, the year before her father’s body was found with his heart missing, and since then everyone has moved on. Even her best friend, Miranda, has become more interested in boys than in spending time at the old ghost tree, the way they used to when they were kids. So when Lauren has a vision of a monster dragging the remains of the girls through the woods, she knows she can’t just do nothing. Not like the rest of her town. But as she draws closer to answers, she realizes that the foundation of her seemingly normal town might be rotten at the center. And that if nobody else stands for the missing, she will.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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