“The Red Tree” review and mixed emotions

The Red Tree The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Where to begin? I am a big fan of Kiernan’s work. No, I have not read all of her books… yet. What I do hold in high regard, nearly on a pedestal if truth be told, are her works “Threshold,” “Low Red Moon” and “Alabaster” as well as “Tales of Pain and Wonder.” I love those books and the way she handled horror with class, understanding that it is much more powerful when implied than shown. Fantastic characters in the setting of the urban South. Amazing stuff. No one does it better!

Which brings me to “The Red Tree.” Stylistically, I love it. There’s something great about the way Kiernan writes, something undefinable that goes beyond the sometimes lyrical nature of her sentences. She did a great job of laying down the foundations of dread, at which she excels, and she did a wonderful job of making the reader feel just how sinister and malignant this tree might be.

A great deal has been made about the “unreliable narrator” in this book and in this regard Kiernan blurs the lines between the protagonist writer of the story and Kiernan herself. There’s a lot of that going on in here, actually. Was it a paranoid fantasy? Hallucinations of an ailing mind? It’s hard to say. There are no answers here. Even in the fictional Editor’s Postscript of the book, Kiernan alludes to this via a fictional excerpt from the protagonist’s novel:

” ‘It really doesn’t make a great deal of sense, this story. It’s filled with loose ends and has no shortage of contradictions. It shows no regard for anyone’s need of resolution.’ “

“The Red Tree” is good but unsatisfying if you’re looking for certainty. In short, some of what I love about Kiernan’s past work is not present here (the urban and rural south settings, the action), but what is present is her skill for crafting a haunting and dread-filled story, intensely detailed background and flawed, miserable characters who appeal to the reader even in their wretchedness.

I give it 3 out of 5 stars where her other work I am familiar with easily rates a 5.

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  1. I have to admit that I’m intrigued by your description of “Red Tree” and the odd presentation at the website. But I’m willing to start elsewhere if you care to recommend one of the others.

    Incidentally, “Red Tree” gives an impression similar to House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, which is a shifty, baggy, intriguing, sometimes beautifully written novel that came out about 10 years ago. I imagine there’s quite a bit more to be written along these lines.

    There’s only a slight difference, I think, between the metafictional, quasi-documentary novel and the sort of stories HPL wrote toward the end–his “hoaxes” as he called them.

  2. Go with “Threshold” and then “Low Red Moon” chronologically. Then if you like that, “Alabaster” is a good, short read. She’s a big fan of HPL, even moved to Providence a year or so back. Look for the documentary “Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown” out in October. I have it coming to me upon its release as a birthday gift 🙂

  3. I’d almost forgotten about HPL documentary, though I remember hearing about it months ago. I’ll look for it.

    Threshold sounds good. I looked over some reviews at Amazon and I’m pretty excited about reading this one. Can’t get too much cosmic horror….

    Just now, I’m in the middle of Ligotti’s My Work is Not Yet Done. Maybe I’ll eke out a review of it for the FH/SLM issue–which has been put off till Oct. 31st BTW. It’ll be a proper Halloween issue this time.

  4. Ligotti is great! I have his book of short stories “Teatro Grotesco” that I thumb through occasionally. How is the novel “My Work is Not Yet Done”?

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