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72 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2009
I read The Red Tree in one sitting because I was simultaneously enthralled and too petrified to look away. Kiernan's story reached out from those pages and grabbed me by the throat, and I followed anxiously behind her protagonist Sarah Crowe as she unearthed fragments of revelation about the Red Oak looming in her backyard. It's just plain good narrative and good writing, and it's also the creepiest thing I've read all year.

This is not your average horror novel. If you like your monsters cliché and your plot points obvious, please look elsewhere. This is a canvas of subtle images, in which the really, really terrible things are only intimated. Which, of course, is the reason it's so scary. Kiernan's nightmares are all the more effective because they never resolve into one solid entity you can categorize long enough to lock in the closet or sweep under the bed. Instead, the vague feeling of dread creeping down your spine is intensified by a host of doubts. It's a rare author who can get both her characters and her readers to doubt what their eyes have seen (or read), but Kiernan manages it with seeming effortlessness. There was no reason to be afraid by page 50. Not knowing, as we do almost immediately, that Sarah Crowe's account is being published posthumously by a (fictitious) editor. Not by the conventions of horror novels that either plod tediously toward some obvious shocker or trot out the gore as early as possible. But I was. And it was a sublime fear, the sort of fear that leaves you with traces of awe instead of just the desire to barricade yourself in. I wanted to watch her world crumble.

This is also not your average Gothic novel. If you prefer archaisms stolen from Dracula and characters stolen from bad Anne Rice fanfic, you won't like the frank elegance of Kiernan's prose. Her characters are real people (well...for some definition of "people"--I'm not giving anything away) who smoke and swear and deal badly with fear. And along with that, the dreams she describes are real dreams. You will actually feel like you are dreaming--the same surreal logic and warped symbolism permeate the novel. It's a rare thing, to stand inside other people's dreams, and rarer still to survive their nightmares. I would unequivocally recommend doing both through The Red Tree--and unequivocally recommend doing so with the lights on.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2009
I'm going to be honest. I'm a devoted fan of Caitlin R. Kiernan's writing. I first read her chapbook "Candles for Elizabeth" in September of 1999 and her first novel, Silk, that December. I put her novels in other people's hands for many years as a bookseller and most of them came back to the store and thanked me. If you like dark fantasy set in the present day, with a sense of how the deep past lurks underneath everything we do, Kiernan's one of the best writers alive.

Unlike her other books, this is a new stand-alone novel. Her others link loosely, sharing a world and some characters--but this story is the place to start if you've always wanted to read her. It's also an evolution. Kiernan's stunningly brilliant and singular vision blew my doors off. I'm at the point where I'm offering to buy friends copies because I'm so excited that one of my favorite writers has written something this amazing. This really is the book of her career so far.

I've always been in awe of her, but this novel is so deep, stirring and fascinating that it's the one that I didn't know she had in her. Often, when I revere a person's writing, they do something different but as brilliant as what they've done previously and I'll think, "I knew they had it in them."

The experience of reading The Red Tree was: I had no idea anyone, ever, could do something like this.

The writer Sarah Crowe wants out. She left the grind of Atlanta and a shattered relationship to be by herself in a house away from it all in Rhode Island. She finds a half-finished manuscript written by someone who became obsessed by the giant red oak out back. The tree has a dark history and Sarah becomes obsessed too. It's a vivid account of how she is haunted by that oak tree. All I can say is that you might end up checking the backs of your closets for leaves from that oak.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2009
I love horror and I love writers who don't talk down to their readers (I love footnotes and needing a dictionary!). I also appreciate not being hand-fed all the details so everything is neatly wrapped up for me. Ms. Kiernan delivers all of this and more in her latest book. She places us inside the head of Sarah Crowe, a writer seeking solitude after trouble in her personal life only to find more trouble in her chosen "hiding place". Sarah's thoughts and dreams are clearly drawn for us, no matter how confusing and contradictory they may be and how many details, we learn at the end, are NOT given to us. The characters are real, flawed, hurting and one can't help but care about them or at least be drawn into their stories. It is clear that H.P. Lovecraft is a strong influence but the world and the terrors are wholly Ms Kiernan's. I think this is her best work yet and look forward to reading material of hers I haven't yet read.
Technically, I have to say her writing is as fine as Harlan Ellison's and Jacqueline Carey's (Kushiel's Dart). She draws very clear pictures of people and events, elicits strong emotional responses and doesn't waste a word in the process.

The Red Tree additional thoughts: I've read it twice and thought about it and have read many other reviews and comments and have a few more things to say. I think that a lot of people use the word 'horror' as a blanket term for darker uncomfortable feelings. Ms Kiernan has stated that she did not set out to write this as a 'horror story' but that she is seeing a lot of people calling it that. People like labels and I don't think there is one for a story that contains some frightening things but isn't at the core about them. Part of my fear was from the basement in that house; I've known a few musky dark lovecraftian spaces like that and I could SMELL it. Part of my fear was shared from Sarah's; both from the situation and that she could not define it, understand it, label it precisely. Fear of the unknown. Things happening that can't be explained or remembered. Some of the feelings this book drew out of me were fear and confusion and sadness as well as the general emotional disturbance that something is happening 'off-page' that is directing the action.
I wouldn't label this particular volume as "horror" even though I started my initial review by stating I love horror. I do, but not all. For me, the characters and story (whether there's a real plot or not) are the important thing. Am I pulled into their lives? Do I react emotionally when something happens to them? Do I want to find out what happens to them in later pages? Is the writing good enough to hold me there when I'm feeling scared/disturbed/upset by what's happening on the pages?

The best example of this, for me, is Dan Simmons' Song of Kali. Very frightening/unsettling/dark... and there are levels/facets to each thing so X happens and you're scared, but for about 5 different reasons. I couldn't put it down; I HAD to finish it. I doubt I will read it again, but THAT is good writing, when you can't put it down. I had a similar reaction to Silk, although I've been thinking about re-reading that one.

Ms Kiernan's work is like that; finely crafted enough to hold you there even when you're uncomfortable/scared/upset/disturbed.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2010
Author Sarah Crowe flees Atlanta and the end of her recent relationship for an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. There she discovers a manuscript written by the house's previous tenant, which chronicles the long and haunting history of a massive red oak growing on the property. As Sarah's own obsession with the red tree grows, she records her experiences in a journal, published posthumously by her former book editor. Kiernan is a master storyteller with a unique voice and a superb handle on the balance between atmosphere, horror, and psychological underpinning. A densely multilayered narrative rich with dream imagery, The Red Tree may be her best book yet. It's haunting, beautiful, terrifying, and absolutely superb. I highly recommend it.

This is a palimpsest of a book where narratives are built within, and rest upon, other narratives. It's also a peon to writing--to the creative process as both a source of and a means of interpreting anxiety. The onion-layered narratives and plentiful literary allusions create a densely multi-layered book. It has a constantly evolving, expanding plot which, combined with Kiernan's superb grasp of pacing and suspense, creates a compelling, page-turning story; the literary allusions, journal-styled narrative, and the dream imagery that gives the horror life create rich emotional and psychological depth. Kiernan is an outright skillful writer, with a lyrical voice, rich imagery, and a willingness to leave a bit of mystery in order to maintain suspense and rouse the reader's imagination and thought. The Red Tree is the rare sort of book which is at once dreamlike yet compulsively readable and--like Poe, Lovecraft, and the other sources that inspire it--finds psychological and emotional depth through horror.

The Red Tree may leave too much unsaid: too much of the horror left for the reader to imagine, and--partly necessitated by the "posthumous" narrative--lingering questions as the book ends. But better a little too much mystery than a glut of unrealistic explanation, and this only fault isn't enough to detract from an incredible book. I find it easy to write critical book reviews, because identifying weaknesses is a rewardingly concrete, if subjective, task. Reviewing wonderful books is harder, in part because it's so difficult to pin down the factor that makes a book truly exceptional. Not its unique voice, strong narrative, or brilliant sense of horror as exhibited here, but its more insubstantial something that makes it greater than the sum of these parts. In my eyes all of Kiernan's work has that factor, but perhaps The Red Tree most of all. Only time will tell, but I believe this has become my favorite of Kiernan's works. It's an absorbing, thoughtful, frightening read, richly atmospheric and haunting in its dreamlike imagery, and exceptional in a sense that I can't quite pin down. I recommend it with complete enthusiasm--as an introduction to Kiernan, and as a new favorite for her longtime fans.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 22, 2010
I remember so clearly as a kid lying on the front lawn in summer reading Poe. Despite the sunshine and green grass my heart would pound with terror and something very much like sheer joy. Of course I've tried to recapture these feelings, but I'm usually disappointed. To my taste, even the big names in the horror field just don't dig deep enough, just don't get close enough to the bone, to cause a thrill of real fear (and sheer joy).

So what a pleasure to stumble across this book. This is horror just as I always dream it will be (but as it rarely is) - literate, poetic, and very scary. The setting is classic - a tormented blocked writer in a haunted house, on haunted New England land. And here we have the classic horror quandary - is there anything more terrifying than our own minds and memories? Kiernan's control of her material is breathtaking, her ability to create a mood unsurpassed. Wow - am I ever glad I found this book!! This is full-throated romantic writing at its best. Anyone who happens to like a little Thoreau, for instance, with his or her horror, will be thrilled. Thanks, Amazon recommendations! And I'm really grateful for the positive reviews here that convinced me this book was worth reading. Really not to be missed.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2010
The Red Tree is one of the best books I've read all year, and I've already been itching to go back to it and let it play with my head some more. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting when I started it, but what I read wasn't what I was expecting, and then it was better than what I expected. It's a jagged, rattling, hurtful book, and incredibly atmospheric. The horror is creeping and primal, almost inarticulable. People and paintings and animal bones appear and disappear; proportions and distances are warped; the brittle, chain-smoking protagonists labor under constant, sapping heat and suffer from surreal nightmares. At the same time, the emotions underlying it are so real: reading the book feels like holding an artifact of life, a snarled-up package of fury and self-hatred and despair. Yeah, it's not the happiest book to read, but its painful authenticity is a large part of what makes it so compelling. There are no pretensions to darkness or the Gothic here, just a lifetime's worth of the real thing.

After all, protagonist Sarah Crowe is a clear analogue of Kiernan herself: she's a black-tempered writer of obscure dark fantasy who lives in Rhode Island, and she struggles with writer's block and a seizure disorder. In Sarah's case, she leaves the South to escape the memories of her failed relationship with an artist named Amanda, who committed suicide. Once in New England, she settles into an ancient farm house whose property is marked by a red oak of incredible age and size. Unsurprisingly, she develops a morbid fascination with the mythology surrounding the tree - in particular a half-finished manuscript left by the house's last tenant in the basement - at the same time that a painter named Constance moves in upstairs. Cue much petty sniping, frustrated desire, and poorly concealed, creeping obsession.

The narrative is bookended by notes from Sarah Crowe's editor, and the main text comprises Sarah's irregular journal entries and her transcripts of historical accounts of the tree - as well as an older short story of Kiernan's, which here becomes a short story of Sarah's, except that she can't remember ever having written it. Metatextual mindscrewing ahoy! The entire set-up, this intricate weaving of text upon text upon text, is rife with possibilities for slips of the tongue (or typewriter), errors, confabulations, convenient or inadvertent omissions. What is scarier, anyway - at least to those of us who don't live on properties with possibly haunted vegetation - the idea that a demonic oak tree is making you forget things, or the idea that you yourself are simply incapable of remembering everything, of apprehending the whole of your experience? What are we missing when we blink, when we fall asleep, when we wake up and can only remember half of a dream that seemed painfully urgent, when we walk into the kitchen and can't remember what we went there for? Sarah's seizures also play into the underlying anxiety about these little oblivions: they're uncontrollable blips in her consciousness and in her experience of the narrative.

Sarah herself constantly dares the reader to take her words at face value, reminding us that she can't possibly have remembered this dream or that conversation word-for-word or scene-by-scene, and that half of the substance she reports is necessarily invented by her after the fact. After all, she is a writer. Her evasions - most crucially, her refusal to say anything about Amanda, or to look back on their relationship except through the media of dreams and fiction - say more about her than anything else she chooses to reveal.

Kiernan commented in an interview that one of the key ideas behind the book is that of "truth" versus "fact." Here we have a story in which the facts are anything but clear, and really, pretty much irrelevant. In the end, all we know is that whatever Sarah sees in her life, whatever she sees in the red tree, is enough to kill her, probably by suicide - and no, that's not a spoiler, because Sarah Crowe's editor informs us of such on the first page. And that's only "probably" by suicide - we have no idea how she really died. Like Sarah digging up the unfinished manuscript in the basement, this is all we have to go by: a messy, unsatisfying, and frightening bundle of typescript, make what truth of it we will.

All in all, The Red Tree is frustrating, challenging, and rewarding, both as unnerving, suspenseful entertainment and as conceptually rich art. I highly recommend it for those who like fantasy with bite and depth, and a side of "wtf."

Review originally posted at theblackletters.net .
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
What a strange book! Then again, I know never to expect the expected when reading Caitlin R. Kiernan.

The story centers on Sarah Crowe, a writer who moves to an isolated house in Rhode Island after her lover's death. Beset by writer's block, she finds herself unable to write the novel her contract demands, and instead becomes obsessed with an old manuscript she finds in the basement. This manuscript was written by a previous tenant of the house who died before he could complete it, and is a collection of lore concerning a mysterious red oak tree on the property. Sarah begins a diary of sorts, interspersed with passages from the manuscript, which chronicles her life in Rhode Island: her anguish over her lover's death, her tumultuous relationship with the new tenant who moves in upstairs, and her increasingly creepy experiences with the red tree.

Kiernan does a great job of evoking the terror of not knowing what is real and what is imagined. Is Sarah haunted, or is she deluded? There is no definitive answer to this question, and readers are left to draw their own conclusions. Adding to this deliberately created sense of uncertainty is Sarah's unreliability as a narrator. Sarah admits that she sometimes lies, sometimes forgets things, and when she can't remember something or can't face it, she often makes things up which nonetheless contain a kernel of deeper truth. Once she begins to doubt her sanity, it's even harder to discern what is "real."

I was engrossed in _The Red Tree_ from the beginning. If there was anything that slowed me down at all, it was the excerpts from the found manuscript. Part of the reason these slowed me down is that Kiernan is intentionally (and skillfully) emulating a folklore-writing style that is dense, meandering, and a little dry. But part of it is that the type itself is harder to read in these sections. In order to illustrate that this manuscript was created on an old typewriter and left to molder in the basement for years, it's printed in "distressed" Courier. Especially when I read late at night, I couldn't help but be reminded that I'm not getting any younger! That said, these sections are important and interesting. They intertwine with Sarah's own narrative and sometimes help make sense of her experiences.

I finished _The Red Tree_ a few weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it. I think I probably need to read it again just to make sure I caught everything. It won't be for everyone, but readers willing to embrace a little ambiguity will be rewarded with a layered, atmospheric tale.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 22, 2009
Caitlin R. Kiernan, surely one of America's finest (and darkest) writers, returns with "The Red Tree"; and she's coming from a new direction. Using first-person narration for the first time insofar as I know, she's created what's apparently a semi-autobiographical novel, and she distances it from herself by tagging it as a novel by Sarah Crowe and Charles L. Harvey. And if you're worried that her use of the first person will render her prose less shimmering, poetic, and impressionistic than in her previous works, well--I'm here to dispel those worries. Her prose glows. It glows darkly, but it glows.

The novel's also the author's first middle-aged novel. She spun into the literary world more than a decade ago with "Silk," and with its grunge milieu and the unforgettable Spyder it's very much the work of a young woman. And in that and her subsequent novels, she created a cast of characters she kept returning to. None of them appear here, although Lewis Carroll's poem "The Lobster Quadrille," as usual, puts in an appearance.

The author, now in early middle age, appears to have shifted her concerns and seems here to be looking back to see how she got to this point in her life, and maybe she's wondering where she's going next. It could be this novel's just a marker along her road to . . . where?

Anyway, what Ms. Kiernan's brought forth here is remarkable enough. She sets out to upset you, and succeeds perfectly. Her stand-in twice-removed for herself, Sarah Crowe, is the lonely writer's-blocked author who moves to Lovecraft country from the south after the death of her lover "Amanda," and the late Charles Harvey is the creator of a partially complete manuscript Sarah finds in the spooktastic basement of the house she's rented (he was the previous tenant).

The structure of the tale is cleverly laid out in the "preface" supposedly written by Sarah's editor. Her firm is publishing, in lieu of a contracted novel, Sarah's journal. In that preface she reveals that Sarah's died and that her death has been ruled a suicide. The journal--batted out on a mechanical typewriter Sarah finds in the basement (it dates back to the early 1940s) tells the tale of the last few months of Sarah's life, including her dreams and her encounters with her housemate Constance, interwoven with portions of Charles's ms., also left incomplete at his death. The Red Tree of the title is a red oak only 75 yards from the house . . . or is it?

It's gripping and scary, and subject to different interpretations. And maybe when you've finished you'll scour your place to make certain that no red oak leaves have mysteriously gained entry. And you probably won't be taking shelter under a red oak anytime soon.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2009
There are few things that terrify me more than the thought of my brain ceasing to function properly. I can imagine dozens of truly horrifying situations and experiences I might be forced to endure, but I know from simple moments where I can't remember a name, or a word that I should be intimately familiar with, that if I had to question my own sanity, or worry that others were questioning it, I'd be off the ledge and free-falling pretty quickly.

In The Red Tree, Caitlin Kiernan delivers exactly that fear through the words and thoughts of her protagonist, Sarah Crowe. Sarah has left behind a life crippled by the suicide of her lover, whose name we never learn because when she writes about her, she calls her by another name. She has retreated to a small house in Rhode Island to write her next novel and get herself together. The author also manages to make you care that both of these things, in fact, happen. The author is not to be trusted.

Sarah finds that the previous tenant of her new retreat was an author - a parapsychologist researching the murky history surrounding a huge Red Oak tree. That tree stands within easy site of the windows of her new home, and the history is a crazy one filled with hints of ancient evil, sacrifice, and lycanthrope. That previous tenant committed suicide. There's a lot of that in the novel. Sarah finds his manuscript hidden in a basement that is not exactly a basement...sometimes.

This is the point in a review I hate. I have a lot to say about this book, but a lot of what I'd like to say gives away too much. The point is, everything that happens to Sarah feels very real. You get an almost Lovecraftian sensation of worlds overlapping at some mystic portal. You can feel the ancient "ley lines" rippling beneath the foundations of the old house, and through the roots of the tree. The stories, the reports of strange happenings surrounding this arboreal menace throughout history, add to the sensation of other-worldliness, and strengthen either the reality of the events in the book - or the foundations of the insanity invading Sarah's brain.

The thing is that there's a very fine line involved in this story. It's possible that it's the story of an eroding mind, locked away and unable to cope with a string of events that began decades earlier when the protagonist witnessed a traumatic event. It's also possible that it's a detailed narration of one person's encounter with unknown, unknowable forces. There may be a girl named Amanda, and another named Constance...or it might be a story written and typed by an author no longer in any type of contact with reality. It might be the rendering of insanity into words, created in solitude.

And at its core, that's what this book is about. Solitude. Loneliness. Different characters deal with these issues throughout the novel, all through the filter of Sarah's mind and the words she types. These words include a story she doesn't even remember writing, and yet believes that she did write. We never know if she did, or did not, if the events in the story are real, or merely a version of some similar event in Sarah's past - the relationship that drove her to isolation and despair - it's impossible for the reader to tell.

The true terror is in the fact that, in the case of many things that either happen or do not happen during the course of the novel, the protagonist finds herself unable to separate one from the other. If it's all happening, the world as she knows it is a lie. If it's not happening, she's going (or has already gone) insane. Even the source of that insanity - external from the oak tree or internal - is in question. As I said, the author is not to be trusted. The book, though? It's amazing.

I'm not going to belabor a point that I have covered in the past, or that others have covered more eloquently. Genre fiction is littered with mediocrity. It's much easier for an "okay" author to write weird fiction and get away with it. Following trends and writing to the cliché of the day is the norm. Caitlin Kiernan marches to the beat of her own drummer. She is literate, educated, and in touch with the levels of her mind that shift images to words with precision and power. This is not a "horror" novel, it's a Caitlin Kiernan novel - and to my way of thinking that's a much more precious thing. There are only a handful of authors of whom you'll hear me say that.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone, but in particular to fans of Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell, The characters are very real, but the world is surreal and untrustworthy enough that it might take multiple readings to get everything straight in your mind. Probably the best book I've read this year.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2009
The Red Tree is a different kind of beast than Kiernan's earlier novels, and leaves them in the dust. Don't be misled by the Ghost-Whispererriffic cover art, or the publisher's promoting it in an 'urban fantasy' or whatever mass-market line they're pushing: this belongs on the literary fiction shelf of your bookstore (*all* your bookstores).

Without saying anything about the characters or events that unfold, which you ought to experience only directly and not secondhand, what I love about this book is its smooth density. There's a gajillion novels out there that are full of meta- and inter-textual winks, recursive tropes, and narrative games, and almost all of them feel puffy and vague and overproduced; pretty twee, really. "The Red Tree" absolutely doesn't: it has the complexity, but also a clear, tight sense of its boundaries.

Reading it is like holding a piece of beach-smoothed petrified wood in your hand -- deeply satisfying, in the way that only a tedious poseur could put into words.
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