There are some novels that stay on your ‘to read’ list for years, not because of any reluctance to read them but because you want to savour the experience.
Although I’d been reading Caitlin R Kiernan’s blog for years, it wasn’t until fantasy author Catherynne Valente talked about The Red Tree on her blog that I picked up one of her novels, and even then it was a few years before I opened it.
It just set on my shelf, waiting for the exact right mood. I’m glad I waited because the dog days of a London summer, when the air is warm in the afternoon but misty in the early morning and the leaves are starting to change color, is the perfect weather to read Kiernan’s haunting, oppressive tale of love, loss and unspeakable horror.
Following the death of her lover, Sarah Crowe retreats to an old farmhouse in New England to write the novel she has promised will be her last. She plans to spend the next few gradually withdrawing from the rest of the world, until two things happen to shatter her self-imposed isolation.
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First, looking for somewhere to escape from the summer heat, she ventures into the house’s basement and discovers an unfinished manuscript from the previous occupant – a study of New England folklore, and the legends surrounding the vast red oak tree that looms only a hundred yards from the farmhouse.
Then the attic is rented out to Constance Hopkins, a mysterious artist who has had her own brushes with the supernatural and who is drawn to the history of the oak tree.
The novel is told through Sarah’s diary entries interspersed with comments from the editor who received it anonymously several months after Sarah’s death. Although we know from the start how and when Sarah’s story will end, her vivid presence in the diaries makes it a shock.
She is, as she keeps reminding us, an unreliable narrator, and the diary is more an attempt at catharsis, initially for her crippling writer’s block and the guilt she feels over her lover’s death, and then as an attempt at purging the horrors that the red tree visits on the house’s inhabitants.
The Red Tree is a tense, literary horror that echoes Steinbeck as much as it does Stephen King or Shirley Jackson. At the end, you’re never quite sure if the real terrors emanated from the tree or from Sarah’s own imagination – both are such unnerving prospects that I’m not sure which I prefer.
It was definitely worth the wait – I almost wish I hadn’t read it, just so that I could pick it up for the first time again. Like all the best scary stories it lingers in the reader’s mind with the same unsettling, dreamlike quality of a nightmare you can’t quite shake off even in daylight.
When it comes to horror, I prefer the creeping sense of unease to an avalanche of gore and blood – I can handle vampires, zombies and chain-clanking ghosts without flinching, but give me something that goes bump in the night and I turn into a gibbering wreck.
Kiernan builds the suspense perfectly, so if you like your fear to simmer on a slow burn then this is the book for you – much like Sarah, by the time we realize that there is something truly, terribly wrong here, it’s far too late to escape.
What’s one book that made you sleep with the light on for a week? Tell us in the comments below!