Friday, September 10, 2010

The Red Tree - A Study In Quiet Horror

Now and then a novel comes along that's so subtly eerie it generates fear that seems to affect your central nervous system. The Haunting of Hill House is that way, as are some of the novels of Charles L. Grant.

To me, The Red Tree achieves similar results, with its sense of unease and its gradual, ambiguous journey into the supernatural. It's a true don't-read-this-too-late-at-night experience.

As I followed Sarah Crowe, the protagonist and chief narrator, through her strange experiences, the little creaks and groans of my house, and the sounds of insects or pine needles thumping the window made me look twice or turn on an extra light.

It's the kind of terror that's hard to achieve, but The Red Tree author Caitlin R. Kiernan does it so well Crowe's journal seems like the real chronicle of experiences--both mundane and incredible--hammered out on a battered manual typewriter.

Crowe, we learn early, is from a small Alabama town, but she's more recently lived in Atlanta and achieved a degree of  literary success . The death of her lover, Amanda, has driven her to an ancient house in Rhode Island. There, in the basement, she finds not just that old typewriter but also a manuscript by the house's former resident, a suicide.

While she's supposed to be writing a contracted novel, Crowe begins to delve into the abandoned manuscript and to peruse the red oak on her rental property, subject of the dead author's narrative which explores the tree's myth and twisty tales of New England legend. The tree, for hundreds of years, has exerted a strange influence, and the interspersed passages from the abandoned manuscript add wonderful eeriness.

Rustin Parr's been here
The tree is tied to bizarre ritual killings, strange disappearances and stories of shape shifting, all of which enthrall Crowe even as she begins a troubled affair with the house's new upstairs tenant, a beautiful young artist fleeing her own troubles in Los Angeles.

As strange experiences for both of them escalate, lines between the strange and the surreal blur and Crowe slowly reveals the truths behind her flight from the South, and questions about whether or not she's a reliable narrator build.

Don't come to the book expecting visceral, brutal horror. Come expecting soft chills that become shudders and eventually rattle and shake you. It's whispering horror with one of the best explorations of writer's block I've read since The Lime Works.

Also available in a Kindle Edition


Charles Gramlich said...

Grant's stuff really affected me that way. And T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies too.

Sidney said...

Yeah, The Ceremonies is really incredible. Total immersion into that rural universe.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Damn you. Now I have to read this. I have to tell you Shirley Jackson's book remains one of my favorite ghost stories of all time.

Sidney said...

That was my plan, Stewart. I love "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" as well. Brilliant.

Steve Malley said...

Have to check this one out-- I loves me some quiet horror!

RK Sterling said...

Oh, thanks for the review - this book sounds like a good one, and one of my favorite kinds of horror.

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