Literature: The Red Tree 2009

In the fall of 2008, writer Sara Crowe commits suicide shortly after renting out an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. One month later, her editor receives a strange, anonymous package: a stack of Sara's journal entries, from the time she moved into the old house to the point of her death, wrapped in butcher paper and sent with no explanation, return address, or cover letter.

As it turns out, while wandering into the house's cellar looking for a cool place to read, Sara had discovered an incomplete manuscript written by deceased parapsychologist Charles L. Harvey, who was documenting a number of urban legends, accidents, and murders surrounding a red massive oak tree less than a hundred yards from the house (and the same tree he was found hanging from after apparently committing suicide). Curious, Sara started reading the unfinished text.

And that's when things start getting weird.

The Red Tree is a Psychological/Surreal Horror novel written by Caitlín R. Kiernan presented in the form of an Apocalyptic Log. It has been nominated for the 2010 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, as well as the 2010 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

Compare House of Leaves (which is also about a protagonist slowly driven mad after discovering a dead man's unfinished manuscript) as well as The Haunting of Hill House. Not to be confused with Shaun Tan's picture book of the same name.

The Red Tree contains examples of

  • Apocalyptic Log: Both Sara's journal and the unfinished book she discovers.
  • Bechdel Test: Passes with flying colors.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The cellar below the farmhouse turns out to have some very unusual spacial properties.
  • Cast Full of Gay: To be fair, it's a rather small cast.
  • Creepy Basement: It's got a wall full of occult symbols and no one ever determines quite how big it really is. Constance tries and ends up traumatized by something she can't remember.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sara, Amanda, and Harvey
  • Eldritch Abomination: Sara's perception of the tree seems heavily influenced by her knowledge of Lovecraft and Machen (particularly The Great God Pan, which also features an abomination taking earthly form).
  • First-Person Smartass: Sara
  • Foregone Conclusion: The editor's note in the beginning tells you that Sara committed suicide and this is her journal.
  • Gone Mad From The Revelation: Sara lampshades this trope towards the end.
    I seem to have been afflicted with some unprecedented calm, something that settled over me while I was upstairs and which shows no signs of abating. Again, I know we're running counter to the received wisdom, in which our heroine, having glimpsed some unspeakable atrocity, parts ways with her sanity (at least for a time) and runs screaming into the night. Perhaps it's only that those sorts of books and movies are, too often, made by people who have never, themselves, stood at this threshold. Even Catherine ran screaming, that sunstroke day at Cabeza de Lobo. Couldn't I at least be as weak as poor Catherine?
  • Hair-Raising Hare: One morning, Sara finds a neon green fishing line tied from the back porch of the house to the red tree. When she reaches the end of it, she finds a rabbit killed and systematically mutilated at the tree's "altar."
  • Haunted House: Technically speaking, it's the tree that's haunted. The house is just in its area of effect.
  • Hellgate: The red tree is implied to be one.
    Like all doors, she tends to swing open, and so care must be taken to mind the hinges and the latch.
  • The Lost Lenore: Sara's late girlfriend, Amanda Tyrell, who committed suicide shortly after a really nasty fight between the two.
  • The Lost Woods: Shortly after Constance moves in with Sara, she asks if she can come with Sara the next time she goes to check out the tree. Half an hour into their little field trip, they realize that the tree supposedly only seventy-five yards away from the house doesn't seem to be getting any closer, and that they've passed that same small deadfall once before on this trip...
  • Lovecraft Country: The story is set in Rhode Island and references many New England legends.
  • Masochism Tango: Sara remarks that her relationship with Amanda was toxic and screwed up right from the start. (The very first thing Amanda did upon meeting Sara was tell her how much she thought her books sucked.)
  • Mind Screw: It's really impossible to tell what's real and what isn't.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Amanda made custom artwork on commission from such people. Her specialty can best be described as "photographing what cannot be photographed."
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Discussed Trope, neither Sara or Constance believe in an afterlife or the supernatural. Still they speculate on the existence and nature of ghosts, settling on glitches in space-time.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Sara is living off of a dwindling, irregular paycheck, which is why she doesn't move out immediately when weird shit starts happening — she literally can't afford to.
  • Posthumous Character: Amanda Tyrell
  • Psychological Horror: Sara's increasingly unstable mental state plays a huge role in the novel.
  • Sanity Slippage: Sara and Constance, if Constance ever existed in the first place.
  • Spooky Painting: Amanda made really screwed up photoshop montages for a living. When Sara goes up to the attic shortly after Constance leaves, she discovers seven blank canvases with tiny notes attached to each of them. After she reads them all, she looks back at the canvases to find they've been replaced with Francis Bacon-inspired paintings of contorted, mutilated women.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: As Sara's journal entries progress, it becomes less and less clear if all the weird goings on are actually happening, or just in her and Constance's head. In the final entries, Sara says that she's read the previous entries and doesn't recall even half of the events actually ever happening. She also notes that she checked the attic after Constance disappeared, only to find the place just as dusty and unused as it was before she moved in.
  • Ultimate Evil: Sara becomes convinced the tree is merely a mask for some primordial, malignant entity capable of searing her mind.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Lampshaded. Sara notes in her entries that she's basically paraphrasing all of the dialogue she writes down from memory, which she admits isn't all that great (not to mention the fact that she might be going insane). She's also shown to be very familiar with the works of Lovecraft and related authors, and not to mention some of the dark folklore surrounding New England. She even drops the name of the trope:
    "I've had more than one heated "discussion" with readers and other writers regarding the use of unreliable narrators... The truth, of course, is that all first-person narrators are, by definition, unreliable, as all memories are unreliable. We could quibble over varying degrees of reliability, but, in the end, unless the person telling the tale has been blessed with total recall (which, as some psychologists have proposed, may be a myth, anyway), readers must accept this inherent fallibility and move the fuck on.
  • What Beautiful Eyes: Sara is rather fond of Constance's drowsy, red-brown eyes.