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Literature / The Red Tree (2009)

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The Red Tree is a Psychological/Surreal Horror novel (with some elements of Cosmic Horror and Folk Horror) written by CaitlĂ­n 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.

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 the house's former tenant, the deceased parapsychologist and anthropologist, 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.

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 Sarah's journal and the unfinished book she discovers.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The cellar below the farmhouse turns out to have some very unusual spacial properties. First, it's a natural cavern that's much too big to plausibly support itself, then it's a much smaller granite tunnel that was clearly dug.
  • 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: We learn out the gate that Sarah died from a suicide. In her account, Sarah already knew that Harvey had died from a mysterious suicide before she moved to the house. A bit into the story, we also learn that Amanda is dead from a suicide, though Sarah is initially very hesitant to admit this to herself and writes somewhat ambiguously about Amanda's status at first.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Sarah'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: Sarah, admitting upfront to being her own worst critic, includes several acerbic asides as she writes it down, mainly commenting on her flaws and limitations as a writer, such as digressions that drags out for too long.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The editor's note in the beginning tells you that Sarah committed suicide and this is her journal.
  • Framing Device: The book opens with a preface by Sarah's former editor, Sharon, who was mailed everything Sarah typed in the cottage, and chose to publish it. This is one of the only ways to know for sure what things really happened (the cottage is real, the tree is real, Constance is real but won't provide comment).
  • Gone Mad from the Revelation: Sarah 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, Sarah 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: Sarah's late girlfriend, Amanda Tyrell, who committed suicide shortly after a really nasty fight between the two.
  • Lovecraft Country: The story is set in Rhode Island and references many New England legends.
  • Masochism Tango: Sarah remarks that her relationship with Amanda was toxic and screwed up right from the start. (The very first thing Amanda did upon meeting Sarah was tell her how much she thought her books sucked.)
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Played to full, terrifying effect. Since the book is so replete with Mind Screw (see below), there are more or less three possible explanations for the events of the book. None of them can be said to clearly be the actual explanation, and based on the facts we learn (and keep in mind that Sarah is an Unreliable Narrator, by her own admission), all of them are more or less equally plausible.
    • Magic ("overt" variety): The literal intepretation. The tree is indeed an Eldritch Abomination and the events of the novel occured in-universe just as described - Constance was there, the "lost picnic", basement exploration, sacrifice episode and all the interactions between the two women happened. Constance either left or was taken by the tree, and the tree is responsible for Sarah's hallucination of an empty, disused attic at the very end. Up to that point, Sarah perceives the actual, objective reality, albeit one that is influenced by supernatural events. More or less consistent with events as they are mentioned by Sarah.
    • Magic ("subtle" variety): Constance never was there to begin with, and thus, about two thirds of the plot, and the overt supernatural events, occurred in Sarah's mind - hallucinations caused by madness, due to exposure to the tree, which is still an Eldritch Abomination and just as malign as Sarah makes it out to be. The nature of the tree would be the same, but instead of that last scene being hallucinatory, everything else but that scene was. Sarah's insanity is clearly much more severe in this case, whereas the tree "only" affects her mind, not physical reality. Again, this explanation would be equally consistent with the mentioned events, and with the effect the tree seems to have on people judging by Harvey's manuscript.
    • Mundane: Probably the most terrifying one: the tree might just be that: only a tree, just the way Sarah perceived it while visiting it alone for the very first time before Constance's arrival. It's precisely the manuscript, written by a clearly insane Harvey, that lodges itself in Sarah's just as clearly unstable mind, while she's still coping with Amanda's death, and triggers a severe bout of hallucinations and paranoia. No supernatural causes whatsoever, just a result of reading the wrong kind of book at the wrong time while being in an unstable state of mind, coupled with an overactive imagination. That last explanation may seem less probable at first, however there are several (easily overlooked) hints at various points of the novel that the actual, physical events connected to the tree, such as the deaths of several people, have not been reported widely, outside the sources that Harvey describes - which Sarah is in no position to check thoroughly. It is quite possible that all of the folktales about the tree and the grisly events connected to it were invented by Harvey and occur only in his book.
  • Mind Screw: It's really impossible to tell what's real and what isn't. Only things mentioned in the prologue, which is a foreword written by Sarah's editor, can be nailed down as true, and there aren't very many of those.
  • 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 Sarah 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.
  • Painting the Medium: When she's trying to describe what happened in the cellar, Sarah starts making typo after typo (using "you're" when she means "your", etc) and then the entry ends with "coulll", the lead-up to her having a seizure in the middle of typing
  • Perpetual Poverty: Sarah 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, Sarah's artist girlfriend who died by suicide. Much of the story is Sarah trying to process Amanda's death and her own grief over it.
  • Psychological Horror: Sarah's increasingly unstable mental state plays a huge role in the novel.
  • Sanity Slippage: Sarah and Constance, though with Constance refusing to tell her side of the story, it is ambiguous how much of this she actually underwent and how much is Sarah projecting her own fraying sense of reality onto her.
  • Spooky Painting: Amanda made really screwed up photoshop montages for a living. When Sarah 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 Sarah'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, Sarah 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.
  • Unseen Evil: Sarah becomes convinced the tree is merely a mask for some primordial, malignant entity capable of searing her mind.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Lampshaded. Sarah 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) and almost every time she writes down her dreams, she freely admits that she doesn't really remember them that well and is reflexively embellishing to the point she annoys herself. 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.
  • The 'Verse: The last chapter, an excerpt from one of Sarah's stories, mentions an artist named Albert Perrault who may or may not have deliberately crashed his motorcycle. Perrault's artwork is important to the plot of Kiernan's later book The Drowning Girl. Kiernan's short story "Houses Under the Sea" is set in the same universe. Additionally, all three include the Eldritch Abomination sea goddess, Mother Hydra, to varying degrees—Sarah's creepy dreams mention her, or at least Sarah writes they do.
  • Wham Line: The very last journal entry by Sarah, being the last three or so pages, in their entirety. Hell, the entire ninth, final chapter is a Wham Episode, but especially those last pages.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Sarah is rather fond of Constance's drowsy, red-brown eyes.