The Red Tree

Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Red Tree Cover

The Red Tree


Kiernan's novel brings the structure and machinery of a classic supernatural tale to bear on a contemporary story with a very contemporary protagonist.

Sarah Crow, a midlist novelist, has suffered from writer's block since the traumatic end of her years-long relationship with Amanda. She has retreated from Atlanta to a remote farmhouse in Rhode Island. (If only Crow watched movies on either Chiller Network or Showtime Beyond, she would have known this was a bad idea.) The house has minimal amenities, but sits on lovely acreage and has an out-of-state landlord not likely to disturb her writing. Sarah has died at this house.

In classic ghost story tradition, The Red Tree contains manuscripts within manuscripts. It opens with an editor's introduction, in which the deceased author's editor makes a pilgrimage to the farmhouse and visits the possibly haunted tree that figures in the story. She does not go into the basement. I don't blame her. Crow's manuscript is the journal of her stay, but it contains extensive passages from the house's previous resident. His work on New England ghost traditions focused largely on the enormous red oak tree visible from the house. He hanged himself from that tree before finishing his book.

Kiernan's novel is a slow build to a conclusion most of which I could see coming for about half the book. We know that she is going to die, but even the major plot twist is, if not exactly telescoped, really the only direction the story can go. But I enjoy seeing this sort of thing well done, as it is here. Kiernan's depiction of a disintegrating mind is convincing and saddening in its inexorable progression.

What is unforgivable about this book, and others have mentioned this as well, it the absurd cover on the ROC mass-market paperback. It makes The Red Tree look like a paranormal romance possibly aimed at the YA audience. Anyone buying it under that assumption will be taken aback by Sarah's first drunken encounter with her soon-to-be lover Amanda.

"…while I struggled with the zipper to my jeans, she took a very realistic dildo out of a box beneath the futon, the dildo and the leather harness she fitted it into."

Work that into your eighth-grade book report.