The Red Tree

The Red Tree is an aged oak of the species quercus rubra, also known as the Northern Red Oak. It is native to New England and nearby regions.

The Red Tree is the title of a manuscript by Dr. Charles L. Harvey, a parapsychologist and investigator of “Fortean” phenomena. It details a collection of local legends associated with a particular Northern Red Oak to be found on farm land known as the “White Place” or “Wight Place” in the backwoods of Rhode Island. Dr. Harvey committed suicide before he was able to finish writing the book.

The Red Tree is the title of a journal kept by lesbian novelist Sarah Crowe while she was living in the house on Wight Farm. During her stay there Ms. Crowe discovered the manuscript left by Dr. Harvey. The journal chronicles her investigation of the phenomena described in his book, and includes lengthy quotes from the Harvey manuscript. Ms. Crowe moved to Rhode Island from Atlanta shortly after the suicide of her lover, Amanda Tyrell, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship. Like Dr. Harvey, Ms. Crowe killed herself before her work could be published.

The Red Tree is the title of a book assembled by Sharon D. Halperin, Sarah Crowe’s editor, from the journal kept by Ms. Crowe during her sojourn in New England. Ms. Halperin describes the book as a novel, being uncertain of the veracity of any of the events described in it.

The Red Tree is a novel published by RoC in 2009 under the byline of Caitlín R. Kiernan, a well known lesbian horror writer who lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

This review of the RoC novel is written by me, Cheryl Myfanwy Morgan. I am neither a lesbian nor a novelist. I live in Olde England. I have never met Caitlín R. Kiernan, but we share many good friends in common and I am therefore prepared to attest that she is as much a real person as I am.

All else is meta.

And that, of course, is a problem, at least for some. Sarah Crowe felt it keenly. The poor dear was in the habit of reading her reviews on Amazon and is appalled by the laziness of some of her readers:

I have lost track of the number of times readers have complained that they couldn’t follow a “story” because they weren’t clear what was “really happening” and what was “only” a dream.

And also:

I’ve had more than one heated “discussion” with readers and other writers regarding the use of unreliable narrators. I’ve seen people get absolutely apoplectic on the subject, at the suggestion that a book (or its author) is not to be faulted for employing an unreliable narrator.

No wonder Ms. Crowe was unhappy with her life.

We, however, are made of sterner stuff, or at least we have to be if we wish to read The Red Tree, for unreliability is at its very core. We don’t know whether the mysterious events reported by Sarah Crowe really took place, and we might be forgiven for treating them with the same suspicion that she reserves for the Fortean enthusiasms of Dr. Harvey. We cannot tell whether Crowe’s fellow lodger in the remote farmhouse, Constance Hopkins, is as terrified by the goings on, and concerned for Crowe’s safety, as her speeches in the book make out, or whether she is, as Crowe sometimes suspects, playing an elaborate practical joke. We do know, as it is a matter of medical record, that Crowe suffered from epileptic fits, and that loss of memory can be associated with such seizures. However, it seems unlikely that such an event would cause Crowe to completely forget having written an entire short story, even though she insists that the story is written in her style and the manuscript includes annotations in her hand. We do know that the story in question appeared in a collection published by Subterranean Press under the byline of another author a full year before Crowe claimed to have been given the manuscript by Hopkins.

Of course, it is entirely possible that none of the above is actually in the book. You will have to read The Red Tree to find out.

And many of you should. The book will not, as you may have guessed, appeal to the sort of readers who supposedly placed angry reviews of Sarah Crowe’s books on Amazon. It will, however, appeal to those who love books. In the back cover blurb Peter Straub says, “Caitlín R. Kiernan draws her strength from the most honorable of sources, a passion for the act of writing.” He might, however, have simply said, “a passion for writing.” The Red Tree is full of talk about writing (usually from the mouth of Sarah Crowe) and about writers. It makes mention of Hemmingway, Conrad, Thoreau, even Seneca, and of course Lovecraft and Poe.

Horror is not a mode of writing that greatly interests me. There are many exceptions, of course, but it isn’t something I pick up as a matter of course. Despite warm recommendations from several people, I had avoided Kiernan’s books until now. I was surprised to find The Red Tree much less cruel and brutal than I had expected from the way her work is often described. More importantly, however, I was delighted to discover yet another talented writer who is clearly in love with writing. Caitlín R. Kiernan is my sort of writer. I need to find more of her books.

2 Responses to The Red Tree

  1. tetar says:

    Wonderful review, clear and playful, serious and possibly true. It’s the kind of book one waits for, hopes for, and hoards to read over and over once found. With this review you help it find readers deserving of it.

  2. ghg says:

    Great review of an important book. Thanks!

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