A novelist unable to write her latest novel, Sarah Crowe relocates to an isolated, tree-choked western Rhode Island house. She’s already had some past run-ins with the inexplicable, which she brings up in a wasn’t that the weird shit? way, and she starts writing a journal (the bulk of The Red Tree) about her move to New England -- a geographic cure, it turns out, as Crowe not only doesn’t leave her troubles behind but stumbles upon new ones. These new troubles turn out to be centered around a large oak tree, between the house and the nearest pond, that’s the focus of folklore going back far even by New England’s standards: she eventually wonders If this freakin’ tree so spooked so many people, why didn’t anyone ever cut it down? Very down-to-earth reaction, but she finds herself drawn into the increasingly H.P. Lovecraft-meets-Charles Fort oddness the tree inspires and has inspired. The tree’s draw extends into this decade; the house’s previous resident, a professor named Dr. Charles L. Harvey, wrote an ever more rambling manuscript about the tree‘s folklore and the horrific events associated with it -- then killed himself. Sarah Crowe finds his manuscript, and starts reading and pondering it (and reproducing parts of it in her journal). So someone very matter-of-fact has to deal with past and present events that she finds ever harder to explain. This ends very badly. And sadly.
While H.P. Lovecraft was a brilliant Weird Fiction writer -- influencing such people as Robert Bloch, Conan creator Robert E. Howard, modern-day Weird Fiction practitioner Stephen King, the makers of Ghostbusters (really, I’d say Ghostbusters is Lovecraft with a sense of humor), and of course Kiernan herself -- one thing Lovecraft was not good at was creating characters who acted like people. He wasn’t interested in that. He was all about creating an oppressive mood caused by the unknown and the inexplicable, not so much about people dealing with it. They may try to explain the alien-ness, or at least describe it -- in both Lovecraft’s evocative prose and his famously awful, clunky, unnatural dialogue -- in the brief time before they go mad from their encounter with it or flee from it. But more human characters having more human reactions to these inhuman events? Not in the cards. Dr. Harvey is probably the Red Tree character who’s the most like a Lovecraft character: I sense he had the dry kind of academic mind (he’s no Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking), unable to present his facts with either flair or emotional weight even as the accumulated terror he‘s reporting on drove him closer to suicide. The book instead more strongly helps us see Sarah Crowe approaching her end; this is more immediate. And through Crowe’s writing we see Kiernan’s sense of love and longing, her mind both scientific and capable of appreciating the inexplicable, even flashes of her sense of humor.
I once decided that Kiernan’s characters seem like Lovecraft characters you could actually imagine having sex, and that finally becomes beautifully explicit in this novel. (It has been beautifully explicit plenty of times before, in her Sirenia Digest erotica.) Sarah Crowe brings up her romantic history and her hope and need for a romantic future while she puzzles over the late Dr. Harvey’s manuscript and this tree that’s drawn such mystery to it. She also has a book to write, rent to pay, an editor and a publisher to appease, a roommate to accommodate, and groceries to buy: facts of her life, facts that keep getting rudely interrupted by the inexplicable. Unlike in Lovecraft’s work, Crowe and the rest of Kiernan’s characters get angry, annoyed, funny, tired, horny, and loving. They’re nicely, maddeningly human. Makes what happens more tragic. We likely all know loss; we hopefully all know love; we certainly all know boredom; and Kiernan conveys well the love, loss, and boredom Sarah Crowe is living with while she mentally circles around that damned tree.
The book rewards multiple readings. It’s not a mystery per se; Kiernan’s not interested in that. There are mystery aspects to The Red Tree, but like The Silence of the Lambs (both book and film) it’s the story’s mood and humanity that are more memorable, and a second reading reinforces that. A second reading also affords more clues as to what really may have gone on in the months Crowe chronicles in her journal.
I also love Kiernan’s sense of place, helped by her often writing about where she’s lived: these are concrete (in a metaphorical, not construction-material, way) locales where she then imagines weirdness happening. The Wight House of this book doesn’t exist, but is inspired by real west Rhode Island woodlands and ponds; and Newport crags and cliffs, places Kiernan has visited then written about in her own journal, become important to the story (Crowe’s roommate Constance Hopkins has an especially moody story of an encounter she had on Newport’s Cliffwalk). And then when, at a crucial moment, the very geography around the Wight House goes somehow wrong, it jolts. A “real” place has become unreal. And a second reading tells you that the geography had gone at least slightly wrong earlier in the tale.
It’s a book tantalizing and earthy, with dreams and Crowe’s worrying over how to convey dreams with words; it’s a first-person narrative that often reminds you You shouldn’t automatically trust whoever’s telling you a first-person narrative; what if that person’s nuts?; it’s often sad, sometimes sexy, sometimes funny, often mysterious…all sorts of good stuff. It deserves reading.
(cross-posted to specficbooks)