"They were always only me, the short stories and novels, only scraps of me coughed up and disguised as fiction, autobiography tarted up and disguised as figment and reverie."—Sarah Crowe, The Red Tree (p. 39)
"Truth, if such a thing actually exists, strikes me as a dead end."—Caitlin R. Kiernan, Bookslut interview, Nov. 2004
I confess: the first time I read this book, I couldn't stand it.
The second time I fell in love with it, and now I'm thinking of buying a backup copy in case my house burns down.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
When Sarah Crowe abruptly relocates to a farmhouse in Rhode Island, she is behind on delivery of her new novel and still reeling from the death of her lover, Amanda. She is thwarting doctors by smoking and drinking whiskey with her anti-seizure medications and writing extensively of the dreams that terrorize her by night and seep, unwanted, into her waking hours. While exploring the farmhouse, she discovers a basement whose perceived depth doesn't quite correspond to the exacting measurements she takes, and an unfinished manuscript left by the previous tenant, a university professor who describes a series of disturbing incidents dating back through the nineteenth century, centered on a large oak tree at one corner of the property.
The manuscript describes unexplained geographical phenomena, failed love affairs, ritual animal sacrifice, mysterious disappearances—unhappy endings of all kinds, made all the more mysterious by the professor's suicide.
His manuscript is left unfinished, but the more of it Crowe reads, the more she and her reclusive painter housemate begin to have strange experiences that echo those recorded by the professor.
And there's a catch: the book opens with mention of Crowe's unexpected suicide at the end of the summer in question. The novel itself is Crowe's own legacy, her book of days told in journal form, starting with her arrival at the farmhouse and ending with an undated entry; Crowe's last communication with the world is a message to her dead lover, Amanda.
Unlike the typical ghost story, which ends with either the ghost laid peacefully to rest or filed away as explainable, endings here really . . . don't.
The professor lives on through his manuscript, the red tree refuses all attempts to destroy it and Crowe finds it increasingly difficult to believe Amanda is truly gone, if dead. Her lover appears in her dreams, her nightmares, her waking thoughts and visions with no explanation. But beyond that, Crowe begins to find other endings unraveling around her: multiple stories she has no memory of writing and that trail off mid-sentence, days that fail to end in sleep, but lead instead to either dreams or hallucinations before beginning again. As she puts it, "I need to be awake and in this world . . . I know I am awake now, and not merely stranded in some mundane intermission between one terror and the next" (p.77).
People live on. In their stories and art and the people who knew them. And yet, a facile statement like that is too easy a target for Kiernan to leave alone.
Death and loss, in this book, require either reconciliation or sacrifice. Specifically the sacrifice made by gazing into the face of the true, blood-soaked maw of Nature, a visage that ultimately demands the sacrifice of sanity and what can be accepted as real. The professor (Dorry), Amanda, Sarah and her roommate (the painter Constance Hopkins) all gaze into that awesome, terrible face and ask the same set of questions: How do we know where the dream ends and truth begins? How do we authenticate experience and text? How do we know what's real?
Sarah Crowe constantly details her dreams and nightmares as well as the effect both of having and documenting them. She also details the dismal confusion that results as the dreams begin to blend with reality: "But even so, I'm having trouble making sense of much of what I scribbled down, half asleep. Partly, that's because most of the hand writing is illegible, and, partly, because a good deal of what I can read still refuses to yield anything like meaning" (p. 343).
When the universal process of reconciling dreams with the tangible evidence of reality—
"It's all fake," Amanda said. "I told her that. Either way, it's all pretend. But that only seemed to make her more determined to have her way." (p.338)
—breaks down, a destructive spiral of chaos is unleashed. A spiral whose only resolution lies in death. It's a powerful and complicated message.
It's also a message complicated by the parallels between Sarah Crowe and the author herself. Both are Alabama-reared, multi-published lesbian authors with semi-professional interests in paleontology. In the story, Crowe discovers a species of trilobite in Alabama that is subsequently named after her (p.23). Kiernan co-authored a paper in 1988 describing the discovery of a new type of mosasaur. Selmasaurus russelli. Both women have dark and cynical outlooks, and both speak openly of their battles with writer's block and mainstream critics.
Both have been recently diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Both have lost a lover to suicide but preserve her in their writing. And after Crowe's death, her editor finds a collection of Red Rose ceramic figurines clustered around the roots of the novel's eponymous tree, echoing a journal entry where Kiernan admits her joy in leaving such figurines in strange and unexpected places.
Now let's pause here for a second.
When I refer to parallels between the protagonist and her author, I am speaking of the author as portrayed in her longtime online journal; how much of that collection of writing is truly Kiernan and how much is her public persona, the tulpa she's presenting to the world? Indeed, even the subtitle of Kiernan's journal, "The Online Journal of a Construct Sometimes Known as Caitlín R. Kiernan," hints at this theme. There is no way to verify how closely an online persona reflects the truth of the RL person authoring it.
That credo holds true for The Red Tree, and Kiernan calls explicit attention to the fact by framing Crowe's journal with her editor's exhaustive attempts to authenticate it. After bringing in a handwriting expert, poring over the pages for days and even visiting the farmhouse herself, the editor concludes, " . . . As I read it, I recognized her there on every page. Even if, for whatever reason, some other author had perfectly aped her voice, most of the pages bear notes and proofreader's marks in Sarah's own unmistakeable handwriting." (p. 13)
Veracity, it seems, is only in the eye of the beholder.
Fans of Kiernan's previous work might be at first put off by this, her newest novel, as I was. The dense, opulently descriptive prose that marked Silk (1998), Low Red Moon (2003), and Murder of Angels (2004) has evolved, becoming instead a darker, streamlined prose, exposed bones poking up through peat and the slurry that was once flesh.
The psychologist's office had one big window and a view of the bay, a stingy glimpse of Alcatraz if Niki stood on the couch. Nothing like a real doctor's office, velvet wallpaper the bottomless color of evergreen forests, hemlock green walls and Edwardian antiques, old books and the cherry-sweet smell of his pipe that always reminded Niki of her parents' tobacco shop in New Orleans. There was a small brocade pillow on the sofa, woven anemones and silver-leafed geraniums, and she hugged the pillow while she talked.
"Spyder hung herself," Niki said, finally. "While I was asleep, she hung herself." (Kiernan, C.R. Silk. Roc, 1997. p. 32)
And I told her no, it wasn't anything like that, that I was only trying to find the north wall of the basement, because I knew it had to be there somewhere. I explained that if there were no north wall, then there'd be nothing to hold back Ramswool Pond. And since the basement clearly wasn't flooded, it stood to reason the wall was there somewhere.
She shrugged, and pointed at one of the puddles, not far from her muddy, bare feet. "You never can tell," she said, "what goes on down below. Given any thought to where these fuckers might lead?" (The Red Tree, p.81)
Gone are the finer details, the baroque flourishes that have become something of a hallmark of Kiernan's style, but what remains is in some ways, more honest and straightforward. Which, in the context of a novel about the difficulties of determining the truth of any given place, situation, or narrative, is really the only way the tale could have proceeded.
Still, Kiernan's earlier love of excess peers in around the edges of the story ("I had no idea that one refers to a flock of turkeys as anything but a flock of turkeys, that there was a collective noun for turkeys, until I looked it up online. A bouquet of pheasants, a murder of crows, a lamentation of swans, and a rafter of turkeys. Oh, unless the turkeys are immature, in which case they are a brood." [p.20]), only to be soundly rebuffed by Sarah Crowe's hollow, self-effacing refutation of that style. ("But I digress. Always, I digress. It's my superpower. Some asshole at the New York Times Book Review once said that my novels would benefit tremendously from 'an editor willing to rein in my unfortunate propensity for digression." [pp. 21-22]).
The one true misstep in the book is typographical. The typeface used in excerpting the dead professor's manuscript is meant to emulate what would be produced by an ancient and decrepit manual typewriter, complete with blurs and smears. Unfortunately, from a purely functional point of view, it's horrible. I wear reading glasses, and not very strong ones, yet there was no combination of glasses on, off, near or far that could prevent a headache (one excerpt tops ten full pages).
But overall this is a densely packed, complex, and outstanding book. Kiernan references a veritable laundry list of other works, including William Burroughs, the Brothers Grimm, Mothra, Ernest Hemingway, Sarah Crowe, Good Housekeeping, and Nostradamus.
And there's a bibliography, for goodness' sake. If there is any way to shoot straight to my bleak little English major's heart, it's via bibliography.
This is by no means an easy book. It does not lend itself to resolution on the first reading or even the second. But the very best kind of ghost stories are the ones where you never see the real ghost until it's much, much too late.
Audrey Homan lives in a cottage in the forests of Vermont, with her three magical back-talking rabbits, six dogs, and a superhero. She's a lot like you, except she can see light through the holes in her ears.