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On "The Red Tree"
I'm sitting here in the kitchen of my rented New England house, which by coincidence has a very gnarled and striking tree on its property, having just finished greygirlbeast's The Red Tree. I found it almost unbearably sad, wracked with grief and regret and brokenness, so much so that I feel the need to cry but have not. I cry rarely when reading. It reminded me of Generation Loss, another book about death and New England, another book that circles around photography and art and what a single eye does or does not see. One could almost retitle The Red Tree as Generation Loss--the phrase, I think, describes both novels. I thought it would be like House of Leaves, but it was nothing, really, nothing like that book, and I find myself utterly mired in my own memories and thoughts, as though the best way to read the book would be to read with the right hand and write with the left, so that the story of my own relationship to New England and horror novels and women and sorrow could spool out alongside Sarah Crowe's.

This is why I cannot review books, not really. I don't want to give them ratings or talk about their use of unreliable narrators--I want to talk about where they fit into all the other books I've ever read, how they make me feel, what I become because of their influence--because I am always and forever a golem patched together from the books I've read. This is not the work of a good critic. It is too personal. It rambles. But it's what I always need to do when I have finished with a book when that book has not failed me or enraged me, as so many books written today do.

This book did not fail me. It was not the book I wanted it to be, not really. The author and I do not have the same kinks, so that it is very nearly but not quite the book I wanted to read. That's ok. What I'm left with is not the tree itself, which I assumed would be at the heart of it, but Sarah and her sadness, and how she, like so many heroines before her, took her sadness to New England, where sorrow goes to meet its sisters.

Let me, like Sarah herself, digress.

As an adolescent, I did not read fantasy or science fiction, at least not very often. That came later, with teenage years. When I was young, I read horror. And oh, god, I loved it. I devoured it. I started with Stephen King and went anywhere else that did not have a cover so grotesque my parents would take it away. In any bookstore I went straight to the horror section, with its solid wall of black spines, with red or blue or violet typeface, and all the monsters I could stand. I was a passionate reader of horror. It was my first love. I sat through so many summers in the sprawling yard, curled into Salem's Lot and Comes the Blind Fury and oh, finally, finally, that great book that ate me whole, It. I didn't talk to anyone about what I read, except occasionally my stepmother, a King fan whose collection made up all my early forays, since at 9 or 10 one doesn't have the ability to purchase books for oneself.

When I think about it now, I don't remember being scared, though I must have been. I remember being excited. On a deep, almost pre-sexual level, by all of those books. Not in a creepy ooh-I-get-off-on-blood kind of way--I don't even remember the gore, though I'm sure there was plenty. I remember the secrets. I remember the burning to know all the secrets of those worlds. I was stirred by those books. The best of them were all about old things, the history of things, and how everything has death at the bottom of it if you go back far enough.

And most of them took place in New England. New England is, I think, the natural home of horror. All these creaking old houses, these snaking trees, these hermetically sealed universities. When I said I wanted to move to Maine since I was a kid because I read too much Stephen King I was deadly serious. It sounds weird, because only horrible things happen to city couples that move to Maine in SK novels. But to my child's mind, in Seattle and then in California where, oh, there is so much light, so much light nothing dark could ever hide, New England was where they kept the secrets. The histories of magical, hungry things. New England was where Halloween was true and serious and howling. New England was where things buried always rose up. My child's heart was so moved by those stories. I wanted to know. I just always wanted to know. What was deeper than history, the frisson of curiosity and fear that the best horror awakens. 

In some sense, The Red Tree is the horror novel my adult heart deserves: the frisson is there, but it is answered with nothing like resolution. The secret history is promised and half-revealed but not delievered, not really. Histories like that can't be illuminated, not really, not fully. Not when you're grown up and living in New England and there is a headless St. Francis in your closet that you really feel fairly chummy towards at this point. Or maybe they can be written down but they don't always matter because someone wrote them down, and don't matter as much as personal, private pain. Yet I'm struck by the places where I can touch the narrative: I have a creaky house and a strange tree. I have a basement of which I am so terrified I cannot even look at the door. I have a woman I lost and left behind to come here, though I lost her not to death but anger and boredom, which can be just as permanent. But this is not a book where I see myself, not really. It slips away. It defies my attempts to get a grip on it.

For example, we don't know what really happened to Sarah other than that the introduction says she is dead--since suicide is a constant theme in the book I realize now I'm assuming without much evidence that that was her fate. In fact, I can't say I fully understand what happened to anyone in this book. Amanda did not seem intent on suicide in her final scenes, and yet. Constance both was and was not there. In another book this might irritate me, but here it does not, quite. Frustrate, maybe, but not irritate. The epilogue tells us not to ask for resolution. That it's not a story like the kind we're used to. And I can accept that. And maybe it has left me so thoughtful because Sarah Crowe is a midlist writer who moved to New England and so even though she is nothing like me I can see my own impulses there and fill in my own answers. I don't know. I suspect I'll be thinking about this for a long while.

Portions of The Red Tree take place in Newport, RI, where I once lived--where, I think, I was most unhappy as an adult. Not in Japan, but in that brutally hot tourist cesspool, reading fortunes for rich old women and trying to learn how to write. Where in my journals I called myself a Meaningless Lobster because the constant plastic lobsters everywhere seemed just as out of place and dadaist and pointless as I felt. I walked through Purgatory (a hiking trail full of mosquitoes and the object remnants of the sexual escapades of what seemed like the whole town). I never saw a ghost. But I became obsessed with a small grave tucked up tight behind a huge one, a wife named Anne whose husband's enormous headstone took up all the space hers was not allowed, and this seemed to say something to me. The first memento mori New England had to offer. Why did I ever want to come back here? Or is it that I knew Lovecraft's home had nothing for me, and King's did?

I want more. More of the Tree and the story and Sarah and Constance. I wish the book had been twice as long. It leaves me full of longing, as all books I love do. It is one of my favorite feelings, that longing when a book is done. Useless, of course, and weird, and the dangerous place from whence sequels come. But I do long for more. Always, always more. I squirm with the need to know, again, that almost sexual need to penetrate the mystery at the heart of a book, at the heart of a country, a house, a tree. I just want to know. I always want to know. I want to know the secret at the bottom, and maybe horror as a genre still eats at me because it will not give me that answer, and so I can stay at the swollen, drawn out moment before revelation, the pre-orgasmic stretching before the inevitable tumble into disappointment and continuity errors. Good horror almost never shows all its cards, and yet I know the Queen of Spades and Clubs, oh, my terrible black Queens are there, and they would tell me all their worst deeds, if I could only keep my eyes open when the scary parts come, if I could only go down into my own basement, where the earth is frozen and lumpy and moldy, where I cannot bear to look.

I wonder, sometimes, why I have never written a horror novel despite my obsessive love of the genre. I have never felt the need to write everything I love to read. But given that it was practically my creche reading, why have I never gone to that New England of the mind myself, looked for a haunted thing there, found a secret history in some abandoned library? I don't know. Maybe I will. The Red Tree makes me want to, and maybe that's the best compliment I can pay it, that it fills me with lust for books I have never written.

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I suppose knowing that there's a danger in knowing secrets doesn't stop the longing, does it? :)

Pffft. If it did what would anyone write books about?

So true. Raven and Coyote know secrets, and want to learn more secrets, and they're inveterate storytellers. Liars, too. You'd think they were writers. :D

I am halfway through it, but like you am a longtime aficionado of horror. I don't remember the gore, either. I remember the depth of the knowledge and secrets and darkness that permeated the books I read (many of them King's, as well).

I am also from the west, newly transported to the midwest, where things rot and swell with humidity in the summer in a way that I'm not used to. I can smell that basement with its dark pools, see the roots and tangles of things better left alone.

I would be interested in your version of horror.

This really quite an amazing essay. So much to think about. The Red Tree is one of those books that continues to haunt long after the final page is read.

You live on horror novel island. I keep telling you.

I'm repeating myself because I just commented on FB, but this book is such an evolution for Caitlin.

I was delighted when I first read it, because so few books strike me as real or true. I read about characters in a book who do things, two-dimensional cut-outs who prance across sentences and paragraphs.

Unlike many characters in books on my shelves, even books I adore, Sarah Crowe died because she was alive.

So with you on every point here. It only serves to remind me that I need to write her that fan letter I've been ruminating on...

I think every one of us has that particular moment when we're lost, wrecked, when we doubt everything about ourselves--the three A.M. certainty that we can't actually write, and haven't ever really learned how to do anything else. That we've never loved anybody who loves us, and never will, because we're not capable of it. And yes, this is when the ghosts come: Memories, nightmares, fantasies. The impinging past. The potential future. Everything gets knotted and overlaid, so snarled it's like we're strangling, and we just want to lie down on the floor until somebody--anybody--comes and takes us away. To anywhere the drugs are free and the limitations aren't self-imposed, for once.

That's what The Red Tree reminds me of--that bottomless, drunken despair. And because Caitlin's such a goddamn good writer, she can make me want to revisit it, to stay there awhile. To enjoy it.

It's a rare conundrum, isn't it?

Ahst, I didn't even know that, about Rhode Island. I've always figured you were more miserable in Japan in the crazy jungle heat and cold winters. But I can totally see it, why Newport would be it.

You know, I read about how the book sparked longings in you to write horror of your own, and I'm struck by two feelings. As usual, I get immediately excited - I'd /love/ to see what kind of horror you'd write (if a bit scared -- I suspect horror affects me too much). But also.. there's a secret part of me that hopes you won't write it, because I feel that horror, especially the type you talk about, comes from such a core of sadness and loss. Which I know you've had plenty of, in your life, but I just, magically and irrationally, hope that it's not there and certainly not enough to fuel a novel. Does that make sense?
If you really are going to write it, please do, and ignore that previous sentence :) You know how much I love your writing.

I was just lying here thinking: I couldn't write a sad empty New England house with you in it, though. There would be no place for you, my happy, fuzzy, excited werewolf boyfriend, in any horror novel I could write. I couldn't kill you off or put you down there in the dark with me. And of course when I think about writing a horror novel I know without having to write it how personal it would be, the way The Red Tree is so clearly personal to CRK.

Ohh, it's not like that, I promise. I'm plenty in the dark, and you know it.

Also - for one, I'm sure that whatever personal novel you write will not have to involve me. Or if it does, I would /love/ to meet a horror-novel version of myself (even if the lifespan of such might be extremely short)! :)

I enjoyed this essay!

I'm always suprised by how many of my story ideas qualify as horror. As for New England, well...I've thought to myself before that the South produces humorists and New Englas produces horror writers.

Speaking of which, scratch me down as another who'd love to read any horror novel you wrote.

As for the Lot, well...I have a yearly ritual of reading that every October. :) In addition to being deliciously scary, it's so freakin' autumnal! He may think he's the literary equivalent of a Big Mac, bu there are passages of that book that I idealize.

It is,I think, his greatest work. Certainly one of the best. Norror novels rarely give me the willes,but that one did And to this day I avoid walking over a storm gutter.*shivers*

I just got my copy of The Red Tree in the mail yesterday and am dying to read it. Alas, I have a tonne of other reading to be done first.

For the record, I love it when you talk about books that influence you.

I am halfway through this incredible book, so I admit I sort of skimmed this entry. I will come back to it when I've finished, though.

The Red Tree is one of the best books I've read in *any* genre, I think. So far, at least. :)

This is why I cannot review books, not really. I don't want to give them ratings or talk about their use of unreliable narrators--I want to talk about where they fit into all the other books I've ever read, how they make me feel, what I become because of their influence--because I am always and forever a golem patched together from the books I've read.

It may not work for official reviews, but this is entirely the sort of review I'd prefer to read. Not only does it give a sense of the book, but there's the possibility of learning about something else worth reading in the comparisons.

I don't do horror; I get frustrated with authors who beat up their characters for no particularly apparent reason, and suspense in general either comes across as stupid or a bit too much for me. But reading about your fascination with secrets makes me want to give the genre another try.

I am linking this. What an awesome nonreview!

I want to talk about where they fit into all the other books I've ever read, how they make me feel, what I become because of their influence--because I am always and forever a golem patched together from the books I've read. This is not the work of a good critic. It is too personal. It rambles.

But this is the kind of writing-about-books that I like best: the way it places a shared experience within someone else's context, I think...

since at 9 or 10 one doesn't have the ability to purchase books for oneself.

Really? That again would be someone else's context: by that age I was certainly spending all my allowance on books, my own choice, utterly unsupervised.

I don't think I had an allowance at that age-- at least I don't remember having one. I had a weird childhood. Also, my books and permission/ability to read was taken away as punishment with some frequency, so I doubt I would have looked at books as a safe investment even if I had.

See? Other people's lives are fascinating. And, um, in some ways unenviable. My own childhood was less than ordinary, but nobody ever tried to take my books away from me.

What I'm left with is not the tree itself, which I assumed would be at the heart of it, but Sarah and her sadness, and how she, like so many heroines before her, took her sadness to New England, where sorrow goes to meet its sisters.

What a great visual.

Salem's Lot was my favorite horror novel as a child - it's still up there in the nostalgic ranks as on my mental "Shelf of All-Time Favorites". I treasure the simple joy of reading a book at night and it chilling me to the point that I can't - just CAN'T! - look up at the darkened window to the leering monster-face I just know I'll see there. The deeper, more secret, illicit sort of joy you feel when... yes, as you said, you know there are such secrets you're about to discover and some secrets you'll never be allowed to really know... just sense out in the edges of the dark. Great stuff. I can see it in your writing, too.

I grew up in love with horror novels as well, and I think, as my tastes evolved, I grew to love historical fiction-based mystery with a "horror flair". Have you read Caleb Carr's Alienist? I know it's not horror specifically, but it chilled me the way I used to feel chilled by a King novel as a kid. The Dante Club too, because I spent a lot of time analyzing the horror in The Inferno.
A lot of the turn-of-the-century-serial-killer novels seem to be set in Boston, or New York, or the northern Atlantic or New England towns that seem to welcome it. I tend to think that the states that know snow - real, devouring, serious winter snow - understand cold (and darkness) better than the rest of the country. It goes along with the sunshine thing you mentioned.

Anyway, great essay. I look forward to talking about it more with you someday. :)

Ms. Valente,

Thanks so much for what I feel is an essay about New England's horror roots (pun intended) as much as it is about Ms. Kiernan's The Red Tree. Thank you for putting into words what I've felt for years but not been able to so eloquently articulate. I'm a Mainer, born and raised, who also discovered SK at just the right time (in my case, adolescence---I'm older than you), and 'Salem's Lot is as knitted into my bones as granite is knitted in the New England landscape.

I enjoyed The Red Tree for the same reasons---it smacks of real New England, and yes, secrets, secrets, damn it! That IS what New England's about.

I live in Freeport. Perhaps one of these days I'll bump into you on the sreets of Portland, and introduce myself.

Jeff P.

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I haven't read her short fiction yet. :(

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You're a wonderful writer and a brilliant reviewer :-)


In addition to Lovecraft, there's M.R. James. Edgar Allan Poe. The creepy stuff in the Sherlock Holmes stories . . . and in Chandler's LA. The crawling things under the sunny stones and inside the pink stucco houses; the nameless ageless things in the woods alongside the road and under the sea just past the harbor. What you find when you dig in South Brooklyn, in Baltimore, in the Home Counties.

So I really can't see it as New England, but part of it may be England. And LA still seems more a horror story kind of place to me than SF. The sunshine and everyone's grim determination to flash equally sunny smiles just makes it worse when the crack opens.

who may write horror one day, who knows

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