August 12th, 2009


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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