James Chew reviews both The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
I’m not a fan of Horror as a genre. The one horror novel I’ve read and really enjoyed in a very visceral way was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. A razor-sharp, deeply human, chillingly inhuman, textually pyrotechnic post-modern satire on academic criticism. No book was ever so apparently effortlessly designed to appeal to me. Having read that, subconsciously I concluded that horror as a genre had little else to offer me.
How wrong I was.
Staying in St Andrews over the summer, with the library, for once, at my complete disposal and a large amount of free time, led me to read two novels linked in a blogpost discussing House of Leaves. The first of which was Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, billed to me as an heir to House of Leaves. Ignoring the heinous cover art, which really does the book a disservice, I found a compelling narrative, which whilst not really terribly similar to Danielewski’s masterpiece, was a subtly chilling tale nonetheless. Kiernan’s novel reveals an accomplished hand, with a prose style both languorous and yet at times intensely neurotic.
Although framed within several layers of meta-narrative, the most obvious point of comparison with House, the plot is pretty straight-forward. None too imaginatively named Sarah Crowe is a mid-list writer dealing with the fallout of a lover’s suicide. Sarah retreats to an isolated New England farm for several months, ostensibly to work on a new novel, before hanging herself. The novel we’re reading, as explained in the opening Editor’s note, comprises the journal of her final months with insertions from another, mysterious manuscript by a previous tenant. What follows is a tragic narrative of isolation, haunted by the inevitable shadow of death established in the framing device. Sarah is a compelling narrator with a rich interior life. Though largely bitter, spiteful, and very evidently broken, her self-awareness and flashes of insight keep her from being unsympathetic. Sarah is deeply human and she grounds, even obscures, the horrific nature of the events that entrap her.
I don’t wish to give anything else away but suffice to say there is a red tree and it is appropriately disturbing. If I had any criticisms it would be that the found manuscript is a little less compelling than Sarah’s narrative, and Sarah’s ability to recall events verbatim in her supposedly typewritten notes strains belief occasionally. But really, the one nightmare I had weeks after finishing it, whilst in a small tent out on the Fife Coastal Path, is more than accolade enough. It’s a slow-burner, concerned with the inner workings of its protagonist as much as with the slow, sad, strangling horror that creeps through the novel.
The second novel, itself referenced in The Red Tree, was Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, available on Saulcat. Although Jackson is more famed for We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the Haunting is overshadowed by its classic film adaptation, the novel remains very powerful in its own right. Like Kiernan, Jackson details a novel of isolation and thwarted dreams, through the central character of Eleanor, a lonely outsider who on a whim accepts an invitation to spend a summer in the infamous house. Jackson similarly spends a considerable page amount establishing the inner life of her charming, sad protagonist, intimately connecting the reader with Eleanor.
The prose style is sparse, but Jackson lingers effectively on small details, shifts in tone, and what might be described as ‘atmosphere’, establishing a sense of wistfulness and melancholy that pervades the text. Although I’d not describe it is as being as ‘scary’ as The Red Tree, in terms of its emotional weight, and the impact of the supernatural on both character and reader, it is every bit as powerful. I can’t recommend either novel highly enough for readers looking for intelligent, literate, and emotionally charged fiction even if, like me, you’re not normally a fan of horror.
Image Credit: Kyle Cassidy