Book Review: “The Red Tree” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

You’ll have an opportunity to see our full interview with author Caitlin R. Kiernan when the Libra/Scorpio issue of Constellation drops later this week, but we wanted to whet your appetite yet again with my review of her latest novel, The Red Tree.

Originally posted on my personal blog.

The Red Tree

I can tell when I’m really into a book by how many places I end up reading it. For example, books that are only so-so usually only ever make it to the bed or the living room couch. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree went from the couch, to the bed, to the park, to the car ride to Kentucky and, on several occasions, to the bathtub. It wriggled its roots in deep and would not let go.

The Red Tree is about a writer named Sarah Crowe who has had an adversarial relationship with life  in general and recently went through a deep personal tragedy. She smokes, she swears, she fucks, she fails. She’s real.

Sarah flees to Rhode Island from Atlanta, bringing along only her stalled manuscript, her marginally effective meds, and her unreliable memories. The novel is presented as Sarah’s journal entries that she clangs out on an ancient typewriter found in the basement of the house she is renting. She also discovers she is not the first writer to stay in the house; the previous tenant was researching the folklore surrounding a tree on the property – an enormous Northern red oak, Quercus rubra – with disastrous results. More bored than intrigued, Sarah pokes around until she finds his manuscript and then begins wondering about the tree herself.

It is the arrival of an attic tenant, a moody painter named Constance Hopkins, that really acts a the catalyst to set Sarah Crowe in motion. Constance is a pebble thrown on the warm, stagnant waters of Sarah’s life and mind, and it is Constance that antagonizes Sarah to heights of even greater obsession and denial. Constance is action; Sarah is reaction.

Sarah has always been in a position of reaction: from her career choice, to her choice of lovers, her behavior with her lovers, and finally, horribly, with the red tree. She will not cut it down, she will not burn it…she will only wait to see what it will do and then react. Some people in her life have accused Sarah of being miserable, and she is, but she doesn’t know how to get herself out of it because that would require independent action. Sarah is rootedto her life and only hopes to weather the storms.

Many will categorize The Red Tree as “horror,” because it is frightening, but this is no more a book about monsters or ghosts anymore than any book about an imperfect person’s pain and regret. However, there are several scenes — even individual sentences — that rendered me deliciously terrified. Kiernan has a knack for knowing just how much to reveal about a situation; she doesn’t describe you to death, but rather lets the reader’s imagination fill in the details.

I was genuinely surprised when I started running out of pages and approached the end; the novel is such a cyclical beast, that I felt a bit like Constance and Sarah on their first trip out to the tree…and their trip back. (You’ll have to read the book to know what I mean!) The prologue and epilogue are truly inspired and entice the reader to read the book over and over again. You find yourself wondering: “what did I miss the first time?” The answer is: a lot.

The Red Tree is badass. Read it. Feed the tree.


My interview with author Caitlin R. Kiernan will appear in the Libra/Scorpio issue ofConstellation Magazine on September 24th. You can see a preview of the interview on the Constellation blog.

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Network




The Red Tree is now available on

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