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In the fall of 2008, writer Sara Crowe commits suicide shortly after renting out an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. One month later, her editor receives a strange, anonymous package: a stack of Sara's journal entries, from the time she moved into the old house to the point of her death, wrapped in butcher paper and sent with no explanation, return address, or cover letter.
As it turns out, while wandering into the house's cellar looking for a cool place to read, Sara had discovered an incomplete manuscript written by deceased parapsychologist Charles L. Harvey, who was documenting a number of urban legends, accidents, and murders surrounding a red massive oak tree less than a hundred yards from the house (and the same tree he was found hanging from after apparently committing suicide). Curious, Sara started reading the unfinished text.
And that's when things start getting weird.
The Red Tree is a Psychological/SurrealHorror novel written by Caitlin R. Kiernan presented in the form of an Apocalyptic Log. It has been nominated for the 2010 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, as well as the 2010 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Compare House of Leaves (which is also about a protagonist slowly driven mad after discovering a dead man's unfinished manuscript) as well as The Haunting of Hill House. Not to be confused with Shaun Tan's picture book of the same name.
The Red Tree contains examples of
- Apocalyptic Log: Both Sarah's journal and the unfinished book she discovers.
- Bizarrchitecture: The cellar below the farmhouse turns out to have some very unusual spacial properties.
- Cast Full of Gay: To be fair, it's a rather small cast.
- Creepy Basement
- Driven to Suicide: Sara, Amanda, and Harvey
- First-Person Smartass: Sara
- Foregone Conclusion
- Hair-Raising Hare: One morning, Sara finds a neon green fishing line tied from the back porch of the house to the red tree. When she reaches the end of it, she finds a rabbit killed and systematically mutilated at the tree's "altar."
- Haunted Headquarters
- Haunted Heroine
- Haunted House: Technically speaking, it's the tree that's haunted. The house is just in its area of effect.
- Hell Gate: The red tree is implied to be one.
Like all doors, she tends to swing open, and so care must be taken to mind the hinges and the latch.
- The Lost Lenore: Sara's late girlfriend, Amanda Tyrell, who committed suicide shortly after a really nasty fight between the two.
- The Lost Woods: Shortly after Constance moves in with Sara, she asks if she can come with Sara the next time she goes to check out the tree. Half an hour into their little field trip, they realize that the tree supposedly only seventy-five yards away from the house doesn't seem to be getting any closer, and that they've passed that same small deadfall once before on this trip...
- Lovecraft Country
- Masochism Tango: Sara remarks that her relationship with Amanda was toxic and screwed up right from the start. (The very first thing Amanda did upon meeting Sara was tell her how much she thought her books sucked.)
- Mind Screw
- Perpetual Poverty: Sara is living off of a dwindling, irregular paycheck, which is why she doesn't move out immediately when weird shit starts happening -- she literally can't afford to.
- Posthumous Character: Amanda Tyrell
- Psychological Horror
- Sanity Slippage: Sara and Constance, if Constance ever existed in the first place.
- Spooky Painting: Amanda made really screwed up photoshop montages for a living. When Sara goes up to the attic shortly after Constance leaves, she discovers seven blank canvases with tiny notes attached to each of them. After she reads them all, she looks back at the canvases to find they've been replaced with Francis Bacon-inspired paintings of contorted, mutilated women.
- Surreal Horror
- Through the Eyes of Madness: As Sara's journal entries progress, it becomes less and less clear if all the weird goings on are actually happening, or just in her and Constance's head. In the final entries, Sara says that she's read the previous entries and doesn't recall even half of the events actually ever happening. She also notes that she checked the attic after Constance disappeared, only to find the place just as dusty and unused as it was before she moved in.
- Unreliable Narrator: Lampshaded. Sara notes in her entries that she's basically paraphrasing all of the dialogue she writes down from memory, which she admits isn't all that great (not to mention the fact that she might be going insane). She even drops the name of the trope:
"I've had more than one heated "discussion" with readers and other writers regarding the use of unreliable narrators... The truth, of course, is that all first-person narrators are, by definition, unreliable, as all memories are unreliable. We could quibble over varying degrees of reliability, but, in the end, unless the person telling the tale has been blessed with total recall (which, as some psychologists have proposed, may be a myth, anyway), readers must accept this inherent fallibility and move the fuck on.
- What Beautiful Eyes!: Sara is rather fond of Constance's drowsy, red-brown eyes.
- Write Who You Know: Sara is a lesbian author in her forties, much like the author.