Top 100 Horror Books: The Red Tree

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

I was excited to see The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan on the list, because I think women are underrepresented here. And I was over the moon to discover Sarah Langan.

Alas. This book did not strike home in the same way for me. At times, I felt like I was watching a Ken Russell movie. (Although I’m one of those people who loves Lair of the White Worm.)

I digress. Because I read some other reviews of this book, and what I gather is that I lack all subtlety and enough intelligence to really enjoy this book. Her fans cite the fact that they aren’t spoonfed a lot of details, and there are no crass horror tropes gumming up the beauty that is her work.


I’m fully willing to admit that this is not my style of horror novel. I want to be scared. I want to know there is something to be frightened of outside of my own head. I don’t like wondering if the action is all inside of the narrator’s mind. I have quite enough scary stuff rattling around inside my own skull. I find external horror both more terrifying and more reassuring, because I can fight the monsters that exist in the real world. I’m not so sure about the ones that inhabit my head.

The main character is running away from her life–her publisher, her agent, her dead girlfriend–and runs all the way to rural Rhode Island and an old house with a giant red oak growing on a corner of the property. She find a half-finished manuscript from the house’s last tenant, and discovers the supposed supernatural history of the red oak.

While I went into this book with an open mind, I just couldn’t find the tree scary. And since I’ve read Langan’s book, the mental illness as the instrument of horror doesn’t play for me. It seems frightfully old-fashioned, to me, to have someone’s “descent into madness” be the very thing that is supposed to chill my blood. Why can’t a woman come back from a tragedy? Give a sister a freaking break. She drinks, she smokes, she likes to fuck people she’s just met. In a man, that wouldn’t indicate mental illness.

Maybe I didn’t like the fact that there was no fight in the main character. She’s already circling the drain when we meet her, and we never get even a hint of a life-preserver or a broken tree branch that she could grab onto and save herself.

All that being said, there are a lot of people who really liked the is book and found it gripping. I’m able to concede that the fault could be all mine for not liking this one.


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4 responses to “Top 100 Horror Books: The Red Tree

  1. dknippling

    This kind of story is right up in my wheelhouse: main character may or may not be crazy, excellent imagery, some soul-exploration. But holy bejeezus could I not make it through the book within a book sections, and why the hell did she have to keep reminding me I was reading a journal? Bomp, kicked me out every time. Liked it in the end, but wouldn’t have finished it if it weren’t on the list.

  2. I haven’t read this one yet, so can’t comment. However, Cormac McCarthy fans are quick to say everyone who doesn’t like him is just stupid and unsophisticated, too. Funny. So do fans of Blair Witch. At least no Twilight fans have told me that…

  3. DeAnna–the “horse” scene just left me confused. Not her reaction to seeing the betrayal, but the intricate details of what she saw. Anyway, maybe I don’t enjoy these stories because I have too much crazy in my own head. I like a solid villain who is not residing in my own noggin.

    • dknippling

      I’m not used to saying things like “I must not have as much crazy in my head…” but really I think it’s just that my life paths were a) computer programmer, b) psychologist, c) writer, and I like stories that screw with reality, investigate the insides of people’s heads, and get all meta.

      Something that bothered me here, now that I think about it, is that IF this is a story about how the main character doesn’t face up to the mistakes she made, shouldn’t she, you know, resolve that at some point? Because it does seem like it is that kind of story, and that never gets resolved. It’s like her whole character and backstory only exist to give her something to bitch about between Mysterious Incidents. With The Cypher, I felt that the problem fit hand in hand with the main character’s essential character; not so here.

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