Caitlin R. Kiernan and The Red Tree: An Interview with a Dark Fantasy Icon

Caitlin R. Kiernan has become an icon in the field of dark fantasy, although "dark fantasy" may be a little to limiting for an author whose fiction has been influenced by everyone from Poe to Faulkner. Slowly, patiently, she's built a body of work that has received praise from the likes of Poppy Z. Brite, Peter Straub, and Neil Gaiman. Her unabashedly adult, lush prose recalls some unholy mix of H.P. Lovecraft and Angela Carter. Her unrelenting focus on re-vitalizing American Gothic fiction with her portraits of flawed, often haunted human beings has made her one of my favorite reads.

Now she has a new novel out, The Red Tree, that's as ambitious and atmospheric as anything she's ever written. With layered stories-within-stories and the use of a writer as a narrator, the novel may be complex, but its emotional resonance is simple and pure. The best review I've seen so far, on OF Blog of  the Fallen, aptly compared it to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves and Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss. Like those novels, The Red Tree is both personal, eerie, and structurally interesting. (The cover, clearly influenced by the rise of urban fantasy, promises something much more traditional, but don't be fooled.)

I recently interviewed Kiernan by email, about The Red Tree and a variety of other subjects...


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I read The Red Tree in one sitting because I was simultaneously enthralled and too petrified to look away. Kiernan's story reached out from those pages and grabbed me by the throat, and I followed anxiously behind her protagonist Sarah Crowe as she unearthed fragments of revelation about the Red Oak looming in her backyard. It's just plain good narrative and good writing, and it's also the creepiest thing I've read all year.

This is not your average horror novel. If you like your monsters cliché and your plot points obvious, please look elsewhere. This is a canvas of subtle images, in which the really, really terrible things are only intimated. Which, of course, is the reason it's so scary. Kiernan's nightmares are all the more effective because they never resolve into one solid entity you can categorize long enough to lock in the closet or sweep under the bed. Instead, the vague feeling of dread creeping down your spine is intensified by a host of doubts. It's a rare author who can get both her characters and her readers to doubt what their eyes have seen (or read), but Kiernan manages it with seeming effortlessness. There was no reason to be afraid by page 50. Not knowing, as we do almost immediately, that Sarah Crowe's account is being published posthumously by a (fictitious) editor. Not by the conventions of horror novels that either plod tediously toward some obvious shocker or trot out the gore as early as possible. But I was. And it was a sublime fear, the sort of fear that leaves you with traces of awe instead of just the desire to barricade yourself in. I wanted to watch her world crumble.

This is also not your average Gothic novel. If you prefer archaisms stolen from Dracula and characters stolen from bad Anne Rice fanfic, you won't like the frank elegance of Kiernan's prose. Her characters are real people (well...for some definition of "people"--I'm not giving anything away) who smoke and swear and deal badly with fear. And along with that, the dreams she describes are real dreams. You will actually feel like you are dreaming--the same surreal logic and warped symbolism permeate the novel. It's a rare thing, to stand inside other people's dreams, and rarer still to survive their nightmares. I would unequivocally recommend doing both through The Red Tree--and unequivocally recommend doing so with the lights on.

Posted by: dvd vierge | Tuesday September 15, 2009 at 11:02 PM

The interview whetted my desire to get a copy of the book.

I just love complex novels, of stories within stories.

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Posted by: bridesmaiddresses | Thursday April 7, 2011 at 6:41 PM

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